My career story: “I went from high-school dropout to head of legal”
Mark Parry is the executive vice president and general counsel for Europe for business tech behemoth Sage. He was previously the legal and commercial director at Serco and moved in-house from a solicitor role at Ward Hadaway.
How did you get into law?
I dropped out of A levels because my now-wife got pregnant. I went to work in the offshore industry – it was a very rude awakening when I was just turning 18. I went back to college and night school and studied to become a lawyer.
How did you benefit from having a non-traditional path to the law?
I think it was more the people aspect. I worked spray-painting so there wasn’t a great intellectual element! I also went to work at Nissan on the production line for a while.
They were commercial environments but it was just a good grounding, you see how hard people have to work and you get to deal with a lot of people that are from different walks of life.
What is the best piece of advice anyone has given you in your career?
[When I went back to studying] I bumped into a careers teacher who told me, “Don’t bother trying, you won’t get on the law course”. I wanted to prove him wrong.
Why did you decide to work in-house and why did you decide to work for Sage?
When I was at Ward Hadaway I was seconded into Sage, I used to do a lot of work for the company. It was a small legal team, and culturally working within Sage was very interesting. There were 1,200 employees in Newcastle, and at the time it gave me a good personable feeling, that was a very comfortable and nice environment. The team worked very hard, and you got caught up in the business.
I really enjoyed my time on secondment and that actually whet my appetite to think about in-house. Until that point I saw my legal career as growing to partner and staying in private practice. I loved the business aspect, I really love being in a business and supporting huge ambition and seeing the fruits of your labour in that context.
I then got headhunted for Serco, I got asked to talk to them. At the time when I spoke to them I didn’t have a lot of ambition to go to Serco, but their FD sold the business to me. There is real energy in the development teams and are delivering solutions to businesses.
Then my predecessor asked me if I was interested in coming in and supporting her in a right hand man capacity. I moved over to the payments business and looked after legal and compliance. Then my predecessor left to move the payments business back into the fold and I moved into the European role.
How do you think you’ve grown as a lawyer since you started your career?
That it’s important to be yourself. In my early days at Sage I tried to be a good corporate lawyer that was personable. I don’t know why, I thought they wanted to see formal lawyers. I like to think that I’m me most of the time now – or in fact all of the time – and that they [the team] see me as being authentic and that has allowed me to build really good relationships within the leadership team.
I think invariably you learn along the way I had leadership experience, but it was very different. I have grown as a leader and an individual. I think my team has seen that growth and seen me as a good leader.
How did you make your mark on Sage’s in-house capabilities?
It was interesting to grow a team because the potential was there. The team had already embedded itself within the business. Our colleagues already looked at our legal function as an enabler. We were making acquisitions. We served everyone from startups to PLCs with business solutions. There was real opportunity to come in there and make a difference early on.
You start to identify areas of opportunity and build on those areas, and that generates more work and more engagement.
You become truly embedded and you bring lawyers in at a more junior level and you help them develop. As those people progress they identify areas where they can grow and this keeps going.
When I joined there wasn’t a natural career progression – we had to do that because we wanted to give that to the people joining.
What do you look for when you want to hire lawyers for your in-house team?
In terms of legal skills if you have someone who tricks all the boxes for IP, commercial or financial services background… the key for me is looking for people who will fly in our environment. We do fantastic work; we do things that no one has done before. We have work coming out of our ears and we always will do. You need to manage workload and build solid relationships, not just deliver advice from an ivory tower and then go home.