This interview was first published on 7 June 2021 on The Corporate Counsel.
Keith Schilling, Chairman and Senior Partner at Schillings, shares with Corporate Counsel Advance what outstanding leadership means to him. He also discusses the importance of D&I, how mentoring impacted his career, and what inspired him to set up his own firm.
Few people have done as much as Keith Schilling to create privacy law in the UK. Keith established a right to privacy in England following a landmark ruling by the House of Lords in 2004. The high-profile case – in which supermodel Naomi Campbell won a breach of confidentiality claim against the Daily Mirror – fought to balance press freedom with the right of every individual to a private life. Prior to this there was no privacy law in this country. It’s a right he has focused on from the start of his career – and continues to fight passionately for to this day. As he sees it “If something isn’t right, then do something about it.”
Having left school at 15, Keith trained in media law, and gravitated early on to high-risk high-profile work that others were nervous to touch. Having made partner, he started his own law firm in 1984 aged 28 in Soho, London – memorably taking it in turns with his three partners to clean the office. A true innovator and entrepreneur, he set out to “change the law – not apply the law” when it came to people’s right to privacy.
Below, Keith shares with Corporate Counsel Advance what outstanding leadership means to him.
Corporate Counsel Advance: What does ‘leadership legacy’ mean to you?
Keith Schilling: I believe that Leadership legacy reflects the values of the leaders in a business, but it’s also a representation of the values of the people that work there. It’s closely connected with the culture of the business. We have always seen the business as a meritocracy of ideas. It doesn’t matter who you are. It’s the ideas that count. Part of that legacy is the recognition that we are extremely privileged and have acquired an influence which we should use for the public good.
CCA: What do you hope your legacy will be?
Keith Schilling: Changes to UK privacy laws has been a natural outcome of the work that I do. I realised early on that the law isn’t always fit for purpose. In some cases it’s necessary to do more than just apply it – the law needs to be changed as well.
I’ve always enjoyed challenging the status quo and if you look at what we’ve achieved over the last 37 years a great deal of it has centred on doing things for the first time. Which is why I hope that my legacy will be privacy laws that will work more effectively for the people they are meant to protect.
I’m an entrepreneur at heart, and I’ve created a firm which I hope will stand the test of time. I’m always looking for ways to stay current and to empower and inspire the next generation of lawyers.
CCA: What inspired you to become a lawyer and set up your own firm?
Keith Schilling: I often say that my Mum told me to! But that’s not quite the whole story.
I left school at 15 – it’s worth noting that my teachers and my parents agreed that this was a sound decision! In my family, everyone helped to pay the rent as soon as they could, so I looked for a job. Having been inspired by a TV show I decided the legal sector rather appealed, and I was lucky enough to get a job at Wright Webb Syrett as an ‘outdoor clerk’; or more accurately as a tea boy. This was fortunate as it was there that I met Oscar A. Beuselinck who was then head of the firm.
I learnt a great deal from Oscar (who, coincidentally, started his career as a tea boy) and ended up doing my five years of training there. I was so lucky to have him as a mentor – and the rest is history.
Being a litigator isn’t as glamorous as you might think, but if you’re hard working, don’t fold under pressure and can think creatively on the hoof, then you really can’t beat it!
CCA: How has mentorship impacted you personally?
Keith Schilling: Oscar A. Beuselinck has been the most influential person in my professional life to date; I learned so much from him.
He would largely ignore what you were telling him and be getting on with something else. But if your voice dropped, he would sense defensiveness and interrogate you. I imagine he learnt this useful tool in the Intelligence Corps in the Second World War.
CCA: What role does mentorship play in the culture of Schillings?
Keith Schilling: Mentorship is a huge part of the way we work at Schillings, both formally and informally. We have a mentorship programme which we set up to provide a framework for the kind of relationships that provide opportunities for personal and professional growth.
Of course, much of this happens organically, and we are clear that mentorships are a way to share wisdom in what can be a mutually beneficial relationship for both parties.
We also encourage colleagues to support causes that matter to them. For example, Victoria Anderson, one of our Associates, is CEO of social mobility charity BVL (formerly Big Voice London) and we recently partnered with them to create a virtual work experience programme at Schillings. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are often not able to access work experience opportunities – making it even less likely that they’ll consider careers in competitive industries. On top of this, restrictions over the last year have made in-person work experience for young people impossible – and we felt strongly we wanted to address this. Offering work experience virtually also enables us to give opportunities to people in different parts of the country – which is a real positive.
CCA: What does it mean for you to have a commitment to diversity, equality and inclusion?
Keith Schilling: For me it means creating a workforce which includes a diversity of skills, experiences and perspectives – and represents the society we live in. This is not only good for our clients and people, it’s the right thing to do.
As I said earlier, I did not have what you might call a traditional route into law. I was lucky – it was a time when it was possible to secure a position in a firm and learn on the job. But I was 15 today and had just left school, it’s unlikely I would get the same break.
Sadly, the opportunities for social mobility appear to have reduced rather than expanded over the last couple of decades. If the law is to be a truly diverse, equal and inclusive space, we must change things and provide many more opportunities to people who may be starting from a disadvantage rather than a place of privilege.
I – and my colleagues – are committed to creating a workforce which includes a diversity of skills, experiences, perspectives and backgrounds. We work hard to make Schillings a great place to work where everyone feels welcomed and empowered to bring their whole selves to work. It is a work in progress, and we know we have more to do and we also need to go beyond this.
To create a diverse workforce for the future, we need to tackle the issue at source – we need to help young people from diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds to think of working at firms like ours as a realistic career choice, and remove the barriers to entry that have developed since I was a teenager.
Businesses need to keep evolving to better serve society, and the diversity and inclusivity agenda will ensure this happens. As the elders of the profession it is our responsibility to ignite a passion for the topic in a young person who would never have dreamed of a career in law or professional services. It isn’t just about helping them get an interview or work experience, for some it can be as fundamental as helping them buy a suit, a train ticket and paying for somewhere to sleep so they travel to London. There’s a huge amount to do to manifest systemic change. I mentioned earlier the work we have been doing with BVL which does fantastic work creating opportunities for young people – but we need to do more, and we will. We are investing to create a programme of meaningful change, as well as creating opportunities at Schillings. It’s a topic very close to my heart.
CCA: What makes Schillings unique?
Keith Schilling: At the obvious end of things, we are unique by virtue of the fact that we are the only business in the world to deploy – under one roof – media experts, data protection lawyers, litigators, experts from military intelligence, former investigative journalists, international investigators, cybersecurity specialists, digital forensic experts and senior people from the military and police.
More than that though, it’s about our values. We believe that no-one should have false information published about them or be ridiculed because of misuse of their private information and we are passionate about restoring the rights of the individual.
We advocate for our clients, always thinking ahead to try and spot issues before they turn into a crisis. With nearly four decades of successfully carrying out this work, we really do know what we’re talking about!
We know that who we are today will build the Schillings of tomorrow, so we strive to work in a way that will support and nurture our workforce in a diverse and inclusive environment. Over a year ago we put our ‘mindful business charter’ into practice, which has been received really well.
What does outstanding leadership look like to you?
We are asking members of the legal industry to nominate leaders who not only inspire them, but will leave a lasting impact on their organisation or the legal sector as a whole.
Nominate a member of the in-house community who showcases outstanding leadership, continuously strives to make a difference, and has created a legacy that inspires others through initiatives that have shifted things and made your company or community a better place.
Who are you going to nominate?
This interview was first published on 7 June 2021 on The Corporate Counsel.