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Quit while you're ahead

10 December 12

Interview with Janet Hood and Colin Anderson, retiring from office in the In-house Lawyers Group, about the changed status of the Group, and its members, during their time

by Peter Nicholson

For as long as many solicitors can remember, they have been the double act at the head of the In-house Lawyers’ Group. Not quite the comedienne and the straight one, but certainly the extrovert chair supported by the quiet organiser. Now, quite suddenly, they are both gone. How has the lot of the ILG, and its members, changed in their time?

Janet Hood, ILG chair for most of the 16 years she has served on its committee, and Colin Anderson, with 24 years’ service, two thirds as vice chair, are moving on. Hood now has her own licensing law consultancy, while Anderson has retired from Standard Life, which he joined in 1986 after some years in private practice. Their departure coincides with the conclusion of a sometimes fraught process of review of the ILG’s status in relation to the Law Society of Scotland, but with eventual agreement as to a way forward.

Although a very diverse group, embracing just over a quarter of the profession at the last count, ILG members have often had a struggle to be treated as equals by their peers in private practice. Hood herself started becoming involved in Society matters after being “completely cut dead” at an event when it was found that she worked for a local authority – and as one of the first in-house lawyers to achieve specialist accreditation, had to argue her case to be accepted.

“In those days they didn’t think in-house lawyers should get it,” she says. “I was told frequently it’s just your job. But I argued it was just everybody’s job and what matters is what you do over and above.” Having chosen local government for her traineeship because she wanted to do planning law, Hood “caught the bug” for licensing early on, and moved on when headhunted into the British Institute of Innkeepers to help their membership make the transition to the 2005 Licensing Act.

In contrast, Anderson spent nine years at Shepherd & Wedderburn, four as a partner, mainly on commercial and estate conveyancing work, before moving to Standard Life. After five years as a manager in mortgage lending, he went back into the legal area, and a diverse workload covering financial services, litigation, new overseas operations, and relations with external law firms.

By then, his Society work had already begun. After only a couple of years at Standard Life he accepted an invitation to join the committee of the then Public Sector & Commerce Group, thinking it would be a way of keeping in touch with the profession and what was happening. At that time the Group’s seminar programme consisted of about six evening events a year, with the occasional big event such as its 20th anniversary dinner in 1992 – some of the principal cast of which were invited back to this year’s annual dinner, another 20 years on.

It was onto this scene that Hood burst a few years later, via the Society’s Marketing Committee, which had been the first to harness her talents.

“We didn’t know what to make of each other,” Hood says of their initial encounters. “Colin’s a very meticulous and thoughtful character whereas I’m the complete opposite – but we just realised that we could get on well together and that’s proven to be the case. We’ve never fallen out. Colin has been a tremendous guiding hand to my slightly madder ideas, and with the madness and the stability we’ve been able to drive the group forward quite well.”

“It’s meant the two of us have worked as a team,” Anderson adds. “Maybe if we had been the same type of person it wouldn’t have worked.”

Initially their aim was simply to raise the Group’s profile – and Hood soon found her powers of persuasion being put to the test. Their first event, at the Society’s 50th anniversary conference, attracted a total of four people, until Hood, in her own words, “ran round the entire building to beg people to come along or the speakers would feel very depressed”. She succeeded. “The next year the conference was in Inverness and 36 people came,” she continues. “The following year 150 people turned up and by that time we’d found our feet.”

Meantime the CPD programme was set for takeoff. With many ILG members in remote parts of the country, perhaps in local council offices, and often not supported by their employers for such training, Hood had a “wake up in the night” idea to begin delivering seminars by videoconference. Anderson got to work on the planning with Society colleagues, a formal proposal was approved, “and within six months we had started”. Twelve seminars in the first year had become about 26 by 2011, transmitted to up to 10 locations across Scotland – and sometimes further. One link has been set up to London, and members in Oslo, Zurich and Gibraltar have occasionally listened in.

Hood and Anderson both take pride in the ILG being unique, worldwide, in offering such CPD for free – with no small thanks due to their volunteer speakers.

