Lessons I Learned in Law

Ailsa Longmuir on how lawyers are business enablers, not blockers

September 14, 2023 Heriot Brown Season 5 Episode 8
Lessons I Learned in Law
Ailsa Longmuir on how lawyers are business enablers, not blockers
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode of Lessons I Learned in Law, Scott Brown speaks to Ailsa Zoya Longmuir, General Counsel for Centrica Energy Marketing & Trading and Centrica Business Solutions.  Ailsa has been with Centica for 12 years and is responsible for all Legal, Compliance and Regulatory Affairs matters for these business units globally. She is a  leading Executive Sponsor for Diversity & Inclusion and Charitable Initiatives and is also chairwoman of Centrica Energy Trading A/S’ board. 

Ailsa shares the three lessons she’s learned in law including:

·      Isolate the issue. Try to advise the business on what they need to know, rather than overdelivering with unnecessary information. 

·      Ask why!  You need to fully understand the business and its goals in order to effectively advise. 

·      Trust your instincts. If you have a gut feeling about something, it is quite often correct! 


Ailsa explains the structure of the legal team at Centrica, and why she thinks legal teams are integral to the success of the business they’re advising. Including the legal team in decision making will ‘improve their commerciality in the long run, and give them the ability to come up with more creative legal solutions to make what the business wants to happen, happen’. 


Ailsa also reveals the impact that the Russia-Ukraine war has had on Centrica as a business and the energy market more broadly. 


Presented by Scott Brown of Heriot Brown Legal Recruitment


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This episode of Lessons I Learned in Law is brought to you by Beamery.

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Scott Brown  (0:01)  

Hi, and welcome to Lessons I Learned in Law, the original gangster legal recruitment podcast! I'm your host, Scott Brown. I'm founder and managing director of Heriot Brown In-House Legal Recruitment. And I'm delighted to be joined today by a familiar face, someone I've known for a little while and keen to learn about her lessons. I'm joined by Ailsa Longmuir. Hi Ailsa. 


Ailsa Longmuir  (0:27)  

Hello, Scott, how's it going?


Scott Brown  (0:28)  

Good. Thank you. I'm good. Thank you for joining me. Ailsa's background, she's a general counsel at Centrica in their trading, Marketing and Business Solutions team, which we'll hear more about in her lessons. For those of you that haven't tuned in on each podcast, I'm joined by a leading mind from the legal profession. I hope you don't mind me calling you that, Ailsa?


Ailsa Longmuir  (0:52)  

That's a big shout, Scott!


Scott Brown  (0:54)  

Well, we'll see, we'll see. And we walk through the three lessons that they've learned in their legal career, or the key lessons that they've learned and understand how those have shaped their position and their career so far, and got them to the position that they're in. So really looking forward to chatting today, Ailsa. We'll jump straight in to lesson one, if you could share that with us.


Ailsa Longmuir  (1:15)  

Sure. So lesson one, I've called isolate the issue. So effectively, what I'm trying to say, I think with this is that lawyers are, I believe, to be words, people. So that is our profession. That is the way that we articulate the arguments that we have. And words are a tool that we use, in a really effective way to guide the business. However, I do think that there is a tendency for lawyers to want to tell you everything that they know, as opposed to what the business needs to hear. And it was one of the first lessons that I learned when I moved in house to Centrica, back in 2011, I was asked to produce a piece of advice for the business on a certain issue I worked in upstream at the time. And I produced what I thought was a really wonderful a two page email, setting out all the different permutations of the issue all the different options that the business could make in terms of decisions. And I don't even think I made a recommendation, I just said all the options, but from my perspective, having come straight from private practice, it was an example of a kind of a way for me to showcase everything that I knew. And my boss at the time, took one look at it and said, Well done, Ailsa, now we need five bullet points. And I was like, what, why do they really, it's taken me five hours, it's really carefully crafted. It was first lesson that I learned genuinely in house, and I've carried it through with me ever since. I think that lawyers have the ability also, whilst we can use too many words to really cut to the issue. Well, that's what I mean by isolate the issue, there will always be a lot of white noise surrounding any kind of matter, any circumstance, any situation at work. But lawyers do have an innate ability to cut through that. And if you're able to do that, and if you're able to really get to the nub of the issue, and really kind of articulate that in a way that the business can easily digest in a short period of time, then I think you'll do really well. Or how do you get to that issue? That is experience? You know, I do think that it's not something that you can do straight away, right? Because you're going from one discipline, which is private practice to in in house discipline, which is different, right, you have a defined group of clients, you have to understand what the business wants, which I'll come on to a bit later. But I think you just have to kind of have that clarity of thoughts. And just to say, right, what is the outcome that we're trying to achieve here. And then all this this surrounding context, whilst it's important, and whilst it will inform your decision and your recommendation, the business don't need to know all of that. I think you just have to put yourself in the chair of the person that's receiving the advice and think, right, what do they want to hear? They don't need to know all the ins and outs of case law of you know, all the different elements to the statute. Having said that, they sometimes they do I do, we did bring in a law firm to do some training to our business people. Once we did, we talked about estoppel. And I swear to God, the business didn't stop talking about that, right? For months and months and months. I had my originator say, is it a sword or a shield? But generally, I think just put yourself in the kind of seat of the person that's receiving the advice. 


