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Speakers rise creatively to the challenge

18 November 13

Highlights from the presentations at this year's In-house Lawyers Group annual conference, which took the theme "Innovative, in the know and in demand"

by Peter Nicholson

A total of 158 delegates came to Murrayfield on 4 October for a day of informed and enlightening presentations.

Lynda Towers, In-house Lawyers Group committee chair, opened the ILG's annual conference by expanding on the theme of the day: "'Innovation' is about rising creatively to the challenges of our ever expanding in-house roles in these challenging times. 'In the know' is about arming us with the up-to-date knowledge we need to achieve career success. 'In demand' is about building a really strong reputation for in-house lawyers, and about us and our teams being the best we can be."

Leaders and value providers

With that in mind, the conference moved on to its first session, "Lawyers as Leaders". This followed an interactive panel format, with Kate Hodgkiss of DLA Piper chairing - interestingly - an all-female panel of senior lawyers: Philippa Montgomerie, in-house legal counsel and board member of Aircraft Medical; Lynda Towers, whose day job is Solicitor to the Scottish Parliament; and Sara Scott, ILG vice chair and a solicitor in the Royal Bank of Scotland secretariat. This session explored the skills needed to secure a seat at the top table, whether by joining the board or taking up another senior appointment, and considered the possible tension between the lawyer as a risk manager, and the board wishing to move business projects and strategy forward.

The panel saw many benefits to the legal team getting involved with business projects at an early stage, influencing the strategy and work so that risks could be avoided - that way the legal team are seen as facilitators for the business, and not the people who say "no".

For Montgomerie, commercial astuteness, communication skills, listening and assimilating, and fitting with others' skillsets are qualities lawyers can bring to a board. Scott's role models have intelligence, drive, attention to detail and integrity. Towers said she found budgets and the like very challenging when she joined a board, "but if you have credibility in other areas, you can ask simple questions".

Asked for training tips, the panel agreed that personal study combined with gaining actual experience was better than an MBA. "Take all your small chances", Towers advised.

Double acts

ACH Shoosmiths' Stuart Little and Graham Reid then presented on "Delivering and Demonstrating Value as an In-House Lawyer". If in-house lawyers wish to be more influential, they have to show they are providing value to their organisations. "Your perceived value rises as you move from being legal adviser through commercial to strategic influencer," Little said. Understanding the business is critical – lawyers need to know what their employers want from them. Establish your performance measures – are you assessed for litigating, or for avoiding it? They should be aligned to the business strategy, with input from senior stakeholders in setting them. And, Little added, to achieve a financial impact, you must embrace change!

He also challenged the perception of outsourcing as an all-or-nothing scenario: consider collaborative working where external expertise is only taken in when needed. This would also benefit external providers, who can then really understand your needs as an in-house lawyer. He even recommended "panel days": bringing all your external legal teams in, and getting them to brainstorm how to work better together for you as their client. "It's challenging, but it lets firms learn from each other," he commented.

Next, "The Evolving Dispute Resolution Landscape", from Shepherd and Wedderburn, featured an Ant and Dec-style (their words!) double act from John Mackenzie and Neil Maclean, covering the proposed changes as a result of the Gill report, the Taylor report, and new employment tribunal rules.

Changes in the court processes may make it easier for pursuers to come to court, but if there is a move to summary assessment of costs – something Mackenzie said he was "very excited" about – pursuers will be more aware of potential cost upfront, and may think twice about proceeding. However, if one way cost shifting arrives as proposed for personal injury cases, pursuers would know they would not be responsible for costs.

Employment tribunal claims will be affected by the new fees. But beware that the rules now put "without prejudice" discussions on a formal footing: a breach of the code itself would be actionable. Further changes place more importance on pre-court and tribunal attempts to resolve disputes, and April 2014 brings the introduction of compulsory conciliation through ACAS for one month before a claim can be submitted.

