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Lawyer for our rulers

19 August 19

A career in public service has culminated in this month’s in-house interviewee being recently appointed as Solicitor to the Scottish Government

by Ruaraidh Macniven

What has your career path been up to this point?

Apart from a short stint working for a life assurance company after my traineeship, I have always worked in public service. My traineeship was with Stirling Council, a mixed bag of everything from conveyancing to clerking the district court. 

My career has been hugely varied, something I hadn’t anticipated when I started out and possibly not what people think of when you mention being a Government lawyer. My first Government role was in the Office of the Solicitor to the Secretary of State for Scotland, mostly doing litigation for the prison service. Then I did litigation for the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland, which obviously covered completely different ground.

In 2001 I went to the Scottish Parliament, advising the Standards Committee and Procedure Committee and instructing non-Government bills. Then I moved to the Lord President’s private office as deputy legal secretary, later moving up to legal secretary.

I moved to the Civil Recovery Unit at Crown Office in 2007, recovering the proceeds of crime through the civil courts. I went to the Scottish Government for a short period as acting head of the Constitutional & Civil Law Division, and then back to CRU as head of the unit. In 2013 I went to London to be legal secretary to the Advocate General, and commuted from Edinburgh to London for just over three years. And in 2016 I became head of the Advisory & Legislation Division of the Office of the Advocate General (the UK Government’s Scottish legal team), where I’ve been until now. 

What does being Solicitor to the Scottish Government mean to you?

It’s a tremendous privilege to be appointed to the post and to work with ministers and colleagues in upholding the rule of law in Government. I feel a lot of responsibility to the people in the directorate, to do a good job and provide the leadership that they need. The rule of law underpins our democracy and it is crucial that the Scottish Government receives excellent legal advice and support. I am fortunate to have a really talented and dedicated team of colleagues.

What challenges do you think you will face?

The size of the office brings unique challenges. We have 13 divisions and more than 200 people. We play a key role in the wider Government Legal Service for Scotland, which also provides legal staff to the Office of the Advocate General and Scottish Law Commission, among others. Managing the relationships between the different offices to ensure they are all properly serviced in terms of legal staff is a big part of the role. 

It’s also a huge challenge in terms of the range of subject matters that are covered by the directorate, the really important things being done in terms of the legislative programme and the big cases that the Scottish Government is facing. 

It has been a particularly challenging couple of years for a number of reasons, with the unprecedented challenge of EU exit, and having an ambitious Government to serve. But there is lots of positivity among staff, who are very dedicated and motivated. 

Tell us about the legal team at the Scottish Government and your different roles?

As well as the more widely recognisable roles, providing litigation and instructing counsel, a lot of our work involves the instruction and drafting of legislation for Government, as well as advising on the legal aspects of any policy proposal from ministers. 

We broadly map our services in line with the policy areas of Government and portfolios of ministers. So, for example, we have a team for criminal justice and another focused on marine, transport and natural resources. 

One of the challenges we face is ensuring there is enough flexibility in how we all work to respond to changes in Government and unexpected events. 

What does success look like for your team, and how do you measure this?

Success for us is aligned to the success of the Scottish Government generally, in ensuring that the objectives of Government are properly and lawfully delivered. Personally, I am also committed to making the directorate as diverse and inclusive as possible and to maintaining our collegiate and collaborative culture.

What is it like working as a lawyer for the Government? How does this differ from working for any other type of in-house legal function?

As well as providing high-quality legal services, we are ultimately responsible to the Law Officers who have ministerial responsibility for our legal advice. Like them, we are supporting ministers to ensure that the rule of law is upheld within Government. This requires us to navigate the complexities of the law while understanding the political context in which we are operating.

In the Civil Service you have to be prepared for working for a different administration after a general election. As civil servants we can cope with that because of our adherence to the Civil Service Code, which provides the grounding for operating on an impartial basis. 

I have moved from a UK Government post to one with the Scottish Government. My professional obligations of confidentiality persist with that move. Since my appointment was announced I took steps to disengage from the politically sensitive work of the UK Government and to manage any potential conflicts of interest. 

What are your thoughts on building relationships outside the legal function at your job?

I will be a co-opted Council member for the Law Society of Scotland, which is a historical role for the Solicitor to the Scottish Government. I am looking forward to that as I am keen to maintain links with the Society and the wider profession. I have practical experience of the Society, gained through my previous role on the In-house Lawyers’ Committee, and have always enjoyed engaging with Michael Clancy and his colleagues on law reform. We want to keep up with best practice in the private sector and share our own knowledge and best practice with other organisations. 

What key challenges do you share with other in-house legal teams? And what does the future look like for in-house lawyers?

All in-house legal teams face a challenge of striking the right balance of providing an excellent legal service for clients but doing that within a particular resourcing limit. 

Another balance is between building close relationships with your clients and getting to know their business whilst maintaining objectivity and the line between legal work and policy or other roles. It’s about recognising what the legal team should be bringing and what other clients and colleagues should be bringing to the table. 

Do you use external legal advisers? If so, in what circumstances and what do you look for?

SGLD needs to be flexible and able to respond to unexpected situations, and one way we can do that is by using our outsourcing partners.

We operate a Legal Services Framework for the provision of external legal services to the Government. This means we can use external legal provision for a wide variety of legal services including contract, commercial and corporate law, debt recovery, litigation, major projects and in response to one-off situations. 

Through this framework, we work with a number of Scottish private practice firms, which provide legal support on a wide range of issues. 

What motivates you to go to work?

It’s all about the people. We have a really good group of people who are very dedicated and highly motivated. That makes work a pleasure as well as extremely high quality and interesting. It’s a privilege to be involved in this part of the democratic process, the process of Government. 

What would you take with you to a desert island, and what would you send to room 101?

To a desert island I would take a guitar. I used to play the guitar and being on a desert island would give me time to learn it properly. 

To room 101 I would put bicycle tyre punctures, at any time, but particularly in the rain. 

Ruaraidh Macniven, Solicitor to the Scottish Government

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