Scott Brown  (4:32)  

Yeah. But you've got to know your workings. You've got to be able to show your work as if called upon


Ailsa Longmuir  (4:36)  

If called upon it. That's absolutely right. I'm not saying yeah, it's a good point, Scott, in no way is this saying jump to the conclusion. Because you will be asked to explain yourself on occasion, and that's the right thing. And that's again, where I think the legal mind the way that it works in terms of analysis is really crucial and you will get your opportunity to showcase that but the business don't want it all the time. 


Scott Brown  (4:59)  

Yeah. Do you find that your way of working then and getting to that answer is that does that allow you to get to the answer quicker? Delivering advice in that way?


Ailsa Longmuir  (5:08)  

Yeah, I think so I think as I said, it does boil down somewhat to experience. And I think that, you know, you the kind of confidence that you have in being able to cut to the end only comes when you've had spent a lot of time I think, observing the business and the way that the risk appetite works. Also just having experience and making similar decisions on what goes right and what goes wrong. So it's not something that I you know, that I'd recommend, you know, going in house as a junior lawyer and instantly kind of getting to this stage. But I think that the end game should be to be really clear and succinct and, and just be really isolated on what matters most.


Scott Brown  (5:47)  

And how did the move in-house come around for you?


Ailsa Longmuir  (5:50)  

So I spent my training contract and a couple of years as an associate at Jones Day in London. I really enjoyed it. I did a lot of really interesting corporate work. However, I think that the real kind of turning point for me was I did two secondments, one to Pearl, re insurance and one to Conaught, who actually were subsequently bought by Centrica, that I just really enjoyed the dynamic of being part of the business, having one dedicated client where you could really embed yourself as a business partner, being able to get more insight into strategy, you know, what the business was, was trying to achieve. And the longer term, I wants to move away from being brought in as a private practice lawyer to execute a transaction without being able to see what happened at the end. It was one of my you know, even though I really loved m&a, and that's, I guess my probably my core kind of training was in m&a. There was always a bit of a but what happened next, right. So you kind of you d kind of handover and you think, Well, how do they integrate the company they bought? Or you know, what happened to the products that they took on like? So I think for me, it was almost that next chapter, it was always the preceding chapters succeeding chapter that I felt I was missing. Yeah. And I have to say that I've I haven't looked back since. But it was a fantastic move for me. Centrica has been the only place that I've worked since I've moved in-house, but I've done a fair whack of jobs around the shop. 


Scott Brown  (7:19)  

Yeah, yeah, that's great to have had those moves around. So you joined in the upstream team


Ailsa Longmuir  (7:23)  

I joined the upstream team at a time where there was a lot of really interesting work going on. So a lot of time in Aberdeen, and then did some kind of onshore deals in Canada, we were in Nigeria, Trinidad and Tobago, and then we had a change of CEO. So we went, we moved away from the versus grazing integrated model and more towards the kind of services side with British Gas. So I spent some time doing kind of corporate centre work, did a bit of Secretary at work. So ran the annual reports in 2014. And then, yeah, had the opportunity to do some m&a When the trading business was buying niasse, which was a Danish trading house, okay. And EMC didn't have any m&a capability. So I said, Well, I'll I'll come and help you buy the business and then just hung around from there. 


Scott Brown  (8:15)  

Really? Yeah. Yeah, part of it? And was it like seeing m&e from from the other side compared to being advisor?