What are the next big legal issues? For Mackenzie, it is data storage, use and protection, and the impact on people's rights, including the right to privacy. "There are massive opportunities for us as a profession to assist clients through that minefield," he claimed.

Technical matters

After a break for the AGM (see separate panel) and then lunch, conference resumed with a choice of two streamed sessions, both from Dundas & Wilson. The first covered the new EU public procurement rules, billed in the title as "Frankenstein's Monster". A panel comprising Mark Richards of the Scottish Government Legal Directorate (SGLD), Kevin McGee (City of Edinburgh Council) and Kirsty Currie (SSE) pointed out the key changes following EU rules, in the light of the Scottish Government's Procurement Bill, published that morning. The changes would provide more clarity, but gave rise to concerns about additional administrative costs. There were also mixed views on the possibility of a dedicated tribunal to hear procurement disputes.

Meanwhile, in "Commercial Contracts: Innovative Ways to Maximise your Position", Colin Hutton, Alan Wardhaugh and David Lytton discussed the various ways to resolve a dispute over a contract and how to avoid the pitfalls. They also looked at managing information during a dispute, with a case study of where this had not gone well, along with preparing for disputes, and the importance of early disclosure of disputes by staff so that information can be gathered in good time and nothing relevant lost.

Back in full session, Kathryn Winn, of Pinsent Masons, presented on "Big Data" – data sets that are too large and complex to interrogate with standard methods or tools. These can be very valuable both to business and government, but use is subject to restrictions on ownership and, where they include personal data, appropriate consent being given for its use. She recommended that organisations review their data consent policies to ensure that the consent given actually covers the use being made of it - and regularly consider whether consent given previously needs to be reviewed. Are you still doing what the customer expects you to? Would they still give their consent? The Information Commissioner's Office takes a serious view of breaches of data protection law for marketing purposes.

For the future

The penultimate conference session focused on the next generation. Chaired by Rob Marrs of the Society's education and training team, this featured another panel: Sara Scott; Paul Cackette of SGLD; Gill Rust, legal manager at Standard Life; and the Society's Katie Wood, who described herself as a "one-woman helpline" for trainees and their supervisors.

Tackling the issue of the in-house sector comprising 25% of the profession but providing only 9% of traineeships, the session challenged in-house legal teams: is it time to start growing your own?

Rust gave an outline of the training and secondment opportunities available at Standard Life. Trainees are part of its graduate recruitment programme, which gives additional opportunities for career development. Standard Life sees the benefits by developing solicitors with the best skills and knowledge for its business. Senior staff who supervise and mentor the trainees also gain valuable development opportunities. Trainee Laura Ellis appeared in a film confirming the immense benefits she enjoyed during her in-house traineeship.

Cackette outlined how SGLD is committed to developing good, well-trained Government lawyers. Recruiting from those with a good academic record who can show an interest in administrative law, they operate a policy of retaining as many of their trainees as they can and, if this is not possible, assist them to find opportunities in other Government departments. He observed that those who come in at that stage learn quicker, and supervisors also find it a rewarding process.

Wood emphasised that while an in-house traineeship can certainly run for the normal two years, the Society is keen to support any flexible arrangement that may be proposed. Asked from the floor about the "biggest myth" surrounding traineeships, she referred her audience to the Journal article on busting myths (February 2013, p 36) – though perhaps it is the belief that trainees don't add value.

To conclude, Charles Livingstone of Brodies updated his presentation from last year on "What could the Scottish independence referendum mean for your organisation and are you prepared for it?", which also formed the basis for a Journal feature (December 2012, 10). He flagged up the forthcoming papers from the Scottish and UK Governments, and discussed the possibilities for EU membership and how an application by Scotland may be treated, along with the various options for a currency in an independent Scotland – and what that might mean for commercial contracts and the like.

Lynda Towers wound up the conference by thanking all of the sponsors and exhibitors and looking forward to the dinner at the Balmoral Hotel that evening.

