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Plane language

18 July 16

Focused and succinct advice on a host of subjects – the demands on an in-house lawyer according to this month’s interviewee, whose employers operate three UK airports

by Chris Allan

Where do you come from and what was the career path to your current position?

I was born and brought up in the south side of Glasgow. I went to Strathclyde University, where a range of extremely well-respected lecturers fuelled my interest in law and brought it to life.

I did a summer placement and my traineeship at DLA Piper in Glasgow and Edinburgh. I gained valuable practical commercial experience in real estate, litigation, corporate and banking. I gained a secondment to the Hong Kong office, where I worked on corporate mergers, acquisitions and stock exchange listings. On qualifying, I moved to Dundas & Wilson. However, I wanted to be involved in industry and decided to make the jump in-house. BAA (as they were then) were recruiting as part of a drive to localise operations away from Heathrow. I joined BAA in 2009 as sole Scottish in-house lawyer for Aberdeen, Edinburgh & Glasgow. Following a competition market review, Edinburgh was sold on its own and Aberdeen, Glasgow and Southampton were subsequently sold to AGS Airports. I am now sole in-house lawyer for Aberdeen, Glasgow and Southampton airports.

How is your in-house legal team structured? What input do you have in business strategy and governance?

I’m based at Glasgow Airport. I sit within the wider commercial team that feeds into the commercial director and our CEO. I provide commercial advice to AGS and all its airports, as well as acting as a link to our external panel of law firms. In private practice, you may start to specialise in a particular area of law, but that goes out of the window as soon as you start in-house, as you will likely be required to cover a wide spectrum of issues. There’s never a dull day and you have to be really flexible.

What is a typical working day?

Every day is different. I might have a mix of internal and external meetings and I like to get around the airport and speak to colleagues so I know more about what’s going on on campus. Airports are not just a hub for flights, they’re a hub for contracts, be it airlines, retailers, suppliers, air traffic control, police, the lot. The public just see planes land and leave, but there is a whole lot more that goes on. My role includes negotiating airline, retail and procurement agreements, interpreting and revising our conditions of use (the contractual arrangements for airlines that make use of the airport), general property matters, managing disputes, planning, competition law, and helping with lobbying in areas such as land and buildings transaction tax and state aid.

What motivates you on a Monday morning?

We have ongoing development works at all three airports. These are constantly evolving and that’s very stimulating. We also have a “one campus” culture where we seek to work actively with stakeholders such as suppliers, airlines and retailers to deliver common goals. The airport works when we all work together.

Airports are also central to our communities. Working at the airport, results are very visible. You just need to look up to see what progress you’ve made. For example, I was involved in the team that brought Ryanair to Glasgow. Now, you can see them as they fly over the city. In private practice money moves, forms are signed, but here you see planes take off and land as well as seeing the airports expand too.

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

It was moving away from a traditional hierarchical structure with a strong support infrastructure to becoming directly involved in a team of people from a range of different backgrounds. Sitting with property, retail, aeronautical and marketing people, you see things from a different perspective and obtain a wider commercial view on transactions. As result, you get a much deeper and wider knowledge of the business and its objectives. The aviation industry is very tech and acronym heavy – and I’m still learning new things.

Has your organisation experienced any major change recently?

In a word, yes. Lots. Following the Competition Commission review, Edinburgh Airport was sold by BAA in 2011. BAA then sold Glasgow, Aberdeen and Southampton in 2014 for over £1 billion. The three airports are now owned by a consortium formed by two companies, Spanish infrastructure firm Ferrovial and Australian investment group Macquarie. The new owners have since led a renewed long-term focus on capital investment to improve facilities at Aberdeen and Glasgow Airports, and help maintain and develop new routes for our passengers.

What is your most unusual/amusing work experience?

A few years ago I was brought into a meeting and I was asked about the legality of “neutralising” a flock of swans. They migrated from Iceland and had set up home in a field close to the runway, posing a risk to aviation. Unfortunately, you can’t negotiate with swans but, fortunately for them, they were protected so we had to look at alternative solutions. We worked out they were looking for food and, by working with interested stakeholders to remove the nearby food source, we encouraged them to safely move on to pastures new.

What makes a good in-house lawyer? And what’s your career advice for young lawyers who want to start an in-house career?

An ability to give clear, succinct and commercially focused advice, combined with a flexible and open mind. You need great communication skills to succinctly translate and convey technical legal advice to different audiences across the business, be it directors or operational colleagues. You also need great listening skills as not every issue necessarily requires a legal response: sometimes it’s just the application of common sense.

What do you look for when you seek external legal advice from solicitors or counsel? How do you see the in-house/external legal relationship changing?

We have framework agreements in place with a panel of external lawyers. Expert knowledge is taken as granted. Firms need to go beyond that. All advice must be commercially focused and individually tailored to business requirements (including any potential consequences), not simply an abstract technical analysis of the law. They need to be seen to be genuinely adding value and positively collaborating with myself and colleagues. For fees, outside of litigation, hourly rates are outdated so firms need to be creative to help share risks and rewards.

The relationship is evolving. We work very closely and share experience between in-house and private practice, and see our law firms as valuable parts of our “one campus” team. It is important that as much as our firms get to know us, we also need to get to know them so that we can give them the information they need on a timely and complete basis in order to provide effective advice.

What are the current hot legal topics in your sector?

In common with most businesses across the UK, the issues – both legal and otherwise – that flow from a Brexit following the recent referendum are clearly at the forefront of our hot topics. The potential implications are highly significant and we likely won’t know the full extent, either way, for quite some time. Competition law is central to everything we do. Potential EU changes in data protection will likely have a big effect on marketing and communications. Changes to airport passenger duty (APD) are also an important issue, because to remain competitive in a globalised world, you need to incentivise tourists and businesses to come to Scotland. Reducing APD would be key to driving inward investment forward in Scotland and increase route and airline opportunities.

How does the future look for in-house lawyers?

The future is looking bright. They are growing beyond their traditional local authority background and into exciting new areas and businesses. In-house lawyers definitely have a key part to play in what is becoming a more diverse legal sector.

Does Scottish legal education and training provide the necessary skills for working in-house in your organisation?

Scottish legal education provides a very strong background in general law and concepts. It helps develop critical and analytical skills to break down and solve problems methodically. Businesses value this ability to be logical and thorough. If legal education could improve, it would be in increasing the number of electives in the Diploma for more relevant knowledge and skills for businesses.

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

In-house lawyers are seen as having a greater role than in the past. There is a recognition we all have an important part to play in delivering legal services and that everyone’s position should be respected.

How do you see the current remit of the In-house Lawyers’ Committee developing?

The committee does a good job in highlighting what in-house lawyers do, covering a wide variety of industries and backgrounds.

What keeps you busy outside the office?

I’ve just moved into a new flat, so I’m busy attempting to fit it out more or less from scratch. That takes time. I also enjoy travelling and love exploring new places. My favourite was a recent trip to Japan. Working at an airport is also great, as it’s so easy to just jump on a flight after work.

What would you take with you to a desert island? What would you put in Room 101?

I’d take good selection of books – including perhaps a survival book by Bear Grylls and a book with 101 uses for a coconut. I’d put people with bad manners into Room 101, along with the Scottish weather.  

Chris Allan, Commercial Lawyer, AGS Airports
Questions put by Andy Todd, In-house Lawyers’ Committee member

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