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The many hats interview— our man in the Sudan, Andrew Sharpe.
Andrew Sharpe is Legal Counsel for Orange Business Services. This interview was originally published on the Lexis Comet (Commercial, Enterprise and Technology) blog.
Andrew is an all-round action man (and accomplished twitterer: @TMT_Lawyer) who regularly avoids civil unrest in the Sudan — well, ‘regularly’ might be pushing it. ‘Once’ might be more correct. Still, it’s a cracking interview from a talented lawyer…
Who are you?
Andrew Sharpe – after a short career as an RAF engineering officer, I qualified as a solicitor in 1999. As a trainee I had already specialized in IT and telecoms law, a field in which I continue to practice. After a short stint at Clifford Chance, followed by Blake Lapthorn (on the south coast) and almost 10 years at Charles Russell (the last 4 as a partner), I went in house. I am currently Legal Counsel for Orange Business Services, being their commercial lawyer for their operations in the Middle East.
You and the day job
How did you end up being a commercial lawyer?
During my LLB course I aimed to be a claimant employment lawyer, but it soon became clear that with my electronic engineering background, IT and telecoms were a natural fit. Litigation never appealed to me, but applying the law in a real world environment was what I wanted to do. I had been a maintenance engineer in the RAF, so in many ways being a commercial lawyer is similar – instead of developing and managing the maintenance of IT and communications systems to enable colleagues to achieve their operational goals more efficiently and effectively, I now act as an adviser on law, with the similar intention of helping clients understand or use the law to get to where they want to be.
What type of projects are you working on at the moment?
As you’d expect from an in-house lawyer, a wide variety of matters. I am involved in a number of bid teams for some large government projects – confidentiality prevents me saying more. There are also new customer contracts and renewals – Orange is particularly active in providing cloud-based solutions, smart cities/metering projects and innovative healthcare systems.
In addition, I have the usual spread of real property, employment and corporate matters to attend to. I’m also one of Orange’s lawyers that prepares internal precedents for use throughout the Orange group.
Describe a memorable moment of your career. (You can interpret ‘memorable’ in whichever way you wish!)
I was on a secondment to the UN (ITU) as a senior special adviser in July 2005, working on a project with a junior adviser for the Sudanese national regulatory authority in Khartoum, Sudan. On about the third day a riotous demonstration broke out a street away from the building. Rather like when a playground fight starts, everyone in the office rushed to the top floor meeting room, which had a panoramic view of the area.
However, we then heard strange crack sounds and rattles approaching from the centre of Khartoum. As an ex-Forces person, I knew immediately the this was the sound of rifles and machine gun fire. That was the start of a most surreal few days. For the rest of my time there, until international flights resumed to Khartoum, my colleague and I, in almost caricature “stiff upper lip” English manner, continued to fulfil our UN mandate and work whilst Khartoum descended into first chaos then martial law. We were given an armed escort to and from our hotel to the regulator’s office and got thoroughly bored outside office hours, being stuck in a simple hotel during an extremely strict curfew. Since that trip I have always carried a pack of cards in my laptop bag (no power required).
The regulator was also concerned about what ‘the English’ would eat, so made us fried chicken and fries (chips) every day!
What makes a lawyer a commercial lawyer?
To me, ‘commercial’ in this context means pragmatic and practical. As a City trained lawyer with Magic Circle experience, I have seen how easily it can be to over-lawyer and complicate legal advice. The dreaded billable hour means this is almost entrenched; there is no incentive to be direct. However, remembering what it was like as a non-lawyer needing legal advice, what clients want is straight answers, albeit hedged with information about the risks. What they don’t need is mini-essays and tutorials in the relevant law, no matter how well crafted. A commercial lawyer provides these answers. This necessarily means understanding the clients’ needs and business, but also being able to recognize and deal efficiently with risks. It also means not being afraid to make a judgment call or decision.
Is there a common problem you come across time and time again as a commercial lawyer?
In my current role as an adviser for the Middle East, I am constantly frustrated by the lack of basic legal materials. Jurisdictions in the Middle East still rely on statutes, regulations and other legal instruments being published in national Official Gazettes. These are universally not available online. There are no precedent databases. Coming from the luxury of annotated legal databases in Lexis Library, with notes in Lexis PSL, this is a shock. Although LexisNexis Middle East is making strides in this area, it is still a young product. The time and expense wasted going to external counsel for very basic advice is painful.
What tips do you have for making legal advice more digestible/commercial for business?
It’s not rocket science – remember what we were all taught on the legal practice course. The advice is not for you; it’s for the client. Cut the jargon and talk or write like a normal, human being. A business client wants a straight answer, give them exactly that. Your research and legal analysis is, in essence, your defence for a PI claim.
What advice would you give to someone entering the commercial law arena?
Commercial law is all about applying the law, not the law itself. Remember that.
Is the profession doing enough to make lawyers truly commercial?
This depends upon what you means by ‘the profession’. In house lawyers have to be commercial. It is what they are for. In private practice, it depends very much on the field of law and culture of the law firm. However, it can be argued that where the billable hour prevails, lawyers who use this as a measure for calculating the charges for their services cannot claim to be commercial.
What could we be doing better to train lawyers working at the sharp end of business and commerce?
In many traditional law courses the lack of lecturers with real practical experience means that simple opportunities are missed to teach lawyers how to advise and apply the law. Many exams and seminars include so-called problem questions, but instead of using these as a means to learn how to advise, they are merely used as platforms to air alternative academic analyses of the relevant problems.
Is there a recent development in commercial law that concerns you?
As I work principally for non-EEA jurisdictions, there are no recent developments that have had any impact on me. I am more concerned with import/export restrictions, customs and foreign ownership barriers to trade, withholding taxes, international arbitration and enforcement of contracts.
What are your views on the increasing recognition of good faith as a concept in commercial contract law?
In international work, there are high legal, cultural and procedural barriers to seeking enforcement of contracts through local courts. Even alternative dispute resolution has its limits, if the enforcement of any binding award is not straight forward. Consequently, many commercial relationships depend upon mutual trust and good faith to work, with formal or informal mediation resolving disputes. With good faith being more readily recognized as being an element of commercial practice by the English courts, it becomes easier to continue to argue for English law to be selected as the governing law in international deals.
Who in commercial law and/or the law generally do you most admire?
There is a lawyer whose career path I share in a very inferior way. I, too, joined the Armed Forces, served overseas, played rugby and on leaving, trained to do law. However, Tasker Watkins was in a different league, earning a VC as a lieutenant in Normandy in 1944 and then, on becoming a barrister, rose to be a Lord Justice of Appeal (and Deputy Lord Chief Justice). He was also notably one of the longest-serving Presidents of the Welsh Rugby Union. Although not Welsh, I can understand why he is labelled by some as ‘The most influential Welshman of the late 20th century.’
On a lighter note
Which hat is your favourite?
Not actually my cricket sun hat, but one just like it. I’m an ECB Level 2 cricket coach, as well as a Hampshire and England fan. If we continue to have summers like this (2013) one, then my hat should get some good use.
What do you do to switch off from the day job?
Other than cricket, I am accused with some justification of being a Twitter addict. I also get dragged into helping my son paint Warhammer figures on a regular basis.
Ed: Thanks for your time today!
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