Ailsa Longmuir  (8:22)  

Well, you know, it's, it's interesting, I've learned a lot about integration, and the positives and negatives that you take from that. And that actually is a journey with really no kind of end destination. It's a it's a continuous journey. Yeah. But we Yeah, it's been, I think it's a really good thing at the moment, centric has obviously had a good year formance wise. So we're able to look at more opportunities now. And I think that that's a really exciting time to be in a company that has a growth agenda. And certainly EMC and CBS so Centrica business solutions are both on that growth path. So we're CBS it's really cool to centric, his aim of achieving kind of net zero goals, and the kinds of assets deployment in that area. So kind of solar farms batteries, right. It's really, really exciting. So yeah, if anyone, any any m&a lawyers out there, fancy coming in. Yeah, having a good time, then yeah, centric is definitely the place to be at the moment. 


Scott Brown  (9:22)  

Yeah, there seems to be loads going on in across the sector. It's interesting from a recruitment angle. Recently, over the past, you'd speak to mid level lawyers in private practice, and a lot of them may be attracted to working in startups, VC business or VC backed companies. Obviously, that market slightly dented at the moment. Yeah, and licking its wounds. And the appeal of a blue chip, for me is always that breadth of exposure that you can get and moving around from one business to the one one business entirely to the next and the ability to do that. Is that something that's encouraged at Centrica?


Ailsa Longmuir  (9:56)  

Definitely. So I'm one of the sponsors of the profession. Integration Development Committee for the legal and ethics and compliance regulatory affairs and Secretariat functions. So, and one of the schemes that we are putting in place is a flexible development scheme, which is to encourage exactly that. It is to enable people to think a bit more outside of the box, thinking about those stretch opportunities to take in your career. But acknowledging the fact that Centrica is a huge organisation, as you say, there's different pockets of opportunities. And you don't have to leave the company that you enjoy working for, you just have to think a bit differently in terms of what does development mean, I think that historically, and I think lawyers fall into this bucket, people think about development at very much on an upwards level. So kind of moving up to that kind of management role, and then division or role. Whereas actually, you can fill your toolkit very, very well on a horizontal level, if you just think about it in a bit of a different way.


Scott Brown  (10:54)  

To move on to lesson two.


Ailsa Longmuir  (11:03)  

Lesson number two is ask why? Fairly simple. But really, it builds on a couple of things that I mentioned in lesson one, Scott. So I think fundamentally, you know, when you move in house, you have a different role to a private practice lawyer. And you really need to be embedded in the business and you need to know the business inside out. So you need to kind of be curious, and you need to sit down with your business colleagues and ask them why. Why are we doing this? What do we want to achieve? What is the endgame, because your role as a legal advisors to help them to navigate to that end game with the least risk in you know, the best structure possible best financial, gain all the different metrics that the business will use, but it is your role role to really advise them on that. And you you will not be able to do that if you don't understand the business. I think another really important aspect is, and part of knowing the business is understanding the risk appetite. And as legal and compliance, you form a really important role in setting that risk appetite and setting that framework. Because it's your job to identify the risks, put them all on the table. And then obviously, the kind of commercial heads the business leaders will will make decisions around that it's not always our role to make those decisions. But you have to understand the entire, you know, think of it almost like a patchwork quilt, how it all fits together. If you don't understand that on a really comprehensive basis, then you're not going to be able to offer the best advice. And I think that the difference, obviously between private practice in houses in house should have that deeper understanding of exactly what the business is trying to achieve, not just on, you know, we can talk about kind of short term, mid term long term strategies. Sometimes I feel that private practice is very good at executing that short term deal making that happen, getting that over the line. Whereas I think in house, you do have a responsibility to make sure that the advice you're giving bears a longer term strategy in mind. And you're not going to understand what the strategy is. And you don't ask why.


Scott Brown  (13:15)  

Day to day as a lawyer at Centrica, who you're speaking to, it’s obviously a big legal team but as the legal team dispersed throughout the business to the out talking to stakeholder,


Ailsa Longmuir  (13:24)  

so we say we're split over various locations, you know, because we've got various offices around Europe, and we do set as a team. However, I really strongly encourage my team to spend as much time with the business as possible, be that front office, so people on the desk be that the origination team within CBS, it's about you know them spending time with the people that are building out the Asset Delivery and the services businesses. So really, it's the same approach across the different businesses that I look after. And one thing that I do always stress, because I sit obviously, around the various different leadership teams for the businesses, and the ask that I always have of my business colleagues at that level is get my team involved on day one. I think that there is a bit of reluctance on the parts of business, the business generally, and this is what I've seen throughout my career is, you know, if we bring the lawyers in to the first meeting, are they going to be saying, You can't do this? You can't do that. You know, what about this? And I think what I'm trying to create is a culture whereby people can sit around a table, listen and absorb and for the business to understand that if my lawyers can listen to these conversations, make observations, take it away, reflect on it, then that's going to increase their commerciality in the long run, which will give them the ability to kind of come up with more creative legal solutions to make what the business wants to happen human, but it is about really being I use the phrase business partner all the time, and you really should, in my view, the business should always have their legal team alongside them. And, you know, they we are there to enable. We're not there to block. But you're we're only going to be able to enable if you get us on that journey, very, very early on, it's where the time is where. And there's only been a handful of times where it's been a red line. And I've had to say, you know, we can't do this deal. But I guarantee you, those are the times when I wasn't brought in on day one, right?


