In conversation with: Hugo Martin, Evri

The pressures of being a GC can sometimes feel like being stuck “between a rock and a hard place,” so the relationship between an in-house team and the law firms they work with needs to be something pretty special. In this interview we find out why treating your external legal providers as part of the team is not just helpful, but vital, the importance of cultural alignment, and why sitting on the fence is never an acceptable position.

Hugo spent the first 2 years after qualifying in the Corporate team at Schofield Sweeney Solicitors, but soon felt that the purely transactional work wasn’t for him. With a desire to get closer to the businesses he worked for and be able to see what happened after the transactions, Hugo moved in-house with a role at Capita Customer Management. In 2012, he joined Evri as their first Legal Counsel and is now Director of Legal & Public Affairs. He has since built what he describes as ‘a decent sized in-house team’ for the large, but still entrepreneurial, delivery company. We asked Hugo to talk to us about his relationships with external law firms and how he creates partnerships that add value.

Hugo Martin, Director of Legal & Public Affairs, from Evri in conversation with Andrew Rayment, Partner, Walker Morris
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Hugo Martin Evri

Hi Hugo, it’s great to speak to you today. Let’s start by asking how you approach fostering a partnership with law firms?

I expect the law firms I work with to take the time to understand the business as much as possible. We’ve been pretty loyal over the years, but we need firms that understand what’s important to us, how our business model works and the intricacies of what we do. We started using Walker Morris because our parent company used them and that means they have a really strong understanding of the important parts of our business. There are plenty of good firms in the area, and who we use does depend on the kind of work we need support with. To be considered by us, firms need to have either really specific specialist knowledge, or a thorough day-to-day understanding of our business. If we like the work a law firm provides, we’ll make sure they have the opportunity to get to know us and we’ll keep going back to them.

How do you ensure open and effective communication beyond the immediate legal matters?

To be honest, we do a lot of the work ourselves, but when we work with an outside firm, it comes down to them taking the time to get to know us, what we do and what we need. We usually get in contact with one off bespoke projects, when there’s a knowledge gap within our own team, or we simply don’t have the resource to complete a task. It’s been a tough few years for the business and we’ve doubled in size, which has meant that we’ve sometimes needed lawyers to become a virtual part of our team. Almost like a secondment, we’ve set up a SharePoint site, proper instruction processes and even introduced them to key stakeholders. In some cases, when we’ve started up a new venture from scratch, we’ve had a lawyer join us for a fixed period of time – working solely with us. This can be a really effective way to fulfil a need, but it works well because we treat them as part of the team. They have the same access to the business as in-house members of the team and communication grows organically from there.

How do you ensure that law firms understand your organisation’s industry, culture, and objectives?

We try and make sure that law firms understand that working in-house requires a different mindset to private practice, and the requirements of the job itself are very different: we’re expected to give opinions and take a view on how to achieve the desired outcome based on the wider commercial context. It’s a bit of a mindset switch and you do have to be more assertive. The way we work with these firms and the proximity they have to us; means they have the access they need to develop a deep understanding of what we do and the kind of decisions we’re likely to take.

Can you tell us about any challenges you’ve faced when trying to establish deeper relationships with law firms, and how you’ve addressed them?

Clarity of communication is essential, especially on the big, complex and often very niche work that we do. When you’re communicating with lots of people, managing that comms flow can be both frustrating and repetitive, so we’re always really pleased when firms take a structured approach to communicating complex issues and it’s something we will feedback on. But often what holds back these relationships is that we’re looking for firms to give us an informed opinion (not just the legal answer): we’d like them to get off the fence and provide advice that takes into account the wider business landscape and our objectives as a business.

How do you encourage law firms to invest in the relationship and proactively offer insights and opportunities for collaboration?

Usually, there’s some history to the relationship, so I just expect them to put some effort in and understand the crux of the business. You need that personal connection between the lawyers and of course not every firm is aligned culturally. We get frustrated if a firm is too risk averse – we’re a fast moving, entrepreneurial business and we’re always looking for clear recommendations. We value honesty and transparency in the advice that comes from the firms we use, and we make it clear when we’re happy with how things are going. We’re also equally clear when we’re not happy.

As the business landscape evolves, how do you anticipate the nature of relationships between in-house legal teams and law firms changing?

Realistically, I think we’re on a precipice. There’s big change ahead, not least with AI and the way that it’s being used in the legal industry. For in-house teams, it will likely give us the ability to do more ourselves, (for example using Chat GPT for research purposes), and as the scope for work we can do in-house increases, so the need for law firms changes and we’re anticipating a shift towards more specialist requirements, including facilitating the use of technology. Ultimately, the impact of AI is that the bar will automatically be set higher.

What role does ongoing feedback and evaluation play? And how do you balance building strong relationships while maintaining an objective approach to evaluating performance?

In my view, this is something for the firm to organise, although if an issue does occur, or we’re underwhelmed by their performance, we’ll let them know. Previously we’ve used a (national) firm that just didn’t make much effort in the relationship after a while and then totally dropped the ball on a couple of things. You’ve got to have a level of trust and it just wasn’t there in that instance. As a GC if I’m talking to a partner about something that can be quite sensitive, it’s got to be treated in confidence and with real understanding of the difficulties that a GC often faces in their role. It can be risky, and you need someone who has an appreciation of the fact that sometimes it can feel as though you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.

What advice would you give to other in-house legal professionals who want to cultivate meaningful relationships with their external legal providers?

Ultimately, it’s about cultural fit – between you and the firm. I look for the ability to give practical advice and recommendations, alongside a real understanding of the pressures in-house teams can be facing. What we do is different to private practice, and over the last decade we’ve used commercial lawyers very sparingly, so when we do use them, it needs to be worth it.

“Ultimately, it’s about cultural fit – between you and the firm. I look for the ability to give practical advice and recommendations, alongside a real understanding of the pressures in-house teams can be facing.”

Hugo Martin, Director of Legal & Public Affairs, Evri
Hugo Martin, Director of Legal & Public Affairs, from Evri in conversation with Andrew Rayment , Partner, Walker Morris