Lessons I Learned in Law

Chris Fowler on navigating career transitions

November 02, 2023 Heriot Brown Season 5 Episode 12
Lessons I Learned in Law
Chris Fowler on navigating career transitions
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode of Lessons I Learned in Law, Scott Brown speaks to Chris Fowler, Chief Operating Officer for Legal, Governance and Compliance at mining business Rio Tinto. Prior to that Chris spent 24 years at BT Group including as General Counsel for BT’s Technology division which builds and operates BT’s networks, its IT infrastructure and its research and development unit.

After a long career in telecoms, Chris explains his motivation for switching sector and how he’s finding his first few months with Rio Tinto. “Fundamentally I wanted to work in an organisation that's got some pretty big challenges, but also is somewhere that I found personally really exciting” Chris says. Chris also discusses the potential professional benefits that can arise from switching sectors, as well as the things you should watch out for. 

Chris shares some of the lessons he’s learned in law including:

·      If it doesn’t feel comfortable, you’re learning. Be prepared to test yourself!

·      As a lawyer you can have a huge impact on the people around you and their lives. Invest in people and value relationships. 

·      Say ‘yes’ when you don’t necessarily have all the facts. Take the leap!

Chris also shares how he made the most of his ‘break’ in-between roles, something he would advise everyone to do and to make the most of if you get the opportunity. 

Presented by Scott Brown of Heriot Brown Legal Recruitment


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Scott Brown (0:02)  
Hi, and welcome to Lessons I Learned in Law with me, Scott Brown. I'm founder of Heriot Brown In-House Legal Recruitment. We specialise in finding lawyers fulfilling careers in the in-house market. On each episode, I'm really fortunate to have the chance to sit down with a top legal mind and break down the three lessons that they've learned from working in law. So I hope that you take a lot from this and that you find something inspiring for your own career journey. My guest today is Chris Fowler. Hi, Chris! 

Chris Fowler (0:36)  
Hi Scott, how you doing? 

Scott Brown (0:37)  
I'm good thanks. Thanks for joining me. I've been on at Chris to get on the podcast for a year or two. Met a long time ago. But Chris recently started a new position this year as chief operating officer for legal governance and compliance at Rio Tinto, which is a PLC based in London, and a mining business, which is a move out of sector. He spent 24 years at BT group prior to that, where he was general counsel for BT's technology division. How are things at Rio? How's the start been?

Chris Fowler (1:11)  
Yeah, no, fantastic. No, so I joined end of February. And it's probably hard to describe how big the organisation is and how much there is to learn. Yeah, it's a different sector. It's a different business entirely, it's mining. I suppose early impressions are right, you know, in some respects, there's a lot of similarities; it's a big engineering culture, it's got a big legacy, like BT. It knows it needs to transform. And also kind of probably the thing that attracted me about it was a little bit like BT, right? It's an organisation that a lot of people have got opinions on, you know, I only need to talk to my kids and say, I'm gonna go and work for a mining company, and it was quite clear that, you know, some people have a perception about what that is. And fundamentally, I wanted to work in an organisation that's got some pretty big challenges, it's pretty important, but also is somewhere that, you know, I just found personally really exciting. You know, I'm a bit of a geography geek at heart. And the idea of working for a company that has mines in Madagascar, the northwest of Canada, the middle of Australia, just blew me away. And so still in learning mode, still trying to get to know loads of people and develop relationships, but really glad I joined and really excited.

Scott Brown (2:26)  
But it sounds like a great start. Just before we jump into the lessons just touching on some of the things you said there in terms of 24 years in telecoms, how's that switch gone into a new sector? And I guess, how did you ship it?

