INTERVIEW: PATRICK WILKINSON
GENERAL COUNSEL – IRELAND, NORTHERN TRUST
GC chats to Patrick Wilkinson about Ireland’s post-crisis recovery and day-to-day life at the Irish legal helm of a major global financial services company.
G C I N T E R V I E W
JUNIOR RESEARCH ANALYST, THE LEGAL 500
GC: Is being a lawyer something that you always wanted to do?
Patrick Wilkinson (PW): I think it was always in my mind from the time I was studying A-Levels and during my undergraduate degree; I chose to study history rather than law because I always wanted to study a subject for my undergraduate degree that I loved. However, the law appealed as it applies to so many of the academic disciplines from that degree course.
I also have law in the family; my grandfather and great-grandfather were both lawyers so it was already in the genes. I trained in England and by the time I’d qualified in the UK I had an Irish girlfriend (who is now my wife) and in 1999 we saw the height of the Celtic Tiger – Ireland was an exciting place to be.
My first job in Ireland was in the investment funds practice of [Irish law firm] Arthur Cox which proved to be fantastic training both in the practice of law and as an introduction to the funds industry.
GC: What prompted your move from private practice to in-house?
PW: I think I realised quickly that the track to partnership was one I didn’t want to go down and the end result wasn’t necessarily what I wanted either.
As an associate in practice, I felt I was always working for someone else, with very little input into the running of a business. I was launching funds and providing advice to a number of clients and never getting to see what went on after that, which was frustrating. I wanted to get ‘under the hood’ and find out what makes these operations and businesses tick. The only place I felt I could do that was in an in-house role: I wanted to become part and parcel of an enterprise and make decisions that directly contributed to the success of that enterprise. That became apparent to me quite quickly and although I think that nowadays more concerted tracks to partnership are available, at the time there didn’t appear to be anything like that.
My first move in-house was to the fund administration business at Baring Asset Management, which Northern Trust acquired one year later in 2005, and I’ve been here ever since.
GC: Could you take us through your typical day at the office?
PW: I usually get into the office at 7.30am, and after a coffee and quick skim of the paper I’ll endeavour to catch up on emails and other things that have come in overnight. I try and get as much done as I can before the day ‘proper’ begins, which is usually an hour so later when the meetings start. It’s difficult to describe a ‘normal’ day as the role is so varied (which is one of the things I like about it). The products we’re servicing are very varied in terms of asset class and geographical focus, alongside the diverse clients we serve. These all combine to bring different challenges at any time.
Saying that, my role always involves me being a bit of a player-manager; it’s a combination of doing and managing. The ‘doing’ would involve a lot of drafting and reviewing contracts, reviewing offering documents for our clients’ products and also advising on contractual and regulatory responsibilities. In terms of the managerial aspect, that consists of being the escalation point for my team and for senior management on more complex issues. I also oversee the corporate secretarial and corporate governance function in Ireland, and I’m involved in managing the legal aspects of regulatory projects.
GC: What legal issues or challenges have you got coming up on the horizon over the next few months?
PW: One of the aforementioned regulatory projects at the moment is the implementation of the new European directive UCITS V [undertakings for the collective investment in transferable securities]. We have a deadline of mid-March to comply with that regulation which involves us needing to update approximately 150 contracts between now and then. These aren’t straightforward documents, and we have an additional challenge in that the European Commission has not issued the Level 2 implementing legislation yet – so we don’t actually know in detail the full scope of our responsibilities.
Increasingly we’re being asking to deal with things on a global and European scale; certainly over the last few years this has become fairly normal to expect as a result of the avalanche of regulation the industry has had to deal with post-crisis. In fact, there hasn’t gone a year where we haven’t been grappling with a new piece of legislation that has had an impact on us either operationally or from a contractual point of view. This is something I face in Ireland and I know my colleagues in the UK and USA face too; I’d suggest that any of your readers operating in the Financial Services industry will be familiar with that.
GC: How has the aftermath of the 2008 crash shaped your work?
PW: I don’t think my role has changed per se. The nature of my work has always been of the same essence, which is about managing legal and regulatory risk. However, I do think that what is required to discharge those responsibilities has changed since 2008.
