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Spotlight: the in-house senior legal counsel

19 Jan 2018

Mark Harris, Senior Legal Counsel at the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), spoke to Thomson Reuters Practical Law about his complex and inspiring route from a career in the Royal Navy to becoming an in-house banking lawyer.

Harris’s career has been anything but the straightforward and traditional pathway into legal practice. After leaving the Royal Navy, and following a short stint in the Merchant Navy, he was all at sea back in normal civilian life, before striking on the notion of becoming a lawyer.

Having left school with few qualifications, the 10-year journey to law was far from easy to navigate, which shows that ‘perseverance pays off’.

In the Navy

Harris had known what he wanted to do from an early age. On leaving school in 1989, aged 16 and with few qualifications, he pursued his dream of joining the Royal Navy and entered as a Junior Rating a few months after his 17th birthday. He underwent basic training and became a radar operator.

After six years he took voluntary redundancy and spent a number of years doing ‘fairly menial unrewarding jobs’, including working in a factory, a chip shop and bars, and setting up a market stall with a friend, which he describes as being like something out of ‘Only Fools and Horses’.

Eventually, he decided he needed to ‘do something more useful’ with his life. Emphasising his forces background, he enrolled through clearing on a leisure resource management degree course at Portsmouth University.

On the multi-disciplinary course, which included business, sports science and leisure management, he quickly found that he started leaning towards the legal elements and, for the first time, he started considering a career in law.

IP and IT

Realising that it would be hard to get started climbing the legal ladder, after completing his undergraduate degree, Harris undertook a Masters degree in business law at Portsmouth in order to add to his experience. He studied full time while also working full time as a marketing officer for the university.

After lecturing in intellectual property law, he began the law conversion course at BPP University, studying by distance learning over two years.

But he came up against another hurdle when it came to looking at firms for job opportunities to practice law. “I quickly realised it would be a challenge for a mature student with my background. Unfortunately, at that time, law firms were not interested in someone with my diverse employment and educational background, which was quite frustrating,” Harris added.

Undaunted, he took a job in IT recruitment, where he met a former estate agent who knew some lawyers in Brighton, and had a friend who, it turned out, was looking for a junior office assistant. Harris was aware of the importance of networking and fostering good relationships, particularly coming from an unconventional background, and so he seized the opportunity.

“While it was a lowly start, I thought it would be a foot in the door. So I went down to meet the solicitor at DMH (now DMH Stallard),” said Harris, “and we got on well.” Harris was offered and took the job and worked his way up from junior office assistant to paralegal. He then applied successfully for a training contract with the firm. At last, he was on his way. He completed the Legal Practice Course at the College of Law in Chester (2003/2004) and qualified from DMH in 2006.

In-house

Harris joined the corporate team of Pinsent Masons in Manchester upon qualification, where he stayed for three and a half years. But as corporate work began to drop off, Harris considered his options and decided to explore the world of in-house.

His first step after leaving Pinsent Masons was to join a small law firm to gain more general legal experience, while looking around for a suitable in-house role. Harris then found an opportunity with Lloyds Banking Group’s retail banking team, working on ‘Project Verde’. This was the bank’s operation to sell off a proportion of the bank branded as TSB following the global financial crisis and the government’s subsequent rescue package, under which it had taken a 43.4 percent stake in Lloyds Banking Group.

Initially Harris’ role at Lloyds was a 12-month contract. However, as with much of his career, plans went out of the window, and he remained there for around five years. He spent this time in different roles in the commercial contracts team in London, the commercial products legal team in Bristol and the bank’s consumer finance legal team in Chester.

Harris was then approached about a position with RBS as a senior legal counsel based in Manchester, working on its divestment of the business referred to as Williams & Glyn in a team headed by a former Pinsent Masons colleague.

After joining RBS, the position changed slightly, and the divestment was no longer required. Instead, the industry-wide move by banks to separate their retail banking from their investment banking provided Harris with his next and current role: a secondment to the Transaction Services Legal Team supporting certain commercial product areas.

Harris sees his future in-house. Compared to his experience of private practice, he finds it ‘less elitist’ and ‘more interesting, because you are closer and more integral to the business you support’.

In his current role, he deals with a wide range of colleagues within the business, all with different levels of experience and knowledge. “One day I could be dealing with a branch query and the next dealing with a senior stakeholder on a bank-wide project,” Harris explains.

The practical application of the law makes him feel like more of a businessman than a lawyer. “If I had not gone in-house I would probably have left the law,” he said. “Coming in-house revived my passion and interest for the work and profession.”

Reflections on a long road and transition to being a lawyer

Harris’s journey has been long and winding, but in his view his ‘perseverance paid off’. He is, however, keen to highlight the challenges faced by ex-service personnel integrating into civilian life. “You can do it, but it is difficult,” he explains. “I was only in the Navy for six years and I struggled, so it must be even harder for those who have served longer.”

Harris feels that his broad experience has given him a wider perspective, as he is able to look at the issues he faces with a greater customer focus and more holistic approach, rather than focusing on single events or problems.

He added: “Yes, you have to know the law, but you must do what you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do it, be easily contactable and follow up on matters. Common sense and pragmatism are key in my view and, for me, without doing these simple things – your technical ability becomes irrelevant.”

Harris’ naval background, he says, has also given him important skills. One of the most important is being a team player: “In the Navy, if you did not work together as a team, you were sunk … literally.” This life lesson continues to serve Harris well in his legal career.

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