Chris Fowler (2:37)  
Yeah, you know, I think I hadn't appreciated at the time, I remember when I left BT, you get a chance to have some outplacement support, and bla bla bla, which is rubbish, don't do it. Actually, I was really lucky, I got two people who really spent a bit of time and actually I happen to live relatively close to me, Yorkshire. So I think that helped in terms of create a bit of a bond. And they gave me some really good advice. And the two bits of advice I got was a bit of a diagnosis and what sort of person I was realised that I needed variety. I get bit mischievous, but I didn't get a bit of variety in my week. And the second thing was, what motivated you Yeah, it might vary by work being given to you or by creating your own work. And I kind of realised that those were two big factors in where I wanted to go next, on what I was about. And then really, it was about finding an organisation where I felt as if the culture was right, the people were right. And it was a little bit like buying a house right. As soon as I started to make a few of the folk from Rio Tinto, I knew this is the place I want it to be. And the other thing, actually that the outplacement support made me realise was the amount of people who move like I do after a long period, and fail, and they fail because they feel like that immediately got to make a contribution. And what they don't do is invest in the relationships and build the trust. And that was a bit of advice that really resonated for me. So I've really tried to focus on getting to know people understanding, listening, and really made sure I dial that up and developing the relationships, I think, and listening and understanding the business and trying to physically stop yourself by saying things like at BT, or where I was previously, there, the two things that I think, you know, kind of I've had to consciously sort of bite my tongue a little bit, because you're in a different organisation, different people with experiences. And more often than not all of these things have happened for a reason. And some of these things that are good reasons and just because you've come from somewhere else, doesn't necessarily make it better. Yeah, and you've, I suppose, big thing is, is develop relationships, listen, and try and be careful not to sort of just say at BT in every other sentence when when you're sort of trying to suggest different ways to do things. 

Scott Brown (4:52)  
Yeah, you got pound coin jar for every time you every time you come out with that phrase, if ideally it'd be full. Yeah, serious self awareness though, right? To check yourself on those points and being conscious of it sounds great advice, though.

Chris Fowler (5:05)  
But also Scott, I'd say it's kind of like, there's a lot of people I think, who kind of will say, You know what, I can't change. So it's exactly what I am. And after leaving BT I spent a small amount of time working in a in a house builder, private equity owned house builder and then kind of came to Rio. And I actually realised that actually changing sector can be incredibly stimulating for you, some sectors really welcoming, and actually you kind of if you're driven by learning, it's fabulous, right? It's great. And actually, what you tend to realise is there's a lot more commonality in the fundamentals of what you've got to do. Sector knowledge in some respects is don't underrate it. But it's not the be all and end all to work.

Scott Brown (5:57)  
We'll jump into lesson one, if you could share that. That'd be great. 

Chris Fowler (5:59)  
Yeah, I guess lesson one is, if it's not feeling comfortable, then that's a pretty good sign that you're you're testing yourself. You're putting yourself in a in a situation that has an element of risk, but you're learning and you will develop it. I always remember actually went to work to BT for Sabina Chalmers. And she always used to say, if it doesn't feel uncomfortable, you're not really testing yourself. And there's a couple of situations I always remember, a few years back in BT, I was really travelling around the world doing various m&a transactions. And on one particular one, it was a reverse merger in the US. And I remember saying to my boss at the time, a guy called David evilly, who's our General Counsel at Circo. I said, David, he, you know, you sure you know, you sure you want me to do this? And he saw, in the inimitable David way said, how hard can it be? And it was bloody uncomfortable. But you know what, I learned so much. Yeah. And I came out of the other side with a completely different skill set. Yeah, yeah. And similarly, you know, when I moved from being, effectively what was now as a dyed in the wool commercial lawyer for a good chunk of my career, and then Dan Fitz turned around, said, I want you to be my COO, the BT legal, and I kind of, you know, so pretty uncomfortable in the first three months of that role. Because every day, people were asking me questions about things that I didn't feel confident wasn't in my wheelhouse was flying by the seat of my pants, a bit of truth be told, having to get used to things like financial management in a way and budgeting that I'd never done. And you kind of go, Yeah, but you can do it. Yeah, you can do it. And actually, what held me back was probably my own conservatism, about what I wanted to do, because others hadn't held me back. Others encouraged me. So I think the big thing I'd say to people is, you know, if you're feeling if you're starting to feel uncomfortable in a situation, in a working situation, in a sort of development context, that, to me is a pretty good sign that you're doing stuff, you're doing stuff that's gonna be valuable for you. And it taught me that I wish I'd probably moved away from my specialism earlier than I had.

