At Crafty Counsel, we regularly focus on getting to know more about a member of our in-house legal community. This week we speak to Polly Russell-Stower, Group General Counsel at Ultimate Finance Group, a lending business backed by the Tavistock Group.
Polly is a Crafty Locals Ambassador, where we support our in-house community to meet in their local areas under the banner of Crafty Counsel. She leads the Bristol chapter and says that there is a thriving in-house community in her city, beyond the London-centric bubble. Polly shares that they’ve their second meet-up planned, and looks forward to bringing more members together in future network events, set to include general catch-ups as well as issues-based agendas.
From graduate scheme to General Counsel
Polly says she took the traditional path into the legal sector, studying law at university and combining her studies with a job at a supermarket chain. At the end of her law degree, she let her ethos flow: “I’m very nosy about businesses and how businesses work”.
Polly got involved with the graduate scheme at the supermarket and was given an opportunity to visit the head office, where she had her first contact with an in-house team. In a theme which she believes is synonymous with the in-house community, they were generous with their time, patiently answering the questions of a law student who clearly had no idea about how being in-house worked.
While she considered continuing the graduate scheme route, and giving up on being a lawyer completely, she says she was “still dithering” with the law, so she took on a role as a paralegal in corporate M&A at Ashfords
Within eighteen months, the firm offered her a training contract and sponsored her to do her LPC. Like many Crafty Counsel members, she started her training contract during the 2008 financial crisis, which she says was an interesting and uncertain time: “The firm wasn’t really sure they should be taking on all the trainees they’ve recruited. And obviously, there was a significant drop off in work with some departments”.
But Polly persevered and qualified in commercial litigation, specialising in financial services litigation and professional negligence. She also dabbled in the work of sports, working in the equestrian space.
During a one-year secondment at Lloyds Banking Group, she realised that she probably wasn’t “that motivated by the partnership track”, saying that the in-house world better fitted her need to understand how businesses work while still doing an area of law that she really enjoyed.
“It was such a great experience and whilst it enhanced my skillset as a lawyer, I was also taught about the commercial reality of lending money. This was an invaluable insight and ultimately leads to becoming a better business partner. You understand the lens the business is looking through when trying to overcome a problem and this helps design something that has a better outcome.”
Eventually, Polly took her first in-house role at Ultimate and has been there for seven years. She said she joined at a time when the business was going through a lot of change, and while they knew they needed an in-house lawyer, they didn’t know exactly what they needed from her.
Polly spotted the opportunity and ran with it: “I hugely capitalised on that: I started showing them exactly what a legal function can contribute to the whole business, whether that’s the day-to-day lending that we do or in looking after the business, managing its people and its risks more widely”.
Favourite part of your current role?
Polly says her favourite part of her role is the variety of advice she has to give every day, and how that is intimately connected with a good understanding of the business.
“I love being able to get under the hood of how things work, and why they work that way.”
She notes that while some people who experience in-house work can’t cope with not knowing quite what will be coming around the corner, she really enjoyed the variety. “That said, constant topic and context swapping can be exhausting and you need to be disciplined about maintaining your resilience to that which largely involves stepping away from the day job and looking into things that can help re-energise you.”
She adds that she enjoys being able to get “hands-on” with different aspects of the business and offering routes for improvement, as well as giving legal advice.
Biggest wins while being in-house?
Polly says building her team of seven throughout the years and getting feedback from the business about how they enjoy working with the team and have contributed to its growth is one of her biggest wins.
A recent example was when Ultimate implemented its legal workflow management solution. Getting feedback from the business that sounds like “wow, we didn’t even think that legal could do something like this” or “we never thought you could interact with legal in that way”, means she is changing people’s perceptions of what a legal team can be.
She says that the experience springboarded her team to get involved with more tech projects. They were responsible for implementing e-signing across the Ultimate Group, and are currently working on automating the business’ customer legal documents. She says this had a “huge impact” in improving the business’ customer journey, while also giving some in her team the ability to expand on a niche specialism.
Biggest challenge in the in-house journey?
After the challenge of qualifying as a lawyer, she says that, as a General Counsel, it can be hard to keep morale in a team that is tightly connected to the business through periods of change.
For example, closing down one of the brands a few years ago led to a lot of colleague departures. “You’re just so conscious when you’re designing a legal process to do that, of the impact that you’re having on people’s personal lives. It has to be done, but it’s a really hard process to do knowing that you’re going to cause people pain”.
Among Polly’s tips for keeping up morale is communication: she says she holds regular “huddle ups”, where she doesn’t expect the team to talk about work: “it’s just about showing up”. She encourages her team to open up about out-of-work worries, or even what is going on during the weekend.
“I think [it’s important] to make sure everybody feels connected and that they’re not on their own, particularly with hybrid working. It is easier for people to feel less connected to their team and from the business, but when they’re there, they know that they’ve got a team around them who are there to support them and back them,” Polly says.
A special hobby?
Polly’s a keen equestrian, but besides that she says she is also really passionate about ethics in the in-house community and has recently signed up to be a volunteer at the Schools Consent Project, a charity which offers workshops and talks to schools about sexual consent.
She says it’s a very important topic to be talking to young people about, particularly because they face a variety of challenges compared to previous generations, from social media. She says it’s important for them to be empowered to normalise conversations about consent in order to protect themselves and others, and to help them make informed and sensible decisions.
“It’s terrifying, the thought of being in front of about 30 teenagers. But I strongly believe if it excites you and terrifies you, it’s probably the right thing to do,” Polly added.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
“Always stay curious and never be afraid of trying something different,” says Polly, especially when it comes to the qualifying period of a young lawyer’s career.
She says that the private practice ladder is not the only career path for them and that all of the transferable skills that juniors get taught are valuable regardless of the path they take.
“Careers are, to coin a phrase, a jungle gym. You can go off in any direction and you shouldn’t be afraid to do that. Grab the opportunities that interest you and don’t hold back”.