Scott Brown  (15:25)  

Yeah. Important. Build those build those relationships? Yeah. And what's it like trading? Right? Everyone's image of trading is a trade floor. You're dealing with Wolf of Wall Street type characters?


Ailsa Longmuir  (15:37)  

No, no. It was a good figure of ethnic. No, it's it is a trait the trading floor is how you would expect it. So the screens everywhere, but it's actually really quite conservative. I think, as a trading organisation goes, nobody yells. There's no screaming or throwing staplers or anything like that. Actually, I think what the important thing to realise is it is an extension of a much bigger company whose core values really resonate across the group, but that does translate into the trading arm as well. So it's nowhere near what you'd expect. Like, you know, people in the pits and stuff like that. It's a lot. It's a lot calmer. It's a good place. It's a good atmosphere.


Scott Brown  (16:20)  

Yeah. But there must be big ups and good. team camaraderie on on wins and stuff within.


Ailsa Longmuir  (16:26)  

Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think that if I reflect on the last 12 months, there was so much external activity that impacted us. So obviously, the Ukraine invasion had a massive knock on effects to the energy market. The sanctions that were put in place and continue to be updated against Russia had a huge effect on Centrica because one of our biggest gas suppliers was Gazprom. And then obviously, the knock on effects of of the war and the effect it had on the energy markets, and what unsuitably the energy crisis that we're in, really was out of our control. And I think that the one thing that I would say is that any organisation does not like to be out of control. And so we had to manage a number of scenarios in quite high pressure, that I think that, especially with M and C, especially with a trading business, you tend to find that people operate really well under pressure, that's almost where you get the best out of someone is in the crisis. But having said that, obviously, it has a knock on effect on well being. So if we have to always kind of make sure that we keep an eye on that everyone's kind of doing okay, even when they're having to deliver under really, really difficult circumstances.


Scott Brown  (17:44)  

Is that an area that you focus on with your team?


Ailsa Longmuir  (17:47)  

Definitely, yeah. So you know, so I made reference to professional development and growth. So we have a well being committee as well. And that really does focus on making sure that we try and get some kind of balance in our lives. And there, it's easier said than done. But we have to be quite proactive with that. I think that, you know, certainly lawyers as a breed tend to be Yeah, hi, hardworking. You know, most people have come from training contracts, everyone has their own kind of stories of all nighters, and how I you know, hope that world is dissipating somewhere. I think it has to, but I mean, I've never quite


Scott Brown  (18:26)  

I'm not sure Gen Z's buy into it quite as much


Ailsa Longmuir  (18:29)  

no, and that's absolutely right. And, you know, we were discussing wellbeing last week in the LX connects, which is almost like our kind of townhall and one of my colleagues made a really good point is that just because you work really hard, doesn't mean you don't have to have a conversation about well being. It's like they go hand in hand. And it really is important to us. I think centracare As an organisation culturally is pretty good on that stuff.


Scott Brown  (18:55)  

Yeah. Nice. Last time we seen each other in person was probably our burns night. He also was cutting some shapes on the on the dance floor. I just say the work what's your what's your go to? Well, three on fire with dancer.


Ailsa Longmuir  (19:10)  

Yeah, that was that was a while ago. I know. I know. Dancing was always it's always been a big part of my life. So I did Scottish country when I was at school, and Highland at school. But then when I went to university, I took up Ballroom and Latin American. So this is before strictly was on the telly but then obviously when strictly came along, it's obviously become massively popular. Yeah. So I did that for a couple of years. But yeah, sadly, you know, it's a Sufi to do in a partnership and when you take her for training contracts in an American law firm that goes right out the window. Yeah, so it's just save it for burns lights.


Scott Brown  (19:47)  

Rally, well, you got to go to dust off the shoes that at some point can get good. There's an opportunity


We'll move on to lesson three.