Scott Brown (8:14)  
Right? How far through did you make that switch?

Chris Fowler (8:17)  
Do you know what I probably been a BT, or I guess, in around 8090 years, and it only come about, I guess, because I had the general counsel for commercial at BT. And so I was running a pretty big team of about 70 people doing contracts. And I suppose I developed a bit of an interest in the business of law, how law was provided, and how it was costed, and how it made sense, and how all the different providers were out there and how technology was changing. So I kind of got in there a little bit by accident, if truth be told. But I was also I guess, driven by a little bit of a desire that you come across a lot of in house functions, and people are kind of professionally miserable. You know, they're kind of like, this is terrible. It's, it's not great. And I just thought, you know, I remember Dan saying to me, Dan fits, the definition of madness is accepting that things are the way they are and not doing anything to change them. And so I probably got into it by that interest in change doing things differently. How can you make it better for people, but also, I was kind of very lucky in the sense that I was in an organisation like a BT at a time where it had to change I had to change every year, you know, the way in which the world around the way in which telecoms was was operating and meant that staying still wasn't an option. We had to change the legal function, we had to kind of become a little bit more proactive around things like data protection and forward looking regulatory risk. And we had to probably systemise things were doing a volume, like litigation like commercial contracts, because we needed to create space, that focus on the stuff where the pressure and where the future business was coming from. So it was My interest in the business of law that I think sort of got it, but how I got into that, like a lot of people in their careers, I think I probably came into it on the basis that when I took the general counsel for commercial role, the first thing I was told was you got to change this function can't carry on as we are, we've had a profits warning, 2 billion prophets warning. And so, Chris, what do you do? You've got to change it, but don't drop any balls, because you can't carry on throwing people at it. Right. And that's probably been the bit that kind of was the see that that meant? I ended up doing what I did here. 

Scott Brown (10:35)  
Cool. And so yeah, learning, learning that on the job there. So the CEO role and legal Ops is becoming more and more visible and something that more and more in house legal functions have as a function outside of just the general counsel running that it has that measure towards success. What does success look like for someone in that type of position? 

Chris Fowler (10:55)  
Really good question. And I think a lot of these roles, I think, are factors of what the group general counsel's vision for it is, you know, if I look when I was at D, Dan Fitz, I think very much sort of said to me, right, your job, Chris, is to make sure that you deliver the numbers, we've got a cost savings target next year, I'm relying upon you to do that. And to make sure that we're set up well for the future. If I look at when I worked for Sabina charmers in the similar role, it was probably more of a chief staff type role. How do we get better at moving people around, communicate in making sure people are really engaged. And I remember when Sabina joined bth goes, I want to be the best engaged team in BT and I thought she was crazy. And by the end of it, were the second best in team in the middle of COVID. And it's because of the focus we spent on people. And so I think the unanswered question, the metrics are very much set by the group general counsel, and really are seeing their aspirations for the role. And I've always found that, you know, to me, it's a fascinating role. And one of the reasons I took the role in in Rio is because I got a real sense from Isabel Ducharme, who's the current GC there, they should got a strong vision for Yashinsky. And how it worked in Unilever. She'd seen how it had given her that space to support the board and the non execs with someone else focused on looking at the function as a whole. And the privilege you get in this role is you look across day to day the entirety of the function in a way in which not many do, but it depends, right? I mean, I think my role is very different than if I was in a smaller organisation. My role is very different than if I was in a federated organisation where there isn't one legal team. And my role is probably very different than if you're looking at legal ops, maybe, for the right reasons to be a bit more tactical about automating contracts. You know, I see my role really Rio has been how can we manage this envelope that spent on internal and external resource in the best way possible? Yeah.

Scott Brown (13:05)  
What's your view on as a lawyer that does that job? Does it have to be a lawyer in terms of doing that?

