In this episode of Lessons I Learned in Law Scott Brown speaks to Fraser Simpson. Fraser is Associate General Counsel for Wellcome Trust, a charitable foundation focused on global public health, where he heads up the Ethics, Governance & Compliance Team. Fraser qualified at Magic Circle firm, Linklaters, but pursued a career in-house where he has worked across a range of impactful organisations. He has experience in designing and building teams.
Fraser shares the lessons he learned in law including:
Fraser also reflects on how valuable he found the shared parental leave that he was able to take around the birth of his children. Meanwhile his hatred of ties sees workplace dress codes confined to Room 101.
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Scott Brown (00:00):
Hi, I'm Scott Brown, founder of Heriot Brown In-house Legal Recruitment. Welcome to another episode of Lessons I Learned in Law, which is the podcast that I sit down with some of the most fun, bright and interesting people from the legal profession from all across sectors. And I have a conversation to distil the lessons that they've learned in law and their career to date, and hopefully you'll leave armed with some new information and apply those lessons to your own career.
I'm excited today to be joined by Fraser Simpson who is associate general counsel at the Wellcome Trust. Hi Fraser. Thanks for joining.
Fraser Simpson (00:42):
Hi Scott. Thanks for having me.
Scott Brown (00:43):
So for those of you that aren't in the know the Wellcome Trust is a charitable foundation focused on quite topically over the past couple of years, health research. The aim of the trust is to support science, to solve urgent health challenges facing everyone. So yeah, doing stuff that I think has broad application for all of our, all of our listeners, but if you've listened before as well, you'll know that with each guest, we like to learn more about them as individuals, so I’ll be keen to delve into Fraser's passion for travel and h is young and supporting, supporting his young family and working. But Fraser, if you could just jump right in, if you kick off with lesson one, please.
Fraser Simpson (01:30):
Yeah, my, my first lesson is, is not to be afraid to take a chance really to, to, to make sure trying new things. I've done that a number of times through my career. And, and it it's really made things a lot more fun, but also helped me learn a lot more about myself, what matters to me. And you know, that's not just moving jobs or organizations, but it's taking on interesting things that are happening in a role where you can, you know, really take a, a leadership role and have a go at things. A lot of people I think get, get quite frightened at that sometimes. And it can be really daunting to do. But actually if you do do it quite often, it can really open up new ways of thinking, doing things, new opportunities for you and, and, and be a real sort of development thing.
Scott Brown (02:19):
Great. When was the first time in your career you took a chance and tried something new?
Fraser Simpson (02:30):
Yeah, I think actually probably before the, the formal bit of my career even started when I was at when I was at law school there, there was a, a, you know, financial crunch and I, I had a training contract lined up at Linklaters and they'd offered the trainees in the year ahead of me what seemed like a ridiculous amount of money was 12,000 quid to, to delay starting their training contracts for a year. And I thought, yes, I want a bit of that. Cause I want to go traveling. And, and I made my mind up that that's what I was gonna do and go travel across Africa and it was all gonna be great. And then right at the last minute they said, ‘oh, actually financial crisis is over. We're not, we're not doing that again for your year’, but at that point I’d, you know, decided exactly what I wanted to do and was gonna take the time anyway. So took six months out and it was actually through, through that, that I got into you know, really getting into the voluntary sector, getting into what international development and aid is all about. And that actually has shaped the vast majority of my career. Cause I really only spent a couple of years doing the corporate stuff with Linklaters before moving into the charity sector. So yeah,
Scott Brown (03:39):
Yeah, yeah. It’s interesting that early that early exposure to it and, and yeah - had you not gone traveling there had might have, might have denied the opportunity to experience that. And I remember when we first, when we first met years ago, what, what stuck out to me, I think you were talking around kinda turning your back on the corporate side of things at Linklaters. How early were you sort of fixed on, on that not being for you?
Fraser Simpson (04:15):
Yeah, I mean, I think pretty swiftly to be honest, I mean, I, I enjoyed it and, and really loved the people I was working with and, you know, the team I was in was, was terrific, but it, it just became pretty clear straight away that I needed more of a purpose beyond making money for other people. And, and you know, that, that really opened my eyes to, to what else I could do. And, and so I started looking around and realized that actually there was such a thing as charity and social enterprise law. And, and just, just because, you know, big corporate firms, don't specialize in something doesn't mean it doesn't exist and that you can't have a fascinating career. So, you know, effectively about a year after qualifying, I moved and, and specialized as a charity social enterprise lawyer, and that, that became really quite defining for me. And brilliant because, you know, I moved from being a, the tiniest cog in the biggest machine to, you know, running, running my own matters with the most diverse array of of, of issues that we were in with across a number of charities. And it was, it was fascinating and it was a great introduction to all sorts of interesting things and a, and a real sort of early leap up in responsibility.
