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In-house and staying in demand

18 April 16

The Society’s new offices provided the setting for the return of the in-house conference, at which a range of speakers delivered a programme of interest to the whole sector

by Graeme McWilliams

On Friday 4 March over 70 in-house lawyers converged on the Society’s new offices at Atria One in Edinburgh, for the revival of the annual in-house conference – “In-house Influencing Legal Excellence: Staying in Demand and Building for our Future”.

Lynda Towers, chair of the Society’s In-house Lawyers’ Committee, welcomed the new and familiar faces, introduced our committee members, and looked forward to the four annual flagship events for in-house lawyers: the 21st Century Bar conference, the Law Society of Scotland conference, our in-house conference, and the holding of our Rising Star Award.

Our broad church

It was a timely reminder that in-house lawyers, who currently make up about 30% of the Scottish legal profession, comprise two thirds from the public sector and one third from the private sector. Our audience and speakers had congregated from places ranging from Stornoway, Inverness, the central belt, Perthshire, Dundee, Angus, Fife, Strathclyde and the Lothians, with just over half of our audience coming from the public sector. We greeted 10 new in-house lawyers (less than five years’ PQE), as well as delegates from local authorities, Government, public bodies, the energy and financial services sectors, the automotive industry, property developers, the music industry, universities, third sector and the media.

Keynote address, and a swansong

Our chair introduced a magisterial address by Catherine Dyer, CBE, Crown Agent, who was interviewed in the February Journal. Dyer had 27 days left in office (after more than 27 years in a constantly changing civil service), and her wide-ranging talk even made reference to Mary Berry’s recipes. She suggested that the in-house profession now has more branches than an Amazonian rainforest, and it may be time to revisit the simple private practice/in-house differentiator within the Scottish legal profession as it no longer reflects our huge diversity. Truly some food for thought!

Enlarging the right to buy

Committee member Andy Todd introduced Rachel Oliphant, a senior practice development lawyer from Pinsent Masons, on “Land Reform – Where are we now?” We learned that:

  • You can count successful right-to-buy applications on your fingers and toes (and ears). Only 22 communities have used existing right-to-buy laws to buy property, and in one of these Oliphant helped her local community buy property to use as a community hall.
  • You don’t need your ears to count the owners of 10% of Scotland. Current statistics show that over half of Scottish private land is owned by 423 people, while 10% is owned by just 16 people or groups. The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 will help local communities challenge this concentration of ownership.
  • All property is subject to right to buy. The Community Empowerment Act extends community right to buy to all property (houses and derelict/neglected land), but the law is unclear how a community is defined, particularly in towns and cities. Lawyers will have to work out who the community is before even thinking about rights to buy.
  • This could all change. At the time of speaking, the Land Reform Bill was changing on an almost daily basis, but at the time of writing this article, the bill has become the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016.
  • Are we talking about the wrong thing? Current land reform is obsessed with land ownership and transparency, but it doesn’t matter who owns land, it is what they do with it that counts.

Social media in employment

It then fell to me to introduce David Morgan, partner at Burness Paull, on “The Potentials and Pitfalls of Social Media: in-house and beyond”. There was audience participation, some stories of how it can go well and go wrong, emphasis on the importance of having a social media policy – and Taggart was mentioned twice! In-house lawyers were encouraged to embrace social media and increase their online footprint; a follow-up training session on social media for in-house lawyers is planned for later this year.

Our Society: a strategic view

After an excellent networking lunch, Lynda paved the way for Lorna Jack, the Society’s chief executive, on “Leading Legal Excellence”. She talked us through the Society’s ongoing strategy of that name for 2015-2020, its mission to be a world-class professional body and plans for its ever- changing future.

Making FOI work

Lynda Towers prefaced Rosemary Agnew, the Scottish Information Commissioner, who spoke about “Where is FOI going in Scotland?”, following last year’s 10th anniversary of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 coming into force, with advice on how authorities can most effectively operate under the Act and what additional bodies the Act may cover.

Energy law – and policy changes

Our chair also introduced “Energy Law Developments”, from Donald Cumming, partner, and Anna Cameron, associate, CMS Cameron McKenna, who took us through developments in energy law, including the difficulties caused by changes in Government policy.

Continuing constitutional developments

To cap it all, the chair welcomed the return to our conference of Charles Livingstone, partner at Brodies, speaking on our continuing constitutional developments. He brought us all up to date on further devolution under the Scotland Bill, who will be a Scottish taxpayer for income tax, and the possible implications of a “Brexit”, with an even more elaborate version of his famed Venn diagram of which country is part of which European organisation.

Feedback time

Lynda Towers brought the successful day to a close and thanked all the speakers, organisers and audience, after which we reconvened in the foyer for some drinks, canapés and what was a very enjoyable and sociable networking opportunity.

According to our post-conference feedback summary, we all found it an enjoyable and worthwhile day. In the current economic climate many of our in-house lawyers feel that they are being asked to do more with less, but they can rest assured that the Society’s In-house Lawyers’ Committee will continue to support and champion its members.

Graeme McWilliams, In-house Lawyers’ Committee member 

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