Voice of experience
This month's in-house interviewee is unusual in having held senior roles in each of private practice, in-house public sector, and now in-house private sector for a global investment management company
Where do you come from and what was your career path to your current position?
I was born and brought up in Edinburgh, and went to the University of Edinburgh where I did my law degree and diploma. While I was tempted to move to London earlier in my career (and did the transfer exams to requalify), I managed to resist the urge and never really felt the need as the quality of work here was excellent – as was the quality of life, being close to the hills. In those days I was an enthusiastic hillwalker, away most weekends.
I moved to Baillie Gifford & Co (the independent global investment managers) just over a year ago. Before that I was at the City of Edinburgh Council (2010-2016) in various roles: head of Legal and Administrative Services; then Director of Corporate Governance (finance, legal, HR, comms, audit, risk, governance, major projects, customer services, property, culture and sport and the oversight of Lothian Pension Fund, Edinburgh International Conference Centre and Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations); and latterly deputy chief executive and chief operating officer. Prior to joining the council I was a corporate and financial services partner at Maclay Murray & Spens, having been there since I trained at Lindsays WS. I am remarkably well travelled!
How is your in-house legal team structured?
We are a team of 18, structured (by function) in four areas: contracts and investment management agreements; funds and derivatives; unlisted investments; and litigation and data protection. We are structured (by geography, recognising the increasingly overseas nature of our business) in three areas: UK, North America, and the rest of the world.
What input do you have into your organisation’s strategy and governance?
I would say quite a bit, but that may be a reflection of my previous roles or the fairly unique times that are being experienced by the UK, and the financial services industry in particular, at present.
Do you take on trainee solicitors or interns?
We do not take on trainees at the present time, but it is something we are actively considering. The firm currently has three graduate training schemes: investment, information technology, and administration and operations. The quality of the graduates coming through is excellent. Certainly in previous organisations being able to help bring people through in the legal profession is a hugely rewarding experience and one from which both employer and trainee can benefit, especially in a time of increasing change and innovation.
What motivates you on a Monday morning?
I would say working with a driven and professional team.
What was the biggest change for you when you moved in-house? And what do you really enjoy about working in-house?
Everyone likes to mention the lack of time recording, but in reality for most people it is the variety and breadth of the work. No two days are the same and you feel much more involved in the decision-making and what the business is trying to achieve, which is really enjoyable.
Has your organisation experienced any major change recently? What are the current hot legal topics in your sector?
There are a variety of hot topics in the UK, ranging from never-ending regulatory change such as the implementation of the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive II (MIFID II) and General Data Protection Regulation, and the issue of Brexit and the likely prospects of a second (or rather third) independence referendum. I was very happy to speak at a Brexit seminar organised by the In-house Lawyers’ Committee last September as I know how important the issues are. In the US and elsewhere, there are a number of other developments which we need to keep on top of also.
An issue that could be relevant to general counsel and heads of legal is the upcoming senior managers and certification regime (SMCR), which is a regulatory requirement for certain senior individuals to be accountable for certain areas in their business. There is an ongoing debate about whether general counsel should be included in the regime, which I know the profession is watching with keen interest as it throws up a number of issues.
What is your most unusual/amusing work experience?
In one of my previous roles, I was the chief legal officer for Lothian & Borders Fire & Rescue Service, and to help me understand how physically and mentally difficult it is for fire personnel to make lifesaving decisions in a fire, I was shut with others in a steel container called the “tank” in McDonald Road, Edinburgh, with full kit, breathing apparatus and a fire burning. The gear was heavy, the fire was hot and I swear that I came out several pounds lighter.
What makes a good in-house lawyer, in the financial services sector in particular? What is your career advice for young lawyers who want to start an in-house career?
My career advice for young lawyers is probably twofold. First and most important is to get a good grounding and balanced training for a few years – that pays real dividends when you are later looking at a variety of different legal and commercial issues. The second is not to rush it. Take your time, learn the business and above all enjoy yourself.
Does Scottish legal education and training provide the necessary skills for working in-house in your organisation?
Yes, the quality of the talent pool in Scotland is excellent. However, having said that, we do operate overseas and as a result also look further afield to get expertise on other more jurisdictionally specific or specialised areas.
How does the future look for in-house lawyers?
In-house lawyers often forget what a great skillset they have: intelligent, articulate, logical with built-in problem solving and project management abilities. We should be extremely well placed for the future, but as a bunch we need to increase our focus on being more open to change, more commercial and less risk averse. Many are excellent at that, but with increasing use of technology it does feel like the in-house profession needs to aim higher and show just what it is capable of. These are interesting and exciting times and we have a fantastic skillset that should be very much in demand.
What do you look for when you seek external legal advice from solicitors or counsel? And how do you see the in-house/external legal relationship changing?
When seeking external legal advice I look for two things: a knowledge of the relevant area of law and the business/industry; and increasingly as I get older, people with whom you can build trust and a relationship.
I honestly have no idea how the in-house/external legal relationship will change. It has moved hugely in the last 15 or so years, not least because the proportion of in-house lawyers has increased radically. Inevitably my colleagues in private practice will need to keep adapting to that, but it is difficult. Ultimately private practice right now is where you go if there is something very difficult or specialised or if there is a capacity issue due to a spike in work. Over time you could see that traditional divide changing as legal work is disaggregated more and more into its constituent parts.
The other significant game changer is artificial intelligence, which I confess to not knowing enough about, but it is already having a huge effect in other professions and law will not be exempt from that.
As an in-house solicitor, how have you seen the profession develop in terms of diversity since you qualified? Is there anything you think your sector should do differently in the area of equality and diversity?
In the past there has been a belief that firms in private practice are less accommodating to part-time working women (largely due to client demands), and some have moved in-house to get a better work-life balance, but I think that is beginning to change and some firms in private practice are beginning to offer quite innovative solutions. My wife, for example, is the beneficiary of one such scheme in private practice. However, it is fair to say that this is not universal, although this has been a much-discussed topic in the profession during most of my working life.
In my team of 18 people, in terms of male and female we are broadly 50-50 and as a firm we take equality, diversity and work-life balance very seriously.
How does your team use technology solutions to help with its work? What has your team done that is innovative?
We are very fortunate and are able to access a wide range of different technological solutions in the delivery of our core services.
We are actively looking at artificial intelligence, but it feels like we are a still a few years off that. I would love to hear from anyone who is ahead of the curve on this.
What keeps you busy outside the office?
I have three children aged seven, five and two. They are great fun but exhausting. My wife, Claire, who is also a lawyer, bears most of the brunt and I have renewed respect for all working (and non-working) parents. Children permitting, I occasionally get out for a paddle as a keen sea kayaker and some (probably cost-enhancing) DIY.
What would you take with you to a desert island? What would you put in Room 101?
I would take my sea kayak – I may as well enjoy my stay there!
I would put slow wi-fi in Room 101. I am not the most patient person and it drives me mad when wi-fi seems to work slower than the old dial-up connections!
Questions put by Sharon Wares, solicitor, The Highland Council and In-house Lawyers’ Committee member
Alastair Maclean will be speaking about his experience of leading an in-house legal team at the Law Society of Scotland’s in-house conference in Edinburgh on 11 May 2017. For more information about the conference, “In-house Legal – create, sustain and evolve”, and to book your place, visit the Society’s website.