Alumnus profile: Robert Southgate

LLB Law, 2001

What first attracted you to study at Birmingham?

The University of Birmingham’s history and the Law faculty’s prestige combined with its dynamic offering of both an exciting campus lifestyle and big city living were a major attraction.

There is no getting away from the fact that the University has an impressive history and standing in the UK and therefore was top of my list to get into to study.  Added to this the University has the ability to offer students a campus lifestyle whereby everything you want is in one campus creating a mini-world of its own.  However, if that in itself is not enough you have all the offerings of a big city just down the road to ensure you are able to get everything out of your time at university.

Can you tell us a little about your career progression since graduation?

University for me flew by and before I knew it, I was in my final year doing my exams!  As such, at that stage I was still giving careful thought to what I wanted to do going forward with my life – not an easy decision and certainly not one to rush! However, despite the challenging Law degree I had enjoyed getting to know the law in detail and as such took the next step on the road to becoming a solicitor by signing up to the legal practice course (as it was known then) at the University of Birmingham.

The Legal Practise Course, for me, was a breath of fresh air – it was hands on practical application of the law and it was where I discovered my passion for employment law. Following the course, and given the very tough competition for training contract placements at that time (as I am sure it is still today), I took the decision to take a paralegal and then training contract with a regional firm and build my career from there.  I trained with a firm called Machins based in Luton, Bedfordshire.  As the firm was smaller than big city firms I was thrown in at the deep end and gained great experience in employment, litigation, commercial, family and property law.

After completing my training contract I decided to move to a slightly bigger firm, Tollers, to specialise in end-to-end Employment Law. I was lucky that with my very first employment tribunal claim I was successful for the Claimant I was representing.  A very big confidence boost! After 3 years in Tollers an opening came up at British Telecommunications plc (BT) to join their in-house employment law team.  I hadn’t previously considered working in-house but during my time with Tollers I had enjoyed working closely with the HR teams of my clients and seen the value in getting close to them.  BT’s employment team was big and the matters that they were dealing with were both extensive and complex – an exciting challenge for any level of employment lawyer!  At that time BT employed in the region of 100,000 employees in the UK.  I was successful in my interview with BT and joined an impressive team in 2008.

In the seven years at BT I have been provided with a wealth of opportunities to grow, develop and connect with amazing people. The stand out being given the opportunity with BT to move to Hong Kong and lead on international employment law and litigation across the Asia Pacific region and latterly including middle east and Africa for the last 4 years. 

Today I am about to embark on my next new challenge by joining Intel in Hong Kong to specialise in Employment Law for them across the Asia Pacific region.

What was your route into international work?

At times I would say my route into international work was luck.  However, the truth is that I have always wanted to work and live abroad in order to experience different cultures and understand how the law works outside of the UK. I was able to succeed in this goal through working hard in my role with BT in the UK and pushing myself to be the best I could. This provided me with the opportunity to progress and be noticed by my seniors.  As such, when an opportunity arose in Hong Kong as a result of the head of employment going on maternity leave I was well placed to be considered for this opportunity, which I accepted quickly.

Initially, the trip to Hong Kong was just for one year. However, after the person I was covering decided not to return I was offer the role on a permanent basis.  Again, I believe that being offered this role permanently was down to forging a good relationship with my team in Asia as well as the business to show that I could add value by staying out there.

Can you tell us a little more about your experience of forging a successful career in Hong Kong?

Hong Kong is a dynamic and friendly city and as such living and working here has been a lot easier than I imagined it would be. However, more so than back in the UK, to be successful in my role in Hong Kong and to make working internationally successful, you need to be a good communicator and relationship builder at all levels. Firstly, building a good relationship with both the team I was working with and the wider legal team was crucial. Doing this not only makes your job easier but it also makes it more enjoyable!  For me, it was about treating everyone as an equal.  The team are all professionals / lawyers and as such are all at a level that can work independently and have ideas/good input.  Therefore, working collaboratively was key.

Ensuring you communicate effectively within the business is crucial. Understanding what it is you are being asked, what the business want to hear from you and ensuring that you are providing them with solutions is critical. Added to this speed is key; in Asia the pace is perhaps a little quicker and as such your ability to keep up is important.

Finally, networking!  Hong Kong is a great city for this and makes it easy for newcomers.  There are always new people coming into Hong Kong and as such people are very welcoming.  However, ensuring you get a good group of friends is important to managing your work life balance!

How do you feel your studies have influenced or helped you in your career?

Studying law at the University of Birmingham was tough. As such, it taught me a great deal about working hard and the more you put in the more you get out.  It also helped shape me in being a very analytical person which for a lawyer is good!  

What has been the highlight of your career in Hong Kong so far? What is next for you?

Now is the highlight!  Deciding to leave BT after 7 years was a massive decision but to get a job in another company in Hong Kong is massive.  It shows to me that I have the skills, capabilities and experience to work in Hong Kong and across Asia for any company. The next step is to develop myself at Intel and make a success of my role there.

What did you enjoy most about your time at Birmingham?

Friendships!  Making friends who you will keep for the rest of your life is the best thing about my time at Birmingham and being able to look back at that time with them!  Memories of campus – Old Joe on a sunny day can never be forgotten!

What advice would you give to prospective students in Hong Kong who may be thinking of studying at Birmingham?

Advice – there isn’t anything to think about – just sign up and experience everything the University and the city has to offer!