As someone responsible for dealing with private firms over the years, how would Anderson compare relations with his external advisers then and now? “I think there’s a lot more being done in-house,” he comments. “One needs outside firms for certain things, major regulatory advice for example. I’ve been trying to build and develop relationships with different firms, and cut down on the number of firms we’ve been using. That’s important if you’re trying to get a firm to understand your business, so they can better advise you. Also it’s probably easier to get better feeing and other arrangements if you’re dealing with a smaller number of firms.”

He has what he calls his “six pillars” to put his relationship with a law firm on a sound footing: a letter of engagement, a relationship partner, agreed feeing arrangements, review meetings in place, discounts/rebates in place, and training.

So what is the clincher when he is going through a tender exercise? “I suppose we’re looking for someone that understands our business, someone we can get on with. It all comes down at the end of the day to relationships and whether you get on with these people.”

He likes to deal with a shortlist of say three or four firms and get the presentation and decision process over quickly, perhaps involving a business manager or managers if they will have to work most closely with the firm. “It usually becomes clear quite quickly who will be the best person. Of course you do due diligence and homework. You wouldn’t ask firms to tender unless they had a track record, and you’d hope that everybody you see is very capable.

“We try to keep the number of these exercises to a minimum, because it takes a lot of time and also you want to try to build up relationships with panel firms.”

Another thing Anderson is keen on is direct instruction of the bar for advisory work, especially, but not exclusively, the English bar. “I’ve been doing it for 12 or 14 years, and developed some quite close relationships. It’s very cost effective. A barrister with five or six years’ call will be a lot cheaper than an assistant or associate in a city firm for the same work. Some people have had bad experiences with direct instruction, but we never have. Maybe we’ve been fortunate.”

One regret of Anderson’s is that more private businesses do not take on trainees – something he began doing many years ago. “Some say you can’t give these people a wide enough training, but that’s just nonsense. We’ve put them round the pensions area, the life area, investments, commercial contracts, litigation work, even our HR area for a period. And we now have trainee exchange or secondment arrangements with our law firms Burness, Dundas & Wilson and McGrigors (now Pinsent Masons). I just find it surprising when big companies say we don’t have the right work, we don’t think it value for money.”

Hood believes that in-house lawyers are regarded much more as equals of those in private practice nowadays. “Everybody has to link in with in-house lawyers in some way. Big firms want to because they tend to supply particular legal services to in-house professionals who may not have particular skills on board. High street solicitors require to interface with the fiscal service, or with local authorities on clients’ planning, licensing, social work issues, all the other things that involve lawyers there. And by forging stronger links it makes the business of law move forward better because people understand each other, so I do think that we’re in a far better place than we were, but there’s no room for complacency.”

Perhaps the commitment to the cause is evidenced by the willingness of several of the larger firms to sponsor the annual conference and dinner each year – another development for which Hood and Anderson can be credited, with support from the Society’s staff.

As for the ILG itself and the recent review, Hood is content with the outcome brokered through Council member David Newton, “for whom I have enormous respect”. She explains: “Basically the proposal that we have agreed to work towards, is that the ILG is brought inside the Society, but still with its ability to do CPD, have its own conference, do things like videoconferencing and perhaps webinars moving forward as well. To do this the ILG members would have to agree to give up its independent constitution. The committee has been working to demonstrate how important it is to our members that we retain the ability to provide these benefits that we so jealously guarded. So we can keep up our efforts on behalf of our members which ought to make a difference to their ability to continue as solicitors.”

Paying tribute to the ILG’s new office bearers, Lynda Towers (“an obvious manager… somebody with a vision”) and Sara Scott (“so enthusiastic… she understands the needs of younger people coming into the law”), she adds: “If I’d been able to draw an imaginary pair, I couldn’t have drawn better.

“Colin and I recognised it was time for a change of leadership, and we’re now exactly where we want to be and we have huge hopes for the group’s future.”


Online extra

New ILG vice chair Sara Scott reports on the members’ survey conducted ahead of this year’s annual conference, on issues in the workplace: see bit.ly/TuA9gy

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