Chris Fowler (13:11)  
Yeah, it's really interesting, right? I'd say no, not necessarily to be like a football manager. Right. You know, if you've played the game, it helps when you have some challenging conversations, because you've been in their shoes. So I think it helps. I don't think it's a prerequisite. I think, you know, we've got a lot more I will call non lawyers hate that term, coming into the legal profession more broadly and doing different roles are and I think, to a certain extent, Scott, it really depends on what is the problem you look into sold? Yeah, if the problem is you need to be completely digitised. And, you know, you kind of need to be someone who's got loads of tech skills, that's a different skill set, maybe than someone who is more focused on managing third party relationships, or managing the overall cost base or transforming that function from what it is now to what it needs to be in the future. So I think one of the challenges of trying to identify the role is not a one size fits all. And it's also a bit of a point in time thing, because what's suitable now might not necessarily be suitable for that role in future.

Scott Brown (14:23)  
We'll move on to lesson two. 

Chris Fowler (14:25)  
Lesson two, I guess is when I left BT, I reflected on you know, all the nice things that were said in things like LinkedIn posts, and also cards that I got, and probably hadn't appreciated until that point, how much you can make an impact on people, how they do their job, how they develop and how much they really value that more than any one deal up down. I could have done and I was fortunate enough to do some amazing transactions across the world lucky enough to be the first operator in the UK to launch 5g commercial actually in the UK, all of which made me incredibly proud, but actually, how to insert into insignificance relative to the impact on the tea people, their perception of you what you did with them, you know, I mean, so the toughest things I think I've found as I've progressed as in either in house role in the broadest sense, is the amount of time yeah, you need to invest in people to do the nice stuff, but also the tough stuff as well. And that's not an exact science. It's not like marking up a document. It's not like providing a piece of advice. It's something that is far more nuanced than that. But actually, if you get it right, if you see people moving on to new roles, new opportunities, you see poor people developing into things that they didn't think they could do. Bash hugely rewarded, you know, when I look back now at BT, and it's it was incredible across the patch, in terms of how it equipped its lawyers, and where they went on to nominate I can name half a dozen general councils in the footsie 50, all of whom are in the BT alumni. And I think that's a huge credit to the environment it creates, were really kind of focuses on getting the best and the most out of people. And So lesson number two really is don't underestimate the impact you can make on people, which is far greater in their eyes than any single one deal that you might have killed yourself to try and do. 

Scott Brown (16:28)  
So good lesson, as you guys I guess, as your legacy of beauty right, in terms of those people that you've enabled, and they're developing and continue to develop, push you moving on and then developing the business as well and other lawyers? 

Chris Fowler (16:39)  
Yeah, no, absolutely. You know, and it's the thing that maybe as you advance in your career, you go, actually, what have I achieved, what's changed, have I given people maybe the opportunities that I can, and how rewarding that can be, people will forget transactions within a few months, if not the end of that financial year, people don't forget what you do to them personally, and how you impact them in a hopefully positive way to be better than they think they can be, or get the best out of them.

Scott Brown (17:08)  
In terms of that was your structure in terms of getting the most out of people or enabling people to develop?

Chris Fowler (17:15)  
I guess the key thing for me is, and everybody's different, right? But I've always been incredibly honest and transparent, giving people a bit of a sense of direction, and not trying to sugarcoat things, and trying to create an environment where people can pretty much say what they want, they can tell me exactly what they feel. So that you can add that to a discussion. I always remember, you know, in the early days of qualification, getting a document with red marks thrown across the office to me, when I kind of had to work it out myself what the feedback was, but really trying to give people some actionable feedback, and making sure that when you're doing it, it's done with good intent is good done with because you want them to be as effective as possible. And you want to be in an environment where, you know, kind of, you'll feel like, you know, you're not only you're achieving, but you're also developing as an individual, I feel quite strongly about this. That's why people like Dan Kane, I think, are doing a great job, right, which is, the profession doesn't equip people for the transition you have to make as your career develops. And you very much depend then on the people you work for, to help you. And I've been incredibly lucky, right? You know, I've worked for some amazing general counsel. And the one thing that's all been consistent is the thoughtfulness of their feedback. You know, the thoughtfulness is all come from place, trying to make you better, sometimes I've not welcomed it. But you have to create that, that that really good, safe environment first. So that you can have, you know, both the nice conversations and the good ones, and I value the toughest stuff more, because that's the stuff that ultimately I kind of look at and go, that's gonna help me improve. The platitudes are nice, but they're not going to help me do anything any better. 