Scott Brown (05:34):
Yeah. It's great when the passion and the career come, come together, so that's so to speak.
But what had - like at uni and prior to that trip to Africa, had you had an active interest in charity and…?
Fraser Simpson (05:52):
No, I mean, oddly not, not particularly you know, I, I I'd signed up to, to a training contract at Linklaters because I thought, you know, I was gonna have a big career in corporate law. And it really was, you know, an eye opening exercise of, of, of spending six months traveling and, and appreciating different different contexts that brought that alive to me. That, that was the point at which that became a, you know, something I wanted to do. And a lot of people said, what, you know, are you mad? But actually, you know, no, of course I'm not mad. You gotta do something you want to do otherwise you you're never gonna be wholly in it.
Scott Brown (06:31):
Yeah - I definitely agree. And a lot of the other guests that we've had as well have said similar things that you have to, you have to believe in what you're doing and I think you enjoy the things that you're good at and the obviously vice vice versa. You're good at the things you enjoy. So that's good to hear.
Do you think having had that practical exposure or I, I don't know what you would call it in, in Africa, the, the exposure to the, the sector and at the, at the coalface- did that, did that help in opening doors into then becoming a lawyer within the charity space?
Fraser Simpson (07:09):
I mean, over a period of time, I think so. I mean, what it, what it did was to really give me sort of practical experience around community development programs and things like that in the early days and, and spark an enthusiasm. But you know, later on after I'd worked in, in charity and social enterprise law and private practice for a while, I took took six months living and working in Tanzania. And you know, that, that was a much more practical insight into in, into dealing within you know, the, the, the, the Tanzanian context, lots of really practical lessons around how you have to go about things. And that was absolutely great. And that really unlocked, I think the sort of path into in-house roles, an in-house role with plan international, big international NGO and you know, that, that is what you're dealing with every day operating in a development context in, you know, 50 countries around the world.
Scott Brown (08:12):
Yeah. And where did you - we spoke about or mentioned adventure travel. So where did you get, where did you get to the, those are those, are that gap yar, ‘gap yah’ was it?
Fraser Simpson (08:22):
Yeah, I mean, sadly the adventure, the adventure travels sort of slightly stalled with, with COVID, but also with a young family, but we, we, we still tried to travel with the little ones. So in fact, we took my eldest who's now five. We took her when she was six months out to Australia and Malaysia. And my, my little one we took out to - she's now three, but when she was six months old, we took her out to Bali . But on the, you know, in the, in, in the, the the early days, Golly had a this, this sort of first trip was an Overland from, from Nairobi down to Cape Town. And then other other trips saved in West Africa drove up to from Acra in Ghana up to Timbuctu and Beck.
Fraser Simpson (09:02):
It was particularly fun trip but also lot, you know, lots of fun work trips. The, the, the days at Planned International, you know, training sessions being delivered out in El Salvador and Cameroon. Y ou learn a lot about what you're doing. I mean, lot lots of people think that law is writing and policies and, and to some extent it is, but actually it's about communication and people and, and adapting that to different contexts. And, and it's great, great to be able to do that in, in some really different contexts.
Scott Brown (09:34):
Moving on to moving on to lesson two, Fraser if you could share.
Fraser Simpson (09:40):
For, for me, this one is, is kindness repays and to really invest in nurturing relationships not, you know, not in a, a, in a way that you are, you're expecting a return. But, you know, keeping in touch with, with your, you know, colleagues, clients, helping people where you can you just never know when you're gonna cross paths again. And, in future, if, when you've been coming to people, invariably they've bend over backwards to help you. And, you know, I've had that at various times where I've, I've wanted to change and, you know, I've left a role without having something to go to. And it's, it's great to be able to then talk to people and, and, you know, have people that are wanting to help sort of mentor and, and coach you through situations. And, you know, it's something I've really benefited from, but I, you know, very strongly try to do that with others. You know, we have trainees that go through our team, and it's really important to me to try and, you know, make sure that, that I'm able to be a sounding board for them and, and, and really, you know, invest in those relationships cuz you, you never know when, when, when you're gonna collide again.
Scott Brown (10:53):
Yeah. As a recruiter obviously, is, is something networking, something that we do on a daily basis. And I think it's really important for me that you shouldn't have a vested interest in anything. Things work out and, but being able to connect with people with like genuine, genuine interest, I think really important without that vested interest that you said that it's gonna repay at some point. Ultimately, if you put good out there, then hopefully it comes back and is, is rewarded as such.