Compiled from notes by the editor and ILG members

                                                                              

Innovation the key to the future: Morris

Innovation has to be the answer to the challenge of delivering a bright future for the legal profession, the Vice President of the Law Society of Scotland told the conference.

Alistair Morris, who said he was speaking not just as Vice President, but as chief executive of a legal firm – he runs Pagan Osborne – emphasised: "You don't have to be Steve Jobs to innovate. Everyone can." Noting that the drive for change was equally affecting private practice and the in-house world, he commented: "Innovation is not always about a light bulb moment, a big new idea that changes the world. It can just as easily be about lots of little improvements that you make in your organisations to make your legal services one step better, one step faster, one step more efficient.

"It's about listening to what your organisation wants and expects from its solicitors – and how those expectations are changing."

The Vice President committed the Society to change and innovate in tandem with its members' businesses and firms, in its efforts to support members. Referring to the Society's recently launched corporate plan for the year from 1 November 2013, which he said was "packed with new initiatives and ideas", he added: "We want to use that plan to build a discussion with you on what we can do to help and support you in your role as a Scottish solicitor. [Member surveys] have always underlined the need for us at the Society to be better – to be more relevant and deliver more specifically for your part of the profession."

Concluding, Morris pointed to two things that he said remained constant: "Number one is the close links between private practice and in-house. The continuing need for the two to work together is not just important – it's essential. The ways we work together may change, but the close links will and must remain. "Number two is the sense of professionalism, of the high standards which all Scottish solicitors share and which set apart our profession. That is our bedrock, our shared strength, our brand – we must never take it for granted, nor stop being proud to wear the badge of Scottish solicitor."

Involved and in London?

Are you an in-house lawyer based in London? The ILG is looking for a London-based member to join its committee, with Jon Alexander having stood down. At the AGM, it was also announced that Anne Steele has left the committee, and Gregor Buick, recently co-opted, has been elected for a three-year term. Longstanding members John Forsyth (Lloyds Banking Group) and Alistair Young (West Dunbartonshire Council) have been re-elected for a further three years.

Addressing the AGM, chair Lynda Towers said the ILG was in good financial shape, and while its committee was not a committee of the Law Society of Scotland's Council, the ILG benefited from support from Society staff and with communications.

Priorities for the committee this year are: connecting with and representing members; enhancing the reputation of in-house solicitors; providing effective support; and collaborating with other organisations.

She finished by noting that the ILG continues to build and strengthen its networks, and stressing how important it is to persuade organisations how valuable their in-house teams are.

Stars have risen

A solicitor with Royal Bank of Scotland Group has become the first winner of the Law Society of Scotland In-house Lawyers Group Rising Star Award. Stuart Murdoch was awarded the prize at the ILG annual dinner which followed the annual conference. Runners-up were April Law-Reed of sportscotland, and Mhairi Maguire, trustee service manager at ENABLE Scotland.

The award was launched this year to support and promote new lawyers working as part of in-house legal teams. The winner's prize includes two sessions with a professional career coach, and time shadowing career in-house lawyer and current President of the Law Society of Scotland, Bruce Beveridge.

Murdoch, a member of RBS's litigation team, was described as having "boundless energy" as well as being an "able lawyer, who communicates exceptionally well with his clients, has good people skills, is respected by others with whom he interacts in the wider legal world, and is not afraid to get involved in the organisation". Both runners-up were cited as having built legal leadership roles and positive working relationships with their respective boards, having joined their organisations at a time of change.

Lynda Towers, ILG chair, said: "It was very hard for the judging panel to make the final decision, and both April and Mhairi are very deserving runners-up.

"While working within three very different organisations, Stuart, April and Mhairi all demonstrated that they have grown in confidence and experience, taken their opportunities to develop as lawyers, and are exactly the kind of in-house lawyers we had hoped would be nominated for this award."

 

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