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A custom-made career: Hyder Consulting general counsel Stephen Uhr (1)

A custom-made career: Hyder Consulting general counsel Stephen Uhr (1)

Stephen Uhr, general counsel at Hyder Consulting Nine years ago, Hyder Consulting general coun

Stephen Uhr, general counsel at Hyder Consulting
Nine years ago, Hyder Consulting general counsel Stephen Uhr walked out of an interview for a coveted position at a top London law firm, and he hasn't looked back since. He speaks to Zoe Lyon.

Stephen Uhr's professional "moment of truth" came in 2000 while he was being interviewed for a position in a large London law firm. He'd previously spent three years learning the ropes from Mark Carkeet at Minter Ellison in Brisbane before relocating to London with no plan to move in-house.

However, during the interview - with three of the firm's partners - the penny dropped.

"I asked what sort of hours to expect and they said: 'We're busy like most law firms, so you might have to work the odd weekend and some nights we stay until the work's done'.

All the signs that point to 12 to 14-hour days and working every weekend. So, at that point in the interview I said: 'Thank you for the interview, it's been really nice to meet you, but I just don't think this is for me'," he explains.

Instead, Uhr took up his first inhouse role at an IT recruitment consultancy, later moving to Credit Suisse First Boston, and then to motoring company RAC plc, where he took on a greenfield legal role for a new division.

It was through this role that he felt he really developed the essential skills of an in-house lawyer. "They'd never had legal support before, so I was in the car, up and down the length of the UK, trying to convince truck salesmen that I could add value to their business," he laughs.

In 2004, Uhr married Caroline Grant and returned to Australia, where he took up his current role as general counsel of engineering consultancy Hyder Consulting. He's also since taken up various other roles, including a directorship of the Australian Corporate Lawyers Association and chair of the contract and risk roundtable at the Association of Consulting Engineers in Australia.

The role at Hyder appealed, he says, because as with RAC, it was a brand new position that he felt he could make his own. "I started out quite junior, and the role has been quite flexible - it's really grown with me - and these days I sit with the executive board, I'm the director of the subsidiary companies, and I chair the bidding process for bids over $1 million."

Hyder's business strategy, Uhr explains, is to build strong, long-term relationships with a few select clients, and a large part of his role (working closely with 2IC Bree Davies) involves managing client relationships.

"So, in terms of the front-end work, it's about getting in there and making sure we can agree on the terms for some really big projects, while at the back end - when problems hit - it's making sure we can resolve them in a way that makes it possible for us to continue working with the client in the future."

He says that one of challenges of working in-house has been learning how to take a commercial approach to risk management. "As a lawyer, you're trained to identify and avoid risk. But understanding when to take risk and when to allow the business to take risk is all-important from a commercial perspective; it's a big challenge - a continual challenge," he says.

Another challenge which he says is also a highlight of the role has been developing the broader commercial and strategic skills that have become necessary as his role has expanded beyond the legal side.

"For example, the work I do on bidding takes in many considerations besides the legal - I'm weighing questions of whether bidding will put us in a good place within the market; 'Will we end up with a good partner?' and 'Are you going to be able to make money out of it?'," he says. "I think lawyers are pretty good problem solvers at heart and I really like being able to apply that rigour of problem solving to situations which aren't just legal advice."

A top priority for Uhr is spending time with 22-month-old daughter Lucinda, and he's enjoying the work/life balance that his role offers. "I can work a nine-day fortnight if I choose and I can go and collect her from childcare at four o'clock," he says. "So I put my hours in, but when I do them is up to me."

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