Where did you learn that? Is it, is it something that's learned or is it something that's ingrained?
Fraser Simpson (11:38):
I, I think it's just so thing that sort of happened, but it, you know, you can, you can really see it. I always try to keep in touch, you know, with you know, with every single job I've been through, you know, w with keeping in touch with, but former bosses and, and colleagues and, you know. It’s amazing also other people change direction entirely and, and suddenly that becomes relevant to something else you're doing and it, you know, it, it, it, I, it's just a, a, a good thing. And you know, investing in those relationships just, you know, pays so many dividends.
Scott Brown (12:11):
Yeah. I, and, and you mentioned mentoring and, and mentors, is it, are you part of a, a formal structure or is it just something that you, you try to do?
Fraser Simpson (12:22):
So, I've never, I've never really formalized anything. But certainly, you know, keep him in, in a very sort of close mentoring relationship with one of my former bosses, but also with, with others that, that I've, I've sort of come across and worked with. And, and, you know, very much just have a, you know regular sessions where we just sort of, chew things around between us and, you know, talk, talk about interesting stuff. Invariably something interesting comes out of it or a new opportunity comes out of it, or and, you know, it's, I always find that's a really, really good way of, of trying to get into a, you know, a problem that seemed intractable or, or whatever it happens to be.
Scott Brown (13:04):
Yeah. have you, have you had any coaching or more formal stuff on that front?
Fraser Simpson (13:12):
Yeah, I have actually, we, we did had a a, a pretty good senior leadership program when I was at Plan. And, and part of that was a, a really interesting sort of coaching scenario where, where we, we had an extended period of coaching that came out of it which I found very helpful. But what was really interesting was, was having sort of observed facilitated workshops. So we, we all tracked off that being an international NGO every year, this happened somewhere around the world. The year before I think everyone had gone off to Zambia and had a marvelous time. My year, we got put in a basement at Heathrow. So we're not quite as glamorous. But we had two, two days in a basement at Heathrow, but with, with sort of career psychologists observing our behaviors in particular situations and I found, I found that really you know, you sort of must be a bit like being on Big Brother where, you know, for the first hour you think the cameras are watching you all the time.
Fraser Simpson (14:12):
And by the second hour you've forgotten, they're there sort of like that everyone's on edge at the beginning, but, but then sort of relaxes into their natural state. But at the end of the, the, you know, the workshop you've been through all these different scenarios and get this very sort of critical feedback around pretty much everything you've done, that's been observed by an objective third party. So very much a, ‘this happened and you did this, and you said that, did you mean it to come across like this’? Errr…No! You know, a real exercise in self-awareness and self-reflection that was one of the more fascinating things that, that, that came out of that program.
Scott Brown (14:49):
We spoke before coming on and recording Fraser, and you've, you've alluded to it as well, just having young kids. I, I know from, from conversations we've had in the past as well, that you've been actively involved in and, and very actively involved in on the paternity front. So you took shared parental leave. Is that, is that right?
Fraser Simpson (15:15):
Yeah. Abs absolutely. And, and, you know, really important you know, not only from my own perspective, but also a, a gender equality perspective making, making sure that we, we share the burden, but also just making sure the kids have time with, with each of us. Yeah. so you know, very much you know, the prime focus of the day is making sure we can do the, the school drop offs and pickups. But back in those, those early days, yeah. Took, took she parental leave for, for both of my daughters. So took took 10 weeks with my first first daughter. And, and that was brilliant and passed in a flash and, and my, my goodness I I'm so grateful we had it because it, you know, it, wasn't a particularly easy birth experience.
Fraser Simpson (16:03):
And and I, I sort of look at it, look at other people in the workplace who get, you know, two weeks or, or, or nothing thing at all as, as paternity leave. And I, I, I wonder how on earth we'd have managed. So I'm really, you know, grateful for, for the, the, the privilege I was able to, to, to take it. But it was wonderful. And, and, you know, you don't get that time again, and that that's what really matters and that, you know, the success of that re ally was the driver of, you know, absolutely how have to take another period of she parental leave with with my, my second. So my, my daughter was born really sort of extended that by combining it with leaving my, my role.
Fraser Simpson (16:44):
And so ended up taking taking about eight months which was brilliant. Youu don't get that time again. And it was, it, it was great to do it, and we were, we were able in, in, you know, both spells of time to be able to, to go on, you know, on, on trips with the kids, you know, I mentioned we, we took took them off to Bali while I was on shared parental leave and blimey- that's not something many people get to do really, really count my blessings on that one.
