The recent discovery of the Endurance, the vessel that sank more than a hundred years ago during Ernest Shackleton’s doomed mission to cross the Antarctic by land, was greeted with congratulations all around the world. But the cheers were especially loud at Ocean Infinity, where Tim Howard is general counsel, because their people, using cutting-edge technology to comb the ocean floor, were part of the team who found the ship.
Ocean Infinity is pioneering the use of robots to capture ocean data and aims eventually to have robotic marine vessels of all sizes carrying out a range of tasks at sea including transport and logistics. The goal is to develop environmentally responsible, safe, as well as technologically advanced, vessels for the benefit of the planet. As the company puts it, using robotic vessels is the best way to safely and sustainably operate at sea. As a disruptor working in a conventionally very conservative industry, Ocean Infinity certainly faces challenges.
The company’s objectives appeal greatly to Tim. Growing up, he was enthralled by stories of recoveries of shipwrecks and by the stories of Robert Ballard’s discovery of the wrecks of the Titanic and the Bismarck. So, when some time in 2019 he was chatting with the CEO of Ocean Infinity (whom Tim knew anyway), and discovered that they were looking for an in-house lawyer, Tim realised that was the job for him. He joined in December 2019.
Taffrail and ship's wheel, aft well deck. © Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust
It has been busy ever since. Despite only being founded in 2017, the company is growing fast, both organically and through a string of acquisitions. Tim heads a small team of lawyers based in different countries (he is based in London) and, as is usual with in-house practices, is required to advise on a wide range of issues.
Last year, the focus was on acquisitions while this year, Tim is overseeing projects to help with the integration of the newly acquired companies and to streamline the structure of the group. He is comfortable with the variety of issues, having worked both in private practice and in-house, and doing a range of work, covering everything from public and private funds and banking to litigation and financial regulatory work.
Part of the skill, Tim says, is working out what you don’t know and then either seeking guidance from subject matter experts or outside counsel. As general counsel, he is responsible for the legal advice given to the group, but is often engaged in the commercial decisions – something which he relishes.
He is also leading a process to increase the use of technology (for example, AI) to make the delivery of legal services internally more efficient. The aim is to enable the business teams to be able to handle the more routine work themselves, to free up the lawyers to concentrate on the higher value, more complex work where they can put their skills and thinking to better use. (That is an objective increasingly heard in the legal profession.)
“You have to be comfortable with uncertainty,” Tim says. “We are working for an incredibly innovative company operating in uncharted territory – almost literally. For example, the industry and regulators are still developing rules governing the operation of robotic vessels at sea. That requires us to be making judgment calls on what we can and cannot do all the time.”
Before joining Ocean Infinity, Tim worked at an alternative asset manager (for four years) and for JP Morgan Chase (also for four years). Both were fulfilling and enjoyable. Tim also recalls his time with Herbert Smith Freehills with great affection. He joined the firm in May 2008 shortly after qualifying as a lawyer and was with the firm for three and a half years.
His inspiration and mentor was Nigel Farr, but Tim also mentions Stephen Newby and Tim West as major influences. “Nigel was so impressive, both in his mastery of the law but also in his commitment to clients. He was also great to be around socially. There was one particularly memorable evening when we took a client to a Metallica concert!”
Tim continues: “Two key things stand out for me from my time with Herbert Smith – one, you must know the technical stuff, and, two, really understand what the client is trying to achieve. With that covered, you can be most effective as an adviser.”
However good his time at Herbert Smith Freehills was, Tim had always had it in mind to move in-house – there was “professional push as well as personal pull”, he says. The professional push was his interest in working closer to businesses, and the personal pull was to achieve a better work-life balance. Tim and his wife now have three small children and it is important to him that he spends a lot of time with them (of course, during the pandemic, he spent more time with them that he expected!).
His other principal way of switching off from work is cold water swimming. Tim likes nothing more than plunging into the icy waters of the Hampstead Heath ponds to forget about everything else, as well as to keep him fit.
That is not to say he is not working just as hard as he has done in the past, but it is the element of control that makes that balance easier. When he is instructing outside lawyers, he is always careful to let them know how important the task is. “I am always very grateful to our external advisers when they put those hard shifts in for us.”
Tim is a great supporter of the Grand Alumni Reunions, and is looking forward to them taking place for real again. He says this interview has also motivated him to set up a WhatsApp group with his peer group so they can meet up outside the reunions.