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Life on the edge

19 January 15

In-house interview with the principal solicitor at BBC Scotland: “What I most enjoy are the creativity and adrenalin of newsrooms, courts and productions.”

by Ros McInnes

What was the career path to your current position?

From my traineeship at A & WM Urquhart, I quickly developed an interest in commercial litigation. I joined the BBC in December 1997 after several years at Maclay Murray & Spens, doing a mixture of property and construction litigation. In 2008, I was made principal solicitor, Scotland at the BBC. I am not sure I could dignify my coming in-house with the term “career path”, implying as it does a level of strategic forethought. It was more like a quantum leap into what sounded like a dream job. Considering the difference between the areas I worked in whilst in private practice and the specialism I work in now, it has simply been a case of “right place, right time” and I am devoutly grateful for it.

How large is your in-house legal team and how is it structured? How much input do you have in group business strategy?

There are close to 100 people on the BBC legal division chart, headed by general counsel in London, to whom I have a reporting line, but BBC Scotland is a separate jurisdiction, structurally as well as in terms of the law. My line manager is Ken MacQuarrie, director of BBC Scotland. There are four solicitors permanently based in BBC Scotland, doing different things. I deal with Scottish programme legal advice, backed on occasion by external solicitors, and assisted by a colleague, Elaine Robertson, who is about to complete her LLB. I have input into areas of business strategy where law is relevant, which covers quite a range.

What is a typical working day for you?

A typical day might involve several walks around the newsroom to answer one question about murder and collecting other queries on the way; receiving and challenging a reporting restriction in court; looking at evidence for an investigative documentary into fraud, mismanagement, criminality or abuse; watching a documentary about The Great British War Film to see if we can fair deal the clips; attending a live topical standup comedy show with a quick turnaround; going to a meeting about referendum coverage; being asked about the use of a brand name on River City; advising the network on covering the Andy Coulson perjury trial; reading a radio script fictionalising the phone hacking scandal – anything which a journalist or actor can imagine.

What gets you started on a Monday morning?

I’m on 24 hour call at weekends; this would presuppose that I’ve got to bed on Sunday night.

What was the biggest change when you moved in-house? What do you really enjoy about working in-house?

The biggest immediate change was the blissful absence of administration. Not having to fee and, above all, not having to time-record have been disproportionately life-enhancing changes. I no longer measure out my life in coffee spoons, and a more interesting variety of coffee is available in the media. Over the piece, however, the biggest change is having clients who are colleagues. That’s a very different dynamic. What I most enjoy are the creativity and adrenalin of newsrooms, courts and productions. At the end of the day, let alone the week or the month, I can see what I have helped make and the making itself is, more often than not, fun.

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

This is a difficult question for me to answer as I have only had one in-house post and it is quite an unusual one. It would be unimaginably different to work in the Fiscal Service, a local authority or a financial institution. In terms of careers advice, among the most useful advice I got when I joined the BBC was from Glenn Del Medico, then head of programme legal advice for the BBC in London. He said, “Don’t go native” – i.e. don’t become so involved in the creativity and exigency of programme-making that you lose sight of your own role as solicitor. These words get more practical with every year, and they seem prescient now, as I watch the phone hacking scandal play out in English media law circles.

What do you look for when you get external legal advice? How do you see the in-house/external legal relationship changing?

I look for integrity and speed from external legal advice. Given that it is public money, I obviously look for value for money too. From my own observations, the in-house/external legal relationship is changing in two apparently contradictory directions. On the one hand, it is becoming closer, in that external firms are, in my experience, very good not just at sharing human resources and inside knowledge, but in working flexibly to fill the gaps in what is a very niche in-house team. On the other, the number of large, distinctively Scottish legal firms has, of course, dramatically reduced, so there are more conflicts of interest and one has to build relationships with several trusted external advisors, who will not always be on your side. In-house lawyers have to give more flexibility, as well as expecting to receive it.

What are the current hot legal topics in your sector?

Defamation, privacy, contempt, data protection, freedom of information, copyright and the growing encroachment of the criminal law on to journalistic activity.

How does the future look for in-house legal teams in your sector?

Programme legal advice is pretty difficult to outsource. Risks are getting riskier as legislation proliferates, especially as the ambit of the criminal law grows, but it’s pointless to have a media lawyer who doesn’t take risks. So probably a busy, scary, exciting future filled with complex discernments, some of which we may live to regret. The challenges faced by Tom Crone, formerly in-house at News of the World, and Alastair Brett, formerly in-house at The Times, are a particular reminder of the complexity and importance of setting appropriate boundaries as an in-house lawyer.

How do you think in-house lawyers today are perceived among the wider legal profession?

Probably better to ask the wider legal profession, but in some quarters, I sense a peculiar mixture of envy and patronage.

What keeps you busy outside the office?

Family, friends, film, theatre, music, books, travel, languages. I spent one recent weekend on a pottery course, where I showed a remarkable lack of talent.

What one thing would you want to have on a desert island and why? What one thing would you put in Room 101 and why?

A wind-up Kindle – like Thomas Jefferson, “I cannot live without books”. In Room 101, I would put discourtesy – it never helps, however tempting it may seem.

Ros McInnes is a longstanding committee member of the Society’s In-house Lawyers Group (ILG). Questions put by Sara Scott, vice chair, ILG.

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