Within Barings bank’s 247-year history are a number of landmark events. In 1803, the bank issued bonds to finance the Louisiana Purchase, the acquisition by the US of all or part of 14 current US states and two Canadian provinces. Such was the bank’s success in the early 1800s that, in 1818, the Duc de Richelieu, the first minister of France, hailed Barings as ‘the sixth great power in the world’ after Britain, France, Russia, Prussia and Austria. Barings went on to float Arthur Guinness’s beer company in 1886 and was appointed financial adviser to London’s Underground Electric Railways Company in 1926.
These milestones unfortunately do not overshadow Nick Leeson’s contribution to the bank’s history in 1995, but everyone knows that story (or, at least, the film version). In 1995, Dutch bank ING bought Barings for £1 and in 2005, split Baring Asset Management (BAM) in two, selling the investment management chunk to US mutual life insurer MassMutual and subsuming the other half into ING. Thus, BAM, under the MassMutual banner, is the sole survivor of the centuries-old banking superpower. But it is a survivor with £27.8bn of assets under management (as at 31 October 2009) – no small fry.
Today its London headquarters are not far from the Cheapside office set up by Sir Francis Baring on Christmas Day in 1762. At 155 Bishopsgate in the City of London, Barings’ HQ squares up in front of Royal Bank of Scotland HQ, which is at present suffering a few headaches of its own.
Upon exiting the lift at the 12th floor, I am confronted with a silver plaque engraved with the old Barings logo. Winter sunlight is streaming through the windows of a large atrium facing east London, illuminating cream carpets and red marble. There is an air of stiff-upper-lipped Englishness about the place. The Barings branding extends to the gold-embossed leather-bound notepads in the meeting rooms.
Sandie Okoro, global general counsel at Barings, enters the room alone, lacking the usual entourage of press officers and advisers that more often than not accompany corporate GCs in interviews. She declines to reveal her age, but she does let slip that she’s a ‘child of the sixties’.
With the proviso that she has only been at Barings since 2007 – and has not therefore experienced the rollercoaster that some other staff have – she agrees that there is something about the place. ‘There is a very distinct BAM culture and real sense of history,’ she says. One of the original deeds from the Louisiana Purchase hangs in her office.
Born in Fulham, west London, Okoro’s father was a teacher, her mother a nurse. Her father came to England from Nigeria on a scholarship, while her mother arrived from Trinidad. Okoro grew up in Balham, south-west London, and by the age of nine she knew she wanted to be a lawyer. ‘I watched Crown Court on television,’ she says, referring to the ITV courtroom drama that ran from 1972 to 1984 and starred John Barron – ‘CJ’ of Reggie Perrin fame. ‘I used to go home from school for lunch to watch it. I wanted to be one of the judges.’
An early test of her willpower by a primary school teacher seemed to do nothing to dent her confidence in pursuing a judicial career, although she describes being ‘mortified’ by the experience at the time. ‘She went around the class asking everyone what they wanted to be. We had footballers, we had princesses, even air hostesses, and I said I wanted to be a judge. She said to me, "Sandie, little black girls from Balham don’t become judges." I thought, "what does she know, she isn’t a judge. She’s a teacher – she could be wrong." I was never one of those kids who thought that what the teacher said was right. It would have been different if a judge had said that to me, or someone in the law, but I didn’t really believe her.
‘Comments like that have actually been few and far between in my legal career. But that was the only time somebody told me I couldn’t do it. It was in a different era really – you didn’t have that many women role models doing things, even on television – apart from in Crown Court, where you had the women barristers.’
With confidence most definitely intact and career path set (thanks in part to ITV), Okoro went to Putney High School, an all-girls private school. She gained nine O-levels before taking A-levels in English, history and religious studies. ‘History has always been my passion,’ she says, and expresses regret at not having done a history degree – although one of her retirement plans is to return to the books and do so. Instead, she spent three years reading law and politics at the University of Birmingham. ‘Growing up in the 1970s and early-80s, there was a lot of political activity in the country,’ she says. ‘People were much more aware of what was going on.’
Perhaps the defining event of the era was the miners’ strike of 1984-85 – and, during the summer of her first year at university, Okoro found herself caught up in it. During a work experience placement at the National Council for Civil Liberties – now Liberty – her job was to sift through letters from striking miners. ‘That was when I started to really see how the rule of law worked,’ she says.
After graduating in 1986, Okoro went straight to the Inns of Court bar school and became a member of Lincoln’s Inn. ‘Being a solicitor wasn’t attractive to me,’ she says. ‘I wanted to stand up in court and argue.’ She recounts a memory from her call ceremony where, according to tradition, benchers would toast new barristers with a glass of sherry in the old library. Okoro found herself sandwiched between Lord Denning and Mr Justice Caulfield, who, during Jeffrey Archer’s 1987 libel trial against the Daily Star, famously said of Archer’s wife Mary: "Has she elegance? Has she fragrance? Would she have, without the strain of this trial, radiance?"
