By Shanika Amarasekara

24 Feb 2016

The legal team at the government-owned British Business Bank has brought together public and private sector expertise to create a new organisation with a challenging mandate – to boost lending to thousands of small and medium-sized businesses. Shanika Amarasekara, general counsel for the bank, shares her team's experience 

As the UK’s first economic development bank, the British Business Bank entered new territories in 2014. Over the past two years, the Bank has had to think while acting, overcome obstacles without relying on lived experience, and marry public and private sector thinking to fulfil its mandate of delivering greater diversity and supply of finance to smaller businesses. 

The British Business Bank operates in a unique regulatory environment, where financial services directives, public sector funding requirements, UK political imperatives and EU state aid rules all converge to weave a complex web. As a result, the legal team has been at the centre of the Bank’s growth since 2014, and we were delighted that our work won the In-House Innovation Award at the 2015 British Legal Awards. The lessons learned from the legal team’s experience provide a great insight into how to operate flexibly, straddle the private and public sector, and meet a pressing demand. 

Teams providing corporate support – such as legal teams – must be part of the sinews of the operation and never held at arm’s length. Advice and support will never be adequate if it’s not tailored to the needs and tastes of the business. Therefore, involving key departments in every major knowledge transfer is paramount – for example ensuring the legal team is represented at board meetings. This will break down silos and empower collaborative working and information sharing.

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Don’t treat any part of your organisation as anything but integral to your future success. From our own experience, when the British Business Bank spun out of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, a seamless transition was only possible because the legal team had been involved in all aspects of the design and set-up of the Bank. It was crucial that the lawyers were involved throughout the process and that we worked collaboratively with lawyers in other teams, such as the BIS legal department and external advisors, to ensure the best outcome within the various legal guidelines.

Variety is an important ingredient for any team’s success. Our team has experience from many different sectors, such as investment banking, high street lenders and the public sector. By intentionally bringing people together from different backgrounds, and giving them a seat at the top table, the potential is there to do something original. Have your team share their knowledge and experience. This will grant a deeper understanding of the issues and opportunities facing your organisation. 

Look outwards and take the time to map your marketplace. The nature of the British Business Bank meant we had to trust the legal team to address a whole gamut of sensitivities to ensure that the bank could operate as a UK financial institution without having to obtain special ‘authorisation’. This was all done despite the Bank’s small size. If you are a start-up or operating with the resources of one, then act like one and inspire unity in your team. Everyone needs to work closely together and speak as one voice within the organisation.  

External conditions change constantly, so be agile about your internal setup. For us, this means flexibility in how we approach staffing issues. Look into using secondees and interim highly qualified staff. Don’t rule out bringing staff from the private sector if you operate in the public sector, and vice versa. Take on those who are looking to expand their horizon rather than develop tunnel vision; search out a team that is willing to change the way they think and how they do things. This is the team that will prepare you for problems you don’t even know exist yet. 

The British Business Bank is helping smaller businesses and delivering value for the UK economy, in part, because the team is encouraged to collaborate and work flexibly to achieve its goals. Isolation will get you nowhere. Adopt and embed a collaborative approach, and act on a modern attitude that values rather than shuns external counsel. In an era when knowledge and data is ubiquitous, make sure you capture and share it. Your bottom line, reputation and customers will thank you for it.

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