After leaving School, Richard went on to read music at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, where he was Organ Scholar. He subsequently qualified as a lawyer and is now General Counsel and head of Global Litigation at Shell.
What influenced your parents to send you to the Grammar?
My father’s elder brother, Roland Hill, was at WGS. He was killed at 19 when his Lancaster bomber was shot down over France in World War Two, and I can picture his name is in the middle column on the memorial in Big School. My parents always hoped that my brother and I would get into “the Grammar”, which was of course a state grammar school until just a year before my brother joined. I was very keen to follow, which I did three years later.
What was it like?
School was an entirely happy and positive experience for me. My time was dominated by music, in which my great mentors were Bernard Trafford (who fortunately saw me through A Level before becoming Head as I left the School in 1990), Tim Storey, who taught me the organ, and Florence Darby. Julian Pattison who arrived as Head of English in my upper sixth was also a great influence, hugely improving my written English, which helped me enormously both in academic work at Cambridge and subsequently in law.
The quality of teaching, with one or two rare exceptions, was outstanding. Teachers were academically strong in, and passionate about, their subjects. There was also a real sense of education being about education rather than about exams. Perhaps that was easier in those halcyon days before league tables. I think we read and wrote about at least twice as many books in A Level English lessons as the syllabus required, and that approach was a great preparation for Cambridge, where arts degrees involve a lot of independent reading and work and comparatively little formal teaching time.
Continuous assessment hadn’t been invented in the 1980s. This had two benefits. First, it meant that there were extended periods (such as all of the Lower Sixth) when there wasn’t much pressure, and this created time both for the broader education I have mentioned but also for a busy life of non-academic activities. Second, it meant that we really had to deliver in the final exams. That was a good grounding for University and for the ability to perform under pressure (after careful preparation) in professional life.
Although relations between the pupils were probably less civilised than they are now (a change substantially due to the arrival of the girls) the relations between pupils and staff were amazing: I can recall lots of interesting long conversations with Patrick Hutton, Florence Darby, Kevin Riley, Vince Raymond-Barker and many other teachers about issues and topics that had absolutely nothing to do with their subjects. This reflected the genuine interest that the staff took in the pupils.
What have you been doing since leaving School?
I went on a trip to Cambridge when I was in what is now Year 7 and met a former WGS boy (Simon Davis) who was then at Trinity College. I spent the rest of my school life absolutely determined to go to Cambridge, as an Organ Scholar, and fortunately fulfilled that dream. I loved Cambridge, where again music was dominant in my life. It was less obvious what to do after that. My father thought I’d make a good barrister, no doubt based on the endless debates we had about most things. But I wanted to pursue music a bit further, and so I took a job teaching music at St Edward’s School in Oxford. This gave me great respect for teachers and how hard they work, but I decided pretty quickly that I wanted to stretch myself in a new area, and that maybe my father had a point. So after a year in Oxford I went to law school in London. I funded my way through the two years of Bar training by a combination of scholarships from Gray’s Inn and a job as Director of Music at The Chapel Royal, Hampton Court, which was great fun.
I qualified as a barrister in 1996 but after a couple of years I moved into an international law firm and re-qualified as a solicitor-advocate, essentially seeking financial security and the possibility of more international experience. I have certainly had much more of an opportunity to live and work internationally than I would have done at the Bar, having lived and worked in London, Paris, New York and Hong Kong. The other significant move I made was to leave law firm life for Shell in 2012, where I am now General Counsel for Global Litigation, leading a team of about 130 people (including about 90 lawyers) based in 15 countries who handle all of Shell’s disputes globally.
Having left Cambridge in 1993, I returned to live here in 2011 with my wife, son and daughter, on moving back to England from Hong Kong. So I now do a bit of commuting to London and quite a lot of flying to other parts of the world.
My musical life is now mostly vicarious: my wife is a professional singer and music teacher, while my 9-year old son is a chorister in King’s College Choir. Although my wife is from Durham, by coincidence her father, Peter Burton was also at WGS in the late 50s / early 60s.
What advice would you give to a parent thinking of sending their child to Wolverhampton Grammar School?
I know from my time as a Governor that the school has changed in many ways since I was a student, but I am convinced that it remains the best education available in the area. The school still does a great job of striving for the best results without allowing education to become narrow or unhelpfully pressurised. I also think that WGS is a great platform for life: while the students are privileged, they also remain grounded. My friends at University and law school ranged from someone who had been head boy at Eton to people from pretty deprived backgrounds, and I think people leave WGS feeling comfortable talking to anyone.
What advice would you give to a current student/someone about to leave the School?
My career, from music teacher to barrister to lawyer in New York to law firm partner in Asia to oil company senior executive and general counsel probably demonstrates the benefits of adaptability. If I had predicted at any time in the last 25 years what I would be doing or where I would be living in 5 years’ time, I would have turned out to be wrong. So my advice is to get the basics right: get the best degree you can and the best experience you can, and be open minded about where it will lead and ready to take opportunities as they arise.
I would also advise people to be proud of their roots. The straightforward, un-pompous and friendly Midlands approach to life works pretty well in big international organisations, as hopefully shown by my career and that of my elder brother Steve, who is on the Senior Management Team at BG Group.