Okoro’s awe was reserved for Denning, however. ‘I was probably shaking my sherry glass,’ she says, laughing. ‘I don’t think I said a word.’
Despite winning two ‘really good’ pupillages, she took neither. ‘I just didn’t turn up,’ she says. ‘I don’t know why – maybe nerves, thinking I couldn’t do it – plus you didn’t get paid and I had a bit of student debt. But it’s something I really regret.’ This was perhaps the end of her path towards a judicial career, although she admits there is a slim possibility that she might one day don the robes and wig. ‘Being an in-house lawyer, you’re slightly removed from the academic environment. You’re a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. It’s something I haven’t given up on, but it’s not something I have necessarily pegged as a marker on the horizon.’
Instead of following the course inspired by Crown Court, she accepted a training contract from accountants Coopers & Lybrand (predecessor firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers) – but lasted just a year. She then went to Stoneham Langton & Passmore, a ‘very small niche high-net-worth law firm in Mayfair’ for two years, re-qualifying as a solicitor.
Then, aged 25, she left to head up her own trusts team at Schroders. ‘It was a huge merchant bank, but I didn’t even know what merchant banks did,’ she says, ‘so it was quite daunting. But it was good to walk into management early on. You learn on the job and by your mistakes. I realised that you can learn quite quickly, and you shouldn’t be daunted by things that are daunting. You just have to roll your sleeves up and get on with it. There was going to be very little that would daunt me after that.’ She later moved to the institutional side of Schroders, working in the bank’s asset management arm.
In all, she spent 18 years at Schroders, rising to become head of legal for corporate services before leaving in April 2007 for the global general counsel role at BAM. She says she moved because there are ‘very few GC roles in asset management that are global and are based in London’.
Okoro reports directly to chief operating officer John Misselbrook and has a ‘dotted line’ to Mark Roellig, general counsel at MassMutual. She sits in on all board, management and executive meetings and sits with BAM risk and compliance teams. She describes her in-house legal work as a ‘mixed bag’, covering asset management issues, corporate issues and general commercial advice. She presides over a small team of four lawyers, with two based in London, one in Boston and one in Hong Kong.
Okoro says she is ‘very efficient’ when it comes to instructing external lawyers, although she declines to say how much she spends. Her current ‘go-to’ firms are national firm Eversheds for UK mutual funds work, City firm Berwin Leighton Paisner for general commercial work and City firm Speechly Bircham for employment law work. She has also called on City firm Denton Wilde Sapte of late, and instructs Dillon Eustace for Irish law matters and Deacons for Australian work. In addition, Blackstone Chambers are occasionally called on to help ‘deliver the academics behind the thought process’. She says she intends to review her panel some time around May 2010.
‘The most important thing is having a good working relationship,’ she says. ‘It’s not about under-delivering or over-delivering – it’s about getting it just right. And because I have such a small team, I need my firms to have the ability to work with people in a business who are not lawyers, and deliver to them in a non-lawyerly, practical way.
‘Firms should know when to come back to me if there are issues that people in my business aren’t identifying. It’s their role to make sure I’m in the loop. With so few [in-house] lawyers, I can’t be on top of everything. I love firms that can bring in market intelligence – firms that are proactive. I don’t have the time to knock on their door and say, "what are you seeing?". I like it when they approach me and say, "we haven’t spoken for a while. Let’s have lunch".
‘I always ask for a quote, and I expect it to be realistic and what I actually have to pay. If they spot something else I might need, they should tell me I might need it. If they don’t, I’m not happy. You wouldn’t accept it if you had a quote from a builder to do an extension to your house, and he adds on an extra £10,000 for hiring a JCB.
‘My pet hate is getting a two or three-page answer when all you wanted was a paragraph. You don’t need the background of the law. And I absolutely detest being billed for lawyers talking to each other. Why am I paying for your learning curve? American law firms are the worst at that.’
Outside work, Okoro is involved with the Black Lawyers Directory, mentoring students and giving talks. ‘There are a lot of aspiring, very talented young black law students who find it very hard to crack in to the City law firms,’ she says. ‘What is really hard is getting in. Once you’re in you’re on your own, and it’s up to you to shine.’ She is also a director of International Lawyers for Africa, which provides scholarships for African lawyers to work in top law firms, and a director of pro bono charity LawWorks, working with chief executive Rebecca Hilsenrath, with whom she went to school in Putney.
Okoro is also a school governor at her daughter’s girls’ school. ‘It’s very important for young girls to see women lawyers with families,’ she says. ‘There’s a myth among young girls that you sacrifice your career if you go into the law.’
Crown Court failed to inspire Okoro all the way to the bench, but as a role model Okoro seems to be doing her best to inspire the next generation with their legal careers.