I’ve already mentioned the amount of regulatory change that we have had to manage over the years, and that has certainly required me to improve my project management skills. The other knock-on effect of all the regulation is the way it has affected our clients. They’re under increased regulatory scrutiny, so they themselves have increased their oversight and diligence on us. We’ve seen this reflected in the level of negotiation that our clients engage in on our contracts and we’ve seen a lot of new reporting required. The amount of work we’re doing for clients as a result of the new regulation is huge, and that manifests itself across the entire enterprise.
GC: How do you think the post-2008 environment has affected other sectors in the region?
PW: I think the domestic retail sector is still very much struggling, especially outside of Dublin. If you go to regional towns around Ireland it’s clear that it’s still very hard for them at the moment; you only need to drive down a high street in a country town to know that.
Obviously the property sector (both commercial and residential) had a period of immediate devastation but I think we’ve seen that come back. Certainly the commercial sector has benefitted from lots of investment in the last few years, from which we’ve benefitted directly. We have a thriving business supporting and servicing property fund structures. We would probably service a good 90% of the property fund business in Ireland (if not more), which translates into 55-60 deals last year where we’ve seen foreign direct investment into Irish commercial property. That in itself suggests that there are outside investors looking at Ireland as a good bet still, and from an economic perspective they still see Irish commercial property as being, to an extent, undervalued. In the residential sector though, especially outside the main metropolitan areas, things haven’t come back completely.
In other areas, the Irish government has done a good job in attracting, and continuing to attract, foreign direct investment. We set up in Limerick back in 2006 with essentially a standing start. We engaged very closely with the Industrial Development Authority [IDA Ireland] and the government and have good relationships with local authorities. We’ve grown to now having approximately 650 employees in Limerick and, with the support of the government, we are set to exceed our target of 1000 employees by 2017.
We also see government engagement through our links to employers in other sectors, especially pharmaceutical and medical technology. Our offices are located on a technology campus attached to the University of Limerick and we’ve built good relationships with employers like Vistakon and Johnson & Johnson, and we work closely with the Limerick Chamber of Commerce.
There is a definite confidence within the business community in Ireland, and not just in financial services. I think there are some silver linings to be taken from the financial crisis in so far as it made everyone less complacent and focus more on good business disciplines. While you wouldn’t have wished for it, there are benefits that we can draw from the experiences we had in the immediate aftermath of the crash.
GC: Do you have any tips for other GCs looking to operate in Ireland?
PW: The obvious one would be to establish your networks. I would advise making good contacts with external counsel and also reach out to industry associations and other similar business groups. We work closely with Irish Funds, which is the industry association for the international funds industry in Ireland, and we have a representative on its main council and numerous representatives on its other committees.
I’m also a member of the General Counsel Forum for American Chamber of Commerce Ireland. It’s important to network beyond one’s own industry so you can have a holistic view of legal challenges presenting themselves. I think that – namely due to the sociable nature of the Irish people – it’s not that difficult to do here. I’d say that a general counsel looking to operate here will find it a pretty easy place to do business.
GC: What is the most rewarding thing about your role?
PW: The diversity of the role means that the job doesn’t get boring, because you’re doing something different every day. It has evolved, and continues to. The job I’m doing now is light years away from what I was doing when I joined in 2004. I think that the moment a job stops evolving and you stop learning is a time to think about where your career is going.
The other key thing is that Northern Trust as an organisation places a great degree of trust and value in the work of the legal department, and as a result it places great store in what I and legal department colleagues say and do. Our role extends beyond just the provision of legal advice to the business; we fully act as counsel to the business in the broadest sense.
I always emphasise to my team that their job title is ‘legal counsel’ and that’s what they are; they are a counsellor in the broadest sense. I think that wouldn’t always be possible in every company, but because of the trust we’re held in by the business, it’s encouraged and welcomed. If I happened to be working in an in-house department just churning out contracts, overseeing the work of external counsel and nothing else, it would be pretty dull and probably not for me. We have a much more integrated role with the business and that to me is the main reason I left private practice and came to work here.
GC: What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
PW: I’ve got three kids, so spending time with them is always good. My eldest son has just started to play in the same cricket team as me, which was a particular highlight of my summer. Annoyingly, he’s taken more wickets than me this season and so is able to claim the bragging rights. I also coach for the local rugby club and occasionally trot out for a veteran’s side of tag rugby.
GC: Can you tell us something our readers are unlikely to know about you?
PW: I actually opened the bowling for the Irish universities cricket team in 1994 (it doesn’t seem that long ago!). Way back when, I could have been called a vaguely creditable cricketer.