Scott Brown (17:15):
Yeah. I'm sure there was some times where you, weren't counting your blessings as well?!
Fraser Simpson (17:18):
Yeah. I mean, goodness. I mean, that, that that's really important is you know, it's, it's, it's really not you know, it's framed just leave, but it's, it's, it's the hardest, hardest work ever. And and you know, it's wonder wonderful, but, but boy, is it full time and it's, you know, great, great to be able split that.
Scott Brown (17:38):
Yeah. Perfect. W as that something you had to, you had to make a case for, or was it just in, in your, in your employer at the time? Was it something that was widely done?
Fraser Simpson (17:52):
It wasn't sort of widely done at where I was working at the time, but it was, it was, you know, it was a, a right to be able to do it. And so we, we ended up creating a policy and I believe others have since done it as well. So slightly sort of paving the way within a small organization. And it's, it's difficult within small organizations because you know, it's it particularly in terms of arranging cover, you know, if somebody's away for a very long period of time it, it's easy to get, to get an interim to, to cover, but if somebody's away for, you know, seven weeks, 10 weeks, that's that can pose a a resourcing challenge. So I, I get that it can be hard, but it's, it's really important that organizations do do step up to facilitate that happening and to normalize it. Yeah, because it, it's, it's such a big deal.
Scott Brown (18:44):
Yeah, absolutely. I think it's great. And, how about at Wellcome? Is it, how, how do they support around that?
Fraser Simpson (18:53):
Yeah, I mean, at Wellcome it's, it's terrific. And you know, I expect nothing less from an employee, like Wellcome. And you know, obviously haven't had any more children since being here, so I can't really talk to to the, to the shared parental leave. But in terms of of wellness and, and agile working as well, there's a real focus on that. You know, I'm, I'm very lucky to work in a, in a team where it it's very much the norm that we, we, you know, prioritize our own health and our families over everything else. And there's plenty of us that have young families. And so we're, we're able without thinking to be able to, you know, to, to, to work in a way that means we can do what we need to do to look after our families which is great. And, and, you know, hugely appreciate that, that not everybody gets that. So I'm very grateful for that.
Scott Brown (19:42):
Onto lesson lesson three, if you don't mind?
Fraser Simpson (19:49):
Yeah, absolutely. This, this will one is, is, is more about the way I work probably than, than other lawyers. And, and I, I always find when, when speaking to lawyers, they, they talk about precedents and templates. And they, they do things in a certain way because that's how they were done last year. And that's fine, but for me actually, law's about people and communicating and, you know, influencing the way people think and behave. And, and so I'd say, you know, what my learning has been, don't, don't be constrained by precedents and templates. But, but be, you know, be creative, you know, be, be visual focus on user experience. Don't be afraid of starting with a blank piece of paper. Just because something's happened in a particular way before, doesn't mean that's the right way. And, and I think, I think it can be, it can be tempting to, you know, forget that you can be creative.
Scott Brown (20:47):
Yeah. I guess for people outside the profession, it's not, not known as being, not an industry with classes, particularly creative, but definitely good to bring your own slant.
Have you- you moved into the director of ethics role, is it something you've applied in, in that?
Fraser Simpson (21:09):
Yeah, I mean, a hundred percent in fact, you know, my job started with a blank piece of paper sort of designing the function right. But it's, you know, it's, it's, what, what we're about is, is focusing on how we do things, not just what we do. And so it's, it's, it's really sort of picking up mindset shifts and behavior shifts that we want to encourage in our staff - broadly relating to managing legal risks. So getting people to think about the things that they should be thinking about and act in the right way. And you know, it's yeah, key pieces of that are around developing policies. Well, you know, great, but, but we all know that policies and get read, they sit in, they sit in the, the cupboard picking up dust. What, what matters is how you bring that to life?
Fraser Simpson (21:53):
Or how can you, how can you humanize it? How can you normalize it? How can you make people, how can you drive thought processes and behaviors? And so, you know, what we are doing is, is a lot of work. That's, that's really non-legal, but it's actually, you know, closer to marketing almost. How do you hook people into a concept? How do you get people to want to do training on anti-bribery? How do, how do you, how do you elevate something from that topic that's categorized as dull and boring, but important into ‘Blimey, that's interesting. I care about that’. And it's, you know, linking the ‘why’ to the mission of the organization so important, and we're doing things like developing bespoke, digital learning that really talks to, you know, why, why things are important. We've, we've just completed one on, on data protection.
