Doing all the white stuff
Handling all the legal-related work of First Milk, this month’s in-house interviewee has the interests of many individual farmers as part of his job
Where do you come from and what was your career path to your current position?
I come from Aberdeenshire and studied law at Aberdeen University. Following a traineeship with Ledingham Chalmers in Aberdeen, I worked as a volunteer in Israel with the Church of Scotland at its guest houses in Tiberias and Jerusalem. It was very much a year out from the law and was an amazing experience – there was always something going on. I learned to listen to people with a whole range of perspectives and beliefs and not just put people in boxes according to my own assumptions.
On my return to Scotland, I spent three years in private practice, initially doing real estate work and then litigation, which is what I really wanted to do at the time. I then got the opportunity to move to local government with Aberdeenshire Council, initially in a litigation role but latterly in a wider advisory capacity. During my eight years there, I completed the exams for the Institute of Chartered Secretaries & Administrators (ICSA), the professional body for company secretaries. This led me to make the move to First Milk as general counsel and company secretary.
Would you recommend in-house lawyers working abroad at some point in their careers?
Definitely. Apart from being a great experience, I think that prospective employers of in-house lawyers will be interested in someone who has done something a bit different.
What knowhow did you bring with you to First Milk?
I brought with me the broad legal knowledge and experience that I had developed, my ability to manage a varied workload and the ability to form strong working relationships with my internal clients and understand what they need.
What kind of an organisation is First Milk? What are its aims?
First Milk is a suppliers’ co-operative (in legal terms, a co-operative and community benefit society), meaning that it is wholly owned and democratically controlled by its farmer members, who supply all the milk they produce to the business, with the principal return they receive being their milk price. Our aim is simple – to deliver prosperity for our members by delivering competitive returns, security and stability.
How many people do you have in your team and how are you structured?
None! Although a couple of colleagues help me out in specific administrative areas, it’s just me doing the work or delegating it to our external solicitors.
I am very much a “Jack of all trades” general counsel – and I wouldn’t have it any other way. My work falls into a number of categories – legal matters, where I have broad knowledge across a range of areas; governance, covering the smooth running of the board, a member council and executive team; dealing with all aspects of the capital that First Milk members have invested; risk, including the annual insurance renewal; and pensions, in respect of which I am a trustee of two defined benefit pension schemes.
What is a typical working day?
There is no such thing. I plan my working week according to business requirements, which means that time is set aside for whatever tasks have to be progressed or completed. However, my working day can involve commercial contracts, farmer queries (First Milk is owned by its 800 farmer members), member capital, pensions, insurance matters and other risk areas, and a range of governance matters. As will be the case with many in-house lawyers at present, preparation for GDPR is an ongoing task. On top of compliance with the legal obligations, members and employees must have confidence that their data are safe with us and that we won’t misuse their data.
What departments in First Milk do you work most closely with?
I work closely with my commercial, finance and membership colleagues. I also work closely with the board of directors, member council, the CEO and CFO.
What was the biggest change for you when you moved in-house? What do you really enjoy about working in-house?
The biggest change was going from simply conducting individual cases for clients to supporting colleagues in working towards the organisation’s objectives. That is what I enjoy about working in-house with First Milk – being part of a team working towards the goal of delivering long-term prosperity for our farmer members.
Has your organisation experienced any major change recently? What are the current hot legal topics in your sector?
First Milk has come through many changes and has come out of a two-year turnaround process that involved a range of challenging projects. As general counsel, I have had to learn to adjust to what the business needs from me during and after each period of change. The ability to adapt is a must for the in-house lawyer.
What is your most unusual/amusing work experience?
It’s probably the time I arrived to pick up a hire car early one morning and the only car available was a Porsche. Unfortunately I had had just two hours’ sleep as my baby daughter was keeping us up all night. I was frightened to drive the car at more than 40 mph!
What makes a good in-house lawyer in your sector?
Flexibility and the ability to self-manage and work calmly under pressure.
What is your career advice for young lawyers who want to start an in-house career?
Get to know the sector and organisation you are going into so that you can add value to the legal skills and knowledge you bring. Never go to work without your sense of humour!
Does Scottish legal education and training provide the necessary skills for working in-house in your organisation?
Yes, in the sense that it provides the basic skills such as thinking through legal issues, applying the law and communicating effectively. However, legal education must evolve as an in-house solicitor’s role develops. For example, I am currently completing the Pension Regulator’s toolkit training programme to ensure that I am able to discharge the pension-related aspects of my role effectively.
What is that skill that you thought you would be using in-house and haven’t, and that one that you think you still need to acquire if any?
Being in-house is so varied that I can’t think of any skills I am not using. Time management is always a challenge and is something I need to improve continually.
What are the key challenges for general counsel and their teams in 2018?
Preparation for GDPR is a key challenge, involving data mapping, delivering training to colleagues, reviewing and amending contracts as appropriate and communicating with people whose data we hold.
Brexit is still an unknown quantity and may well present challenges that haven’t been identified yet, even for a predominantly UK business like First Milk. In this sense, the key issues will be trade, currency and subsidy. Trade will impact on access to markets and, the UK being a net importer of dairy products, could bring opportunities to UK-based dairy businesses. Currency will impact trade and will therefore impact commodity prices. Subsidies will affect the returns at farm level, which could impact supply.
On top of all that we’ll have a different legislative agenda potentially, which all adds up to change.
Our farmer members’ prosperity is our priority and so we need to understand how they will be affected by the Government’s post-Brexit policy on agriculture generally.
In terms of our own business, we have some customers, suppliers and partners that are based in other countries (both EU and non-EU), and the ultimate shape of Brexit will determine the choices they make in their dealings with UK-based companies like ours. We will look out for both threats and opportunities, and in-house lawyers should focus on being ready to adapt to the post-Brexit world. This may seem obvious, but in-house lawyers should keep up to date with what is going on in the wider business world. Make a point of reading the business section of a good newspaper and check the BBC News website’s business section regularly.
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?
I look for approachable lawyers who are commercially minded, make an effort to understand our business and can communicate effectively with my internal clients. I also expect to be kept up to date with fees incurred, particularly if time spent on a piece of work is going over budget. I expect that with the constant drive for efficiency and cost control, budgets for external legal services will come under more pressure and this will lead to continuing innovation in the efficient delivery of services.
What keeps you busy outside the office?
My wife, two girls (aged eight and six), the church I am involved in and (at present) proofreading my late father’s biography of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, the Liberal prime minister from 1905-1908.
What would you take with you to a desert island? What would you put in Room 101?
I would take factor 50 sun cream – being a native Aberdonian, I wouldn’t survive for 10 minutes without it! I would put in Room 101 anyone who has a sense of entitlement just because they happen to have a particular qualification.
Angus Waugh, general counsel and company secretary, First Milk. Questions put by Elena Sanz Arcas, corporate governance solicitor, ScottishPower and In-house Lawyers' Committee member.