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Helen Gillies, Corporate counsel of Sinclair Knight Merz

Helen Gillies, Corporate counsel of Sinclair Knight Merz

To say Helen Gillies has a fair bit on her plate is an understatement. Having started out at engineering and project delivery firm Sinclair Knight Merz (SKM) in 1995 as its first corporate…

To say Helen Gillies has a fair bit on her plate is an understatement. Having started out at engineering and project delivery firm Sinclair Knight Merz (SKM) in 1995 as its first corporate counsel, she single-handedly got the firm's legal division up and running.

She's watched as the company has grown from 700 to 7000 staff, in which time her own team has expanded to 16 lawyers globally, and the team now provides advice for the company in multiple languages, for projects spanning multiple jurisdictions. As the company has expanded, she's also taken on additional managerial roles at various times, including director of the main management company, chairman of the risk and compliance committee and member of the governance committee.

Gillies' work is varied, but she points to construction, engineering, intellectual property, employment, safety and corporate law as key areas of focus for her team. In addition, she explains, the firm has set its sights high, and as a result, M&A work has had an increasingly prominent place on the team's workload.

"Over the last 12 years we have completed more than 50 mergers and outsourcings - which have kept the team very busy," she says. "We expect merger work to continue and become more complex as we achieve our vision to become a top 10 design and delivery firm globally."

Like many in-house lawyers, Gillies began her legal career in private practice, where she worked for six years specialising in construction and engineering. However, a desire to get more involved in the practical delivery of projects drew her to seek out an in-house role in the engineering and construction sector.

"In an in-house role you have a stronger ability to deliver outcomes and make a difference on projects that comes from being part of the fabric of the place. I have to say this was not an opportunity I saw in private practice. Working from within lets me get very close to the business. It's more interesting and motivating," she says.

The role at SKM was particularly attractive, she says, because it has enabled her to effectively mould the legal division from scratch. "I was very attracted to the opportunity to be the firm's first corporate counsel - to get in on the ground and shape the way a legal team could add real value to the business."

Though developing a global legal team was no doubt a challenge, Gillies has clearly met it - in 2008 being named ACLA's Corporate Lawyer of the Year.

She puts her success down to looking outside the law and thinking commercially. "Each team member has input into our risk profile on key projects and provides more than just legal advice to our project managers," she explains. "For us it's all about bringing a commercial approach and being a trusted adviser."

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Helen Gillies, Corporate counsel of Sinclair Knight Merz
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