Scott Brown (19:02)  
Yeah, we've touched on a bit of it, it'd be really useful to hear for other senior lawyers, people that are moving on or looking to move roles after a sustained period within a business or just looking to make that switch at a senior level. What tips have you got for people making that move? 

Chris Fowler (19:18)  
Yeah, you can't underestimate I think, sort of like the process you've got to go through and you've been somewhere for 24 years. And it's like, yeah, it's been part family. And you leave that and all of a sudden, you're set free in the outside world. I mean, I think the key thing for me is, when I came out, I really realised the value of my network, you know, connecting with that network and getting some ideas from them getting their perception of me yeah, what did they think? And I think in the lead up to that to sort of leave in, in the early days, I was very focused on I need to get a job I need to get a job but hadn't really thought about what that job was on what I wanted to do with my time. And I don't mean that My point of view is, you know, I wanted to be in a certain position or I wanted to practice certain kinds of law, I looked at it way more basic than that and thought to myself, it actually is really important to be an organisation, which is got some really big challenges to deal with, like an organisation like Rio as, it's really important to me to be in a position where I can control my work rather than almost be the end of a process and being the bottleneck. And I think it was really interesting. So through the process in which I spoke to you and many others, I remember one person in particular said to me, Chris, you know, I associate you with delivering and transforming legal services at scale. And I was I thought we were now I've got some spot on my LinkedIn profile now. But it sounds really simple, but it's like, so what's that thing that you you want to be? What's that thing you want to do? Right, and I think a lot of people will go on to want to be a general counsel, but they won't necessarily think, what type of General Counsel what type of organisation? How do they want to work, control their work, what type of people do to work with? So I think the biggest tip I would say is Don't jump too quick, right? You know, lots of people, I think, underestimate their ability to, they've got good experience to find something else, and spend lots of time talking to people and, and getting their their feedback. I mean, one of the greatest things and sources of information for me was the former BT alumni network. And lots of other people in BT have gone through a similar pattern that I'd gone to, they were fantastic, introducing me to people, you know, maybe challenging me a little bit, you know, kind of, at least you've got that latrine. And sometimes I completely accept you haven't got that actually, you know, you've got to go from one to another. I was lucky, I had a little bit of a gap. And I would say make the most of it, because you will find stuff. And for the reasons I said to you early on before, it's really important to understand what you as a person wants, because you know, if you're not careful, you see lots of these situations where people go into one thing, and then they get I'm sure you see it, they keep springing around. And I think that's probably because if not spent enough time thinking, Well, what is it I want to do next? Yeah, yeah. What? What is it about me that that I think, you know, I can help fill a need? And what what do I need around me to be true to that to work?

Scott Brown (22:21)  
Yeah. Now that is great advice. So what makes you content, what makes you happy in your job and fulfils you in your job? Because you have the job to do, right? You said the job title or I want to be a general counsel is quite an tangible, the actual basics of it, or what is it about that, that excites you I think's the key things. That's really useful advice. Did you get time in between the roles? 

Chris Fowler (22:44)  
Yeah, no, I was lucky, right, I had about three months off, which was awesome. And, again, I encourage anybody else to do it, right? Because it's a complete chance to sort of really kind of de stress a bit and think, Okay, what is it, I want to do what's really out there, and it takes time to get out there and talk to different people and, and process what they're telling you. And also, you know, you realise that just like anything else, some people are incredibly helpful and gracious with their times, and others aren't. And that tells you something in itself. And so definitely encourage anyone to do it. It was awesome, actually, just to be in a little situation to, to be able to travel after COVID and be in the Far East and go do you know, I'm gonna stay here for another week, because I can't. And you won't get many occasions like that. And it's really, it's fantastic. And you can't beat that feeling as well, on a Sunday night where you go, you know what, I'm not gonna worry about too much tomorrow. I've just got up, maybe walk the dog or go on a cycle ride or catch up with a friend. It's a luxury, right? And the most senior people in BT all said to me, Chris, you won't believe me when I say this. But the hardest thing you've got to do is not jump too quickly. Right? You've got at that time, it might not happen again for a few years, or it might not ever happen again. So make the most of it.