Ailsa Longmuir  (20:02)  

Okay, so Lesson three is trust your instincts. So what I mean by this is that I think that lawyers probably forget that they have a lot of experience of observing negotiations, meetings, conversations between over an array of different stakeholders and, and from that you can actually absorb a huge amount of emotional intelligence about how people operate. And also you get the business acumen from picking up various different topics and listening to different conversations on them. I'm a huge believer in trusting your guts, generally, I think that if you have a instinctive feeling about something, it's usually right. And I know that this might sound like a strange thing coming from a lawyer, you might think, you know, trust the logic, trust the analysis. Again, I'm not saying don't do that even because obviously, you have to back everything up with a good argument and a good facts pattern that is well established. And that follows through well. But I do think there's there is something fundamentally human about, you learn by osmosis, you can pick things up, and especially in working in an in house environment, you're not just picking up from different lawyers, you know, you will be dealing with a vast array of stakeholders. Having said that, it was always good to take that step back before you make the decision. And before you make the call, so trust your gut, but give yourself space to kind of reflect on it and make sure that it's the right decision.


Scott Brown  (21:30)  

How do you encourage your team to do that?


Ailsa Longmuir  (21:33)  

So I think that a big part of that is hiring the right people. So I think that you have a tendency when you're looking at interviewees that you will instinctively pick up on what kind of person that they are in, you must know this being in the recruitment game site very well. Yeah. So I think you I think, also, there's a really fine line between someone being intuitive to someone being a bit ad hoc and a bit kind of out there and making shonky decisions. That's not what we want. Another big part of it is trust. I think you need to engender trust in the team. And I think that's quite crucial that people aren't living in fear of making a mistake. Because we're all human, we all make mistakes. And I think that there's something culturally, Britain is that we're not always so good at giving people that licence to fail. Whereas I've seen working in a, you know, a multinational organisation, especially with my colleagues and Denmark, that it's culturally much more acceptable over there, for the outcome not to be what you want. But as long as you go along with it with the right intents, then it's much more easily forgiven than I think it is here. But that again, that's one of the benefits of being in a multinational organisation is that you can pick up good bits of culture in various different pockets and bring it all together, because I've got a very diverse team. So we all have to learn to work together and learn what our strengths and weaknesses are. And that goes back to the patchwork quilt analogy. We all kind of play a different parts. And but it is important to get the right people through the door.


Scott Brown  (23:04)  

Yeah. Is there any time in your career where your your gut instinct has been? Way off? Yes. Yeah.


Ailsa Longmuir  (23:11)  

Hopefully not also, that's a fit. Yes. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I'm only human. I'm not going to get it right all the time. And what I try and tell the team, because what I've been told, which I think is, is a really good advice, is to kind of once you're out of the moments, once you're out of the heat, once you've dealt with whatever's gone wrong, to take the time to then think why, you know, why did I make that decision? Is it anything that influenced me? Was there anything in the context of the situation that I should have maybe paid more attention to? Did people give me advice that I didn't listen to? Why didn't I listen, I'm not a huge fan of posts, waters, generally, just for the sake of it, I think they can be quite destructive. But I do think that if there's a lesson to be learned, then you owe it to yourself to give yourself the time to think about it.


Scott Brown  (24:03)  

Do you have anything in built into your word, your coaches, mentors, like?


Ailsa Longmuir  (24:07)  

Yeah, we do offer these and we we had a really good session recently, actually on coaching and the role of feedback. So it's something that we're actively trying to push down through the ranks, so to speak, is that feedback given in the correct way, with the kind of coaching mentality behind it can actually produce really good results? So it's something that we've rolled out training on, as I said, about a month or so ago, so I'm hoping that we're gonna see some positive changes with that. I think that you know, we're all so busy, that it becomes easy to leave feedback to say a quarterly review, that actually the benefit of that feedback is probably much more in the moment, provided it's well thought through and articulated in the right way. So it is something Yeah, we actively promote at Centrica quite heavily.


Scott Brown  (24:56)  

Yeah. Well, I think that brings us to the end. Thank you for sharing the lessons!


Ailsa Longmuir  (25:01)  

You're very welcome. Thanks for having me.


Scott Brown  (25:06)  

And thank you for listening. There are a host of amazing guests on the podcast from series gone by. If you've enjoyed listening to Ailsa's story and her lessons, then head over to heriotbrown.com/podcast, where you can subscribe to your heart's content and learn all those lessons. But until next time, thank you for listening