Fraser Simpson (22:41):
We don't, we don't start off by talking about data protection because, or GDPR, because that'll switch people off. We talk about the fact that actually what lies behind each piece of data, we're looking to protect as a human being and we care about human beings and everybody does. And that tries to bring it alive. We've got a, a sort of communications program. We're doing again, just to, to try to elevate these things. So we, we've just slightly tongue in cheek called it ‘The only way is Ethics’ and get people from interesting external organizations to come to talk about a particular compliance topic. But to link it through to Wellcome's mission so that we can understand on an individual basis that our, our actions individually, when applied collectively drive the impact of our organization in achieving a much bigger mission, I think, you know, that that sort of stuff is, is, is really interesting and exciting. And it's taking law from a set of rules to, how can you use those rules as the basis for behavior change and behavior science
Scott Brown (23:48):
Yeah. And by the sounds of it, linking it to the values and the mission, which is, which is, and what resonates in a, in, in that type of organization. That's great.
Do you think the last couple of years with working from home has stifled or created an environment where people can be more creative?
Fraser Simpson (24:09):
Great question. I mean, I think to be honest, I think the, the experience of working from home - it's tempting to think it's been the same for everybody because we've all lived in our own little world, but I, I suspect it's been radically different for everybody. Certainly for me, it's, it's been wonderful in many ways, and it's been extraordinarily challenging in many ways. The sort of first three months of, of lockdown with you know, two preschoolers at home whilst both of us trying to work full-time jobs was a complete nightmare. And yet, for others, it will have been a breath of fresh air. And, and of course there are plenty of people who live on their own or were, you know, living with people that they perhaps wouldn't have chosen to be living with.
Fraser Simpson (24:56):
And it's, you know, it's been really very difficult. So I, I, you know, I think it's been difficult for everybody. But it's, it's certainly given, you know, from my, my personal experience, it's given the ability to be creative. But it it's, it's also been a different kind of creativity, becau se it's been, it's been much harder to to think collaboratively. Teams and Zoom are wonderful, but it's not the same as being in a room with some Sparky minds coming up with coming up with ideas. So you know, it's been different.
Scott Brown (25:30):
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Good, good answer. It keeps, yeah, definitely makes you think outside the box. I think different ways of communicating.
Fraser Simpson (25:39):
I mean, what, what strikes me though, is that quite clearly what was, was, and that won't be the future. So, you know, tech will evolve and our ways of working will evolve and our experiences in and out of the office will evolve. And that's fascinating on many levels. It's, it's also fascinating from a compliance perspective because suddenly the environment you're in changes and how do, how does, how does your behavior for, from abiding by the rules change from when you are in front of your colleagues to when you’re in a room on your own. There are some interesting perspectives around how, how that environmental change shifts, organizational integrity.
Scott Brown (26:26):
Yeah. Good point.
I'm gonna spring this one on you Fraser on the, the last series three, I've been asking people – my guests - what they would confine to Room 101 within the legal profession. What, what one part of it, either legal profession, the law, a law, something or within ethics and compliance, I guess, from, from your angle as well. Is there anything?
Fraser Simpson (27:03):
There's probably too many things I'd can find to Room 101! For me ties and dress codes. I remember a particular point point of my career where wearing, wearing brown shoes with a, a dark suit was frowned upon and well, a load of nonsense. You know, it, it, I, I have no idea what ties are for, and I, I much rather avoid wearing one at all costs. We should all be be able to be inclusive in the, the, and included in the way we want to look and be, and interact with people. And this sort of slight pomposity that comes with dress codes is, is something we, that I would, I would confine to, to Room 101.
Scott Brown (27:47):
That's a great one,
Fraser Simpson (27:47):
You know, and, and, and the way that plays out in, in, in attitudes as well.
Scott Brown (27:52):
Yeah. That I could fully support and get behind that. I always felt, as soon as you put a tie on you just feel confined and act, you have to act in a certain way - more formal than perhaps comes naturally. So yeah, I can definitely support, support that one. Thank you so much, Fraser. It's been really great to hear your Lessons!
Fraser Simpson (28:20):
Scott Brown (28:25):
I really enjoyed that conversation with Fraser Simpson at the welcome trust. It's great to see how his own personal values align with the organization that he's working within. And to hear more about the great work that the welcome trust is doing, and thank you for listening. If you enjoyed that episode, please check out the other episodes in the series. If you head over to heriotbrown.com/podcast, you can listen to all those from series one and two, but I'm Scott Brown until next time, see you later.