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Where the buck stops

17 July 17

Having charge of Scotland’s largest local authority during a severe public spending squeeze might not be every in-house lawyer’s dream, but this month’s interviewee is up for the challenge

by Annemarie O'Donnell

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

I was born in the Gorbals, Glasgow, and went to school in East Kilbride. I am a law graduate of the University of Strathclyde. I worked in the East End of the city for a few years before joining the corporate legal team of Glasgow District Council in 1991. Opportunities to work across a range of exciting areas including planning, the environment, construction, social care and elections followed, allowing me to work across the council and with Governments, business and other agencies. I was successful in being promoted to executive director of Corporate Services before being appointed as chief executive in 2014.

What input do you have into your organisation’s strategy and governance?

Working closely with my corporate management team and senior elected members, we shape the strategic priorities for the city and the operational governance to deliver them. I work with all areas of my business to ensure we are meeting the needs of our customers and are responsive to and leading change through innovation.

Glasgow is a world-class city, focused on economic growth and equality, tackling poverty and inequality. The leadership role of Glasgow City Council through its senior elected members and myself as chief executive means we can use our resources and call on the resources of our partners in the city and in Government to work with us to tackle the city’s challenges and increase its reputation as a place to live, work and visit.

What is a typical working day? What motivates you on a Monday morning?

No day is typical. While there are by necessity a range of meetings scheduled on a regular basis, I have to remain flexible so that I can respond to issues as they arise. Given the scale of the business, my day can range from meeting elected members to discuss very local issues, to playing a part in negotiating multi-million pound development deals in the city.

Getting motivated on a Monday morning after a great weekend is a challenge for everyone. Having a job that you really enjoy makes that task much easier.

What do you really enjoy about working in-house?

Working within Glasgow City Council is a privilege. From being an in-house lawyer to chief executive it has provided me with opportunities to make a real difference to the lives of those who live in, work in and visit the city, help grow its economy and build a lasting legacy for future generations.

From a personal perspective, the in-house role has exposed me to a fantastic quality and range of work as well as working with incredible people. This has brought numerous rewards and keeps me motivated.

Has your organisation experienced any major change recently? What are the current hot topics in your sector?

Local government, like all parts of the public sector, has changed massively over the last decade as austerity has really started to bite. We’ve seen our budgets reduce by hundreds of millions of pounds but we have had to continue to deliver the really high-quality services people rely on. That has meant massive change in the way we do everything from delivering the back office right through to using technology to make our service delivery far more efficient on the ground.

For Glasgow the big issue is always how we get through these tough financial times without repeating the mistakes of the past – without seeing long-term worklessness and poverty increase. That’s probably the question I spend most time thinking about.

What is your most unusual/amusing work experience?

A couple of things spring to mind.

As a young senior solicitor leading on a development agreement with the management committee of a well-known city golf course, I attended a meeting with a male colleague who was 6ft 4in and 18 stone. After introductions, the member of the club management committee we were meeting turned to me and said: “Now dear, can you make sure you take an accurate note of this meeting?” My colleague jumped in and said, in his deep gruff voice, “Yes, I’ll make sure I do.” I laugh about it now, but it reminded me that society sometimes automatically regards the woman in the room as the junior colleague.

Now that I’m chief executive I get to go out and see our great services. Last year I had afternoon tea with some of our elderly care home residents to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday. I spent the afternoon being taught how to dance by some very talented “Fred Astaires”.

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

A good in-house lawyer takes time to understand the clients she’s working with as well as the organisation as a whole.

This is what adds value. Importantly a good in-house lawyer needs to move beyond the law and take ownership of the issues that matter. In doing so, the advice given and decisions taken are more strategically focused. Confidence and resilience are essential features, as is the ability to work across a range of stakeholders. Curiosity and a problem-solving attitude will always get you noticed.

For any young lawyers who are considering a career in-house, think about the areas of law that attract you, the skills that you offer and the values that you hold. This will help you focus on the type of work and organisation you want to work for.

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

I am sure there are always areas for improvement, but essentially the ebb and flow of a working life cannot be taught, it must be experienced.

What are the key challenges for you in 2017? And how does the future look for your council and in-house lawyers?

Financial and operational challenges continue into 2017 and beyond. From these, opportunities will continue to be identified with greater emphasis on partnership working and service redesign. The council is pivotal in bringing the public, private, academic and third sectors together to stimulate debate and collective action for changes in policy and practice that are needed to drive economic growth and meet the needs of our most vulnerable citizens.

In-house lawyers must continue to adapt to changing circumstances and continue to be innovative in responding to challenges and opportunities.

What do you look for from your in-house legal colleagues? And how do you see the in-house/external legal relationship changing?

I need sound and practical advice and guidance. There is a need for growing specialism, and a good working relationship with external lawyers ensures that all bases are covered. Additionally, developing alternative charging models helps with planning workloads and costs.

As an in-house lawyer, is there anything you think your organisation does differently in the area of equality and diversity?

A business is only as good as its workforce. Flexible working arrangements are essential if a business wants to attract and retain skilled staff.

Over the years, we have introduced a number of changes that means our workforce can change their hours and days of working to meet their personal circumstances – for example, we have maternity and paternity leave far beyond the statutory minimum as well as provisions in place for people with caring responsibilities. We have recently introduced flexible retirement to help people to stay longer in the workforce, and we are inclined to say yes when people ask us about changes to their working patterns.

Glasgow City Council is very alert to the need to do more to have a workforce which reflects the ethnic makeup of the city. So for example we have piloted a BME leadership programme to help black and minority ethnic staff to advance in the organisation. While we have a recruitment freeze we have very few externally advertised posts, but we now share any we do have with the city’s main BME representative organisations
to try to increase the diversity of the pool of candidates.

You were on the In-house Lawyers’ Committee. What did you enjoy most about this role? How do you see the remit of the committee developing?

Being on the committee gave me access to and an insight into other in-house roles across a range of sectors. One of the most valuable actions we initiated was meeting with members across the country so their voices and ideas could be heard and shared. I believe this helped shape the workplan of the committee. It also gave me the opportunity to meet with other in-house groups in England and Ireland. The role of the committee remains very important as a voice for the significant in-house workforce in Scotland.

How does your council use technology solutions to help with its work? What has your council done that is innovative?

Technology underpins how we work and communicate. iPhones™ and tablets help us work anywhere, as does the way we store and share information. That ability to work anywhere is one of the things that has allowed us to work flexibly and give people much more freedom in how they balance work and family.
Data now drives decision-making on expenditure and changes to operational practice.

What keeps you busy outside the office?

Family and friends.

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

Music that cheers me up and gets me singing along, so anything from Ella Fitzgerald to Wham, Texas and the Black Eyed Peas.

For Room 101 it would be those tiny pedal bins in hotel bathrooms, a complete waste of time.

Questions put by Sharon Wares, solicitor, The Highland Council and In-house Lawyers’ Committee member

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