Where law and politics meet
A career as a Government lawyer and then Solicitor to the Scottish Parliament has given this month’s in-house interviewee a unique set of experiences in the public service
Lynda Towers is standing down as chair of the In-house Lawyers’ Committee of the Law Society of Scotland at the beginning of July. A member of the former In-house Lawyers Group committee for 10 years until she took on the chair in 2012, she became the first convener of the In-house Lawyers’ Committee in 2015. For the majority of her career, she has worked for the Scottish Government, and latterly as Solicitor to the Scottish Parliament, but is about to move on to new legal challenges in private practice.
Where do you come from and what was your career path to your current position?
I was brought up in Perth, went to university in Edinburgh and have never really left. I started training in a very traditional Edinburgh firm who still started at 9.15 because the post didn’t arrive until then during the war. When I said, “You’ll be showing me the quill pens next,” they did, from a library drawer. I then moved on and spent 18 months doing domestic conveyancing, before I realised it was not for me and joined the Government Legal Service.
That is a decision I have never regretted, even on bad days, but I didn’t anticipate the huge variety of work and the opportunities that would open for me. I did legislation in Westminster before devolution and in Holyrood afterwards. I travelled around most of our sheriff courts, appearing in FAIs, disqualifying directors, dealing with mental health appeals and acting as a sort of prosecutor against the skippers and mates of ships who ran aground on various rocks around the coast of Scotland.
I spent an inordinate amount of time in the Court of Session dealing with judicial reviews and planning appeals. My various Government clients also provided me with fairly regular tickets to the House of Lords and the Supreme Court, as well as outings to Luxembourg and the ECJ (as it was). I also fitted in a few months as Chief Planning Reporter when the incumbent was off ill. The poacher was in charge of the estate until the gamekeeper returned!
I was also responsible for the first Act of the Scottish Parliament. I lost a mental health appeal in Lanark Sheriff Court, advised the minister as to the implications, instructed the resulting amending legislation, supported the bill through Holyrood and instructed defences through the court system. No one was more relieved than I was to have it confirmed by the House of Lords that it was within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament and not contrary to the ECHR. This summed up what being a Government lawyer was all about.
What’s your career advice for young lawyers who want to start an in-house career?
Life was never dull or predictable. Not surprisingly, my main tip to any young lawyer is to take your chances when offered. You never know what new opportunities it will lead to.
How was your in-house legal team structured at the Scottish Parliament and did you take on trainee solicitors/secondees? What input did you have in strategy and governance?
I had become Deputy Solicitor at the then Scottish Executive shortly after devolution, and as part of the top management team for the office, we had to grow and develop the legal office to make sure it could deliver what the new Scottish ministers expected of their lawyers. This stood me in good stead when I moved to the Scottish Parliament as Solicitor to the Parliament and as an assistant chief executive. I was the Parliament’s main lawyer, but I was also part of the top team involved in designing the strategic direction of the Parliamentary Service, developing the policies and budgeting to deliver the services to the members.
The Parliament has evolved and grown more confident over the years. I arrived at a stage where the solicitor had a seat at the senior management table and was involved in the decision making. However, I had to convince the members that we in the legal office could add value to their work as MSPs, and more particularly in committees with their scrutiny of legislation function. The clerk fully supported me in this approach, and by the time I moved back to Scottish Government eight years later, the lawyers were accepted as integral to the work of the Parliament. However, it is a neverending task.
By its very nature, the work of the Parliament and its lawyers is a series of peaks and troughs through the parliamentary cycle. A number of secondees from the Parliament’s private practice panel joined us at different times to help with the peaks. This was a very successful arrangement, and certainly spread the word as to the range of advice we provided and gave an opportunity for young private practice lawyers to experience the political world in the Parliament.
We also had the benefit of trainees, which we shared with the Government Legal Service for Scotland. They were always considered a valuable resource for the office. The experience in the Parliament was very different from the other Government placements.
What have been your more unusual or amusing work experiences?
There have been many unexpected, amusing and downright bizarre occasions over the years. I fell into a peat bog outside Stirling while doing a planning site visit and then had to take statements at Cornton Vale in peaty trousers. My car was pushed out of a snowdrift by senior counsel at a planning inquiry. I accompanied a reporter on a planning site visit on a fishery protection vessel, including into a rigid inflatable boat for a close-up look from the water. I was also expelled from a legislation committee in the House of Commons by the chair for stepping over an imaginary line on the floor, while clutching the only marked-up copy of the bill. I also managed to persuade Hansard that when the then Lord Advocate said “yes” during a debate in the Lords he really meant “no”. Finally, I had the real pleasure of sailing under the Skye Bridge and looking up, thinking “I did that” (or at least the roads, bridge and CPO inquiry over a couple of weeks one crisp January).
One unusual task was persuading a committee of the Scottish Parliament, which had considered a particular Act then under challenge in the court, that a petitioner who had alleged that they had acted in an unreasonable, irrational and arbitrary way was not getting at them personally.
Flexibility and a sense of humour are essential requirements for the Government lawyer.
How has the in-house sector changed over your career, and particularly while you have been a member of the committee?
In-house lawyers have always provided a focused service to their clients. When I started, the main clients were central and local government. That has changed over the years and the variety of areas where they are giving advice has expanded considerably. In-house lawyers are still found in government, but they are also advising in the areas of finance, gas and oil, education, retail, housing, utilities and the third sector. They now make up almost one third of the legal profession in Scotland, and the Society has recognised this section of the profession needs different support to meet its needs. In-house lawyers have their part to play in helping the Society achieve its “world class” strategy. The in-house sector is well placed to take advantage of its position in the profession in Scotland.
What does the future hold for you?
I have very much enjoyed my career in-house and all the chances it has given me to be at the heart of decision making in Scotland, not to mention the pleasure dealing with such quality lawyers in-house. Now is time to move to another challenge and I am taking up a post as Director of Public Law at Morton Fraser. I am practising what I have preached all those years, that in-house lawyers have transferable skills, and I am sure I will be seeing many of my former colleagues across the profession but with a new business card.
What keeps you busy outside the office?
I read, swim and sail, though not all at the same time. Now my children tell me they have really left home, I also hope to do more singing.
Lynda Towers, formerly Solicitor to the Scottish Parliament
Questions put by Sara Scott, Vice Chair, In-house Lawyers’ Committee