The many hats interview: Jonathan Armstrong

Through our series of  'many hats interviews' we show that commercial lawyers can't be pigeon-holed by work-type, but rather it is our aptitude and willingness to pick up anything which crosses our desk which is the common thread defining us.  Today we interview Jonathan Armstrong, a Partner at Cordery a specialist compliance practice. Cordery provides innovative ways of helping General Counsel, Compliance Professionals and Heads of Legal across industries manage compliance.

How did you end up being a commercial lawyer?

I qualified into a fairly general practice and one day the firm landed a big job to do a transaction in the nuclear industry. I went along as an extra pair of hands but for various reasons ended up in a confrontational meeting with the other party’s accountant who started questioning me on the Companies Act.  Thankfully by sheer fluke I remembered not only the answer but the relevant section of the Act.  He backed down and I was hooked.

What type of projects are you working on at the moment?

Cordery does a fairly wide variety of compliance issues. We’re handling a number of internal investigations including supporting another firm on an investigation that they are leading.  We’re handling a wide range of data protection matters and some right to be forgotten cases.  We’re also quite heavily involved in due diligence at the moment particularly in connection with the Russian sanctions regime.

Describe a memorable moment of your career.

I advised a household name media business on part of their strategy. I had a one to one session with one of their very senior executives in their boardroom in New York – a large boardroom with a magnificent view – just him and me and a whiteboard where he kept drawing strange concepts including memorably “this is the corporation as an elephant”.

What makes a lawyer a commercial lawyer?

In part you have to put yourself in your clients’ shoes. You have to spend their money as if it was yours and look at the risks as if you were taking them.

 Is there a common problem you come across time and time again as a commercial lawyer?

Businesses spend money on fire prevention only after they’ve had a fire. In areas like information security this can mean that they spend hundreds of thousands of pounds dealing with problems that two or three hours of specialist training would have resolved.

What tips do you have for making legal advice more digestible/commercial for business?

Our aim with the alerts that we do for clients is always to put the alert if we can on one page and we’re heavy users of bullet points. Sometimes we fail – for example our alert on the EU data protection changes is considerably longer but we always try and write in simple language and cover the issues that really matter to the majority of our clients.

What advice would you give to someone entering the commercial law arena?

Make sure you get good summer jobs! I think most of the really great commercial lawyers I see have had summer jobs or Saturday jobs – my personal observation is that those who have spent some time in a retail environment are often the best at thinking commercially and having good client care skills.

Is the profession doing enough to make lawyers truly commercial?

I think that unfortunately the profession has a number of challenges. With the reduction in access to education and the increased competition for training contracts I think that the intake of the profession is narrowing and this doesn’t help with issues like commerciality.  Of course a lot of this isn’t something that the profession itself can solve but we must play our part.

What could we be doing better to train lawyers working at the sharp end of business and commerce?

I think we need to show junior lawyers the beginning, middle and end of a project. Too often from my experience having worked in big firms junior lawyers are shown part of the problem and asked to help to design part of the solution.  Only by seeing the issue through from beginning to end can you learn what the optimum solution might be.

Is there a recent development in commercial law that concerns you?

I think that the right to be forgotten is something that has not been well thought through. When the statutory right to be forgotten was proposed by the European Commission a number of years ago I was part of a group that spoke out about the unintended consequences – for example the ability of people with a very chequered past to clean up their histories.  I think that the ECJ ruling has caused chaos in some industries and the statutory right to be forgotten proposal still causes me real concern.

Who in commercial law and/or the law generally do you most admire?

I know it sounds something of a cheesy answer but at the moment I’d have to say that I really respect my colleagues who’ve come with us to set up Cordery. We’re trying to do something genuinely different and we’ve had some wonderful support from the clients that have moved with us.  I think that it would have been easy for all of us to stay in the conventional law firm environment but we’re genuinely enthused by setting up something new.

Which hat is your favourite?

Actually I have a great new hat from Canada. I got stranded there a year or so ago – basically the pilot refused to fly because they’d had a huge snowfall and the baggage handlers refused to unload the plane so we were sent back to Toronto without our luggage.  The next morning it was still very cold and I went to and old Canadian outfitters and asked for the warmest hat they had.  It’s warmer than you can imagine but certainly not suitable for work.

What do you do to switch off from the day job?

I think in the compliance world you can’t really predict when the day job begins and ends but I like cooking with my daughters, architecture, walking in Scotland, playing the bongos and I’ve always had the ambition to do dry stone walling so long as I can wear my hat (see above).

Thank you Jonathan!

Do you share a penchant for Canadian winter warmers? Want to showcase your experience as a commercial lawyer?  Please get in touch we'd love to hear from you.

Area of Interest