Scott Brown (24:09)
Move on to lesson three. 

Chris Fowler (24:11)
Yeah, no. Last one would be I guess, say yes. When you don't necessarily have all the facts, right? Because sometimes if you keep on asking for everything, you might not end up sort of experiencing things that otherwise you will do. I look at in my instance, I remember years ago, you know, kind of I was asked to get involved in this project that was to do with distribution arrangement in Italy. And before I knew it, I was involved in a you know, kind of 1.5 billion acquisition. I was in Italy for 18 months. It had changed my career, my profile in BT, who I interacted with, and I reflected on it and I thought I think I just basically said, I'll help out. I'll do that. I could have just said well, you know, can I do? that block of time isn't really my specialism. And sometimes, and I always remember, actually, when I used to work for David Evely, and his motto was very much, how hard can it be? And I think you can underestimate the fact that sometimes when you're working for people or be caught for, what they really want is for you to type problems off their hands, right? You know, they want you to sort of help them. And they don't necessarily think you've got all the answers or you've got all the experience. But if you've got the attitude to get in there and get stuck in, that's good enough for them. Actually, if it's one less problem off their list, you'll be the person they think about next, when opportunities come up. And so I think, yeah, especially when you're thinking in the confines of who you work for, say, Yes, give them a feeling that you're gonna help solve their problem, maybe work it out. Afterwards, right. And a number of occasions, I looked at it, and I go, I didn't really have all the information then. But I just kind of gave my current boss and my current stakeholder comfort that I got this. And that in itself was huge. And if I hadn't done that, but I've asked too many questions, if I'd have been a bit cautious, I might not have experienced these projects, I might have not spent 18 months in Italy, I might not have changed my profile and ended up moving on to other roles as I did. And I think sometimes our inherent conservatism in the law can be a bit of an inhibitor to opportunities that come your way, which you know, the best opportunities are usually those ones that are not fully formed, you know, you'll see more than anyone's got right. In that, you know, sometimes the best opportunities are those things where you kind of you feel the space against the knee, the best opportunities are not the things with a beautiful job description, that there's been round the houses for months, and people have got some predetermined ideas about you know, how they're going to go about filling it, the best roles, and the best experiences are those things, we just fill a space. And they're the things I think you get if you give people the right sense that you're there to help out

Scott Brown (27:05)  
Yeah. Fantastic. And yeah, problem solving, bringing solutions, no that's really good advice. And I'd just like to say thanks, Chris, because I first met you and not long after I had set up Heriot Brown and met for a coffee and you were so generous with your time. I had a real interest in, and still do, within legal tech and alternative service providers that was finding my way and finding my feet around what Heriot Brown would look like and found it really valuable to actually just see and hear how BT, a business like BT or a PLC, buys legal services or just service providers. So it was it was great to meet you there and be in your be in your network from from that point in time. So, I'm glad the new role's working out

Chris Fowler (27:48)  
Yeah, not at all, and it's really awesome to see how, you know, you've developed and you've developed the business over a period of time and it's an exciting time right now, you know, you're testament to the fact that now there's so many different opportunities to do different things in this whole field. Whereas previously there was just you know, in-house, private practice, now the world is just so much more broader now. And it's it's your network that connects you to these things and opens your eyes to these things. So look forward to seeing it go from strength to strength, Scott.

Scott Brown (28:18)  
So, touch wood, but yeah, I'm glad the move to Rio Tinto has been great for the first half year and excited to see how that that function develops as well. But thanks for sharing your your lessons with me, Chris. And thank you for listening to Lessons I Learned in Law. To hear some other fantastic lessons from guests we've had on from this series and series before, head over to heriotbrown.com/podcasts. I've been Scott Brown, thanks for listening.