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Food for thought

19 May 14

Interview with the in-house counsel of Baxters Food Group, who also chairs the ILG's new North East Network

by Peter McLuckie

What was your career path to your current job, and what was it like moving to the food industry?

I followed a traditional route through my degree and Diploma at Aberdeen University and then trained in one of the larger practices in Inverness.

Dealing mainly with insurer-instructed litigation helped when I moved in-house into the insurance sector very soon after qualifying. I spent about 12 years in financial services in Perth, London and Edinburgh, including leading the life and pensions legal team at Scottish Widows. I was inspired to return home to the North East just over seven years ago and joined Baxters.

I’m still heavily involved with pensions in my company secretarial role, and my previous involvement with investment businesses has helped with the funding challenges that face our defined benefit scheme. However, in general, there are very different issues to deal with in a manufacturing environment. The main reasons for moving industry were personal, but in hindsight it was a good move. Looking from the outside, the regulatory burdens on financial services seem to have tightened even from seven years ago. In my experience, this makes decision-making processes very cumbersome.

What gets you up on a Monday morning?

My five-year-old son usually beats the alarm clock to the job.

How big is your in-house team and do you have a seat at the strategy table?

I’m the sole in-house lawyer, which is tough in terms of workload. I also find prioritisation a challenge. It’s tempting to sideline low value, low risk work but that work can be very important to someone else’s job.

As company secretary, I’m very much involved in the day-to-day issues facing the company and its plans for growth: it now has manufacturing operations in Canada, Australia and Poland.

Describe a typical day in your job

One thing not lacking is variety. There isn’t really a typical day. I can be ploughing through legal documents at my desk one minute and be on the factory floor the next.

What are the current hot topics in the food industry?

Food fraud remains a live issue following “horsegate”, and long-term food security is high on policy makers’ agendas. Supermarket dominance is a constant challenge for suppliers.

What do you like most and least about working in the food sector?

There is a huge variety of types of work in a manufacturing company and so the interest level never falls. It can be frustrating. Margins are constantly under pressure from both ends of the supply chain and this puts a strain on relations. Disputes are a relatively common occurrence.

What does the future look like for in-house teams in the sector or more broadly?

It seems that in all areas of commerce, risk management (including legal risk management) is rising up the board agenda, along with tighter corporate governance. These are areas where the in-house lawyer adds great value. I think the future is bright for in-house teams.

Good corporate governance can be confused with making good decisions. It’s not always the case. For me, the key issues are (1) that the decision makers understand why they take a certain course of action; (2) that they understand the consequences of that course of action; and (3) that there is a good audit trail. That way, even if the decision ultimately proves to be poor, the decision makers have a good level of protection. It’s good to remind the business about this when there are objections to what can be seen as unnecessary bureaucracy.

What do you look for when you get external legal advice and do you instruct local firms under other jurisdictions?

I find there is no shortage of skills in Scottish firms and I would not look beyond the border for help with any UK-based work, except occasionally with English litigation. For international work, I instruct direct. Good personal relations are key to the success or otherwise of in-house/external lawyer dealings. Advice needs to reflect the brief provided. It generally needs to be practical, not academic.

What makes a good in-house lawyer? What’s your advice for young lawyers thinking of an
in-house career?

I believe that an in-house lawyer should play a crucial role in the risk management of his or her employer. Principally that will be about managing legal risk, but it may be wider. A good in-house lawyer properly assesses risk and steers the business in the appropriate direction, based on that risk assessment and the business’s risk appetite.

Do you take on trainees or offer work placements? Does Scottish legal education and training provide the skills you are looking for?

I don’t take students or trainees as I would struggle to devote time to training, being on my own. I have considered taking on a secondee but our location (Fochabers, Moray) doesn’t help. For any in-house role, breadth of experience is essential, as is clear communication and the ability to manage strong personalities. In my experience, communication and interpersonal skills can be lacking in candidates for in-house roles. Scottish legal education could spend more time looking at these areas.

Can you tell us about the ILG’s new North East Network? What do you think the network and ILG more broadly should focus on?

There are around 250 lawyers working in public bodies or industry in the North East, and the purpose of the network is to provide a forum for them (and private practice colleagues) to exchange ideas, learn and socialise. There is no one area that the ILG and the network need to focus on. Sharing experiences and contacts can be very valuable and both groups can provide a setting for that to happen, whether it’s a CPD session or just a purely social gathering.

What keeps you busy outside of work?

Mainly outdoor activities. I like road and mountain biking and spend a lot of time in the hills. I live in the right place for it. I also love music.

What one thing would you take with you to a desert island? And what one thing would you put in Room 101?

I can’t live without music so I would need my iPod (and a power supply). I’d put into Room 101 anyone who uses religion as an excuse to terrorise.

Where do you see your career heading?

Baxters is a very rapidly expanding business with huge ambitions. I would like to continue to be part of that expansion, either in an in-house legal or commercial role. I think business law skills are transferable across industry sectors and jurisdictions but also help lawyers move into commercial positions.

Peter McLuckie, company secretary and legal counsel, Baxters Food Group
Questions put by Sara Scott, vice chair, In-house Lawyers Group

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