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Two heads better than one

16 September 19

The In-house Lawyers’ Committee now has co-conveners sharing the duties. Here they set out what they can bring to the position, and how they hope to serve the in-house community

by Sheekha Saha, Vlad Valiente

Can you describe briefly your career and experience to date?

Saha: I’m an in-house solicitor of 17 years’ vintage, with Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, based in their Stornoway office. I’ve worked across almost all of the diverse areas of local authority practice in my time there but for the last 15 years or so have really specialised across the areas of social work law. Outside the “day job”, I am an active member of the Law Society of Scotland and sit on Council and several of its committees/working groups. I am also enthusiastically one of the founding members of SEMLA, the Scottish Ethnic Minorities Lawyers’ Association. 

Valiente: I have been an in-house lawyer for about 12 years. In that time, I have worked for Moray, Aberdeenshire and Midlothian Councils. I currently lead the Legal Services team at the Scottish Fire & Rescue Service. I am also the current Vice President of the Society of Local Authority Lawyers & Administrators in Scotland (SOLAR). 

You were elected as co-conveners of the In-house Lawyers’ Committee in June. What do you each bring to the role?

Saha: We are each half of a great team! I mean it: we have a fair grasp of each other’s strengths and worries and we know already that we have a solid, shared value-base. We think very similarly on many things – and have often been known to finish each others’ sentences in discussions at committee! 

If we are on a slightly different page, we are able to challenge each other’s thinking and talk things out to come to an agreement. Constructive challenge is critical to getting better rounded thinking.

Valiente: Like Sheekha, I am passionate about the in-house role and in particular the fantastic added value that in-house lawyers bring to their respective companies or organisations. You could say that in terms of my legal career, I was born and raised within the in-house community so I very much understand the uniqueness of the role and I feel part of the in-house family. 

In working with Sheekha, I hope that this passion and understanding will assist me in representing the in-house community.

What do you hope to achieve during your tenure as co-conveners?

Valiente: First and foremost, we hope to continue the great work carried out by previous convener Graeme McWilliams, by ensuring that the in-house lawyer’s voice is represented and heard within and outwith the Society. We can only do this if we understand the issues and concerns of the in-house community, and increased engagement between the ILC and in-house lawyers will be key to achieving this. Increasing our growing network of in-house champions will undoubtedly also help improve the engagement and allow for a two-way flow of information. We are keen to hear from anyone interested in becoming one of our “champions”.

We understand the importance of networking and building relations between in-house lawyers. The ability to have a sounding board at the end of the phone or share a template or style is invaluable, particularly for smaller teams. As a result, we hope to be able to build some form of networking platform that will facilitate this, in addition to continuing to deliver high quality CPD, both online and through events such as the annual conference and joint conferences with partners. 

Saha: I agree. We need to continue to build awareness of the value for businesses and organisations, across the public and private sectors, in having a strong in-house legal team. We also want to build the self-confidence of in-house practitioners, who are typically less forthright and potentially viewed as less competitive in the role than their private
sector counterparts.

Continuing to support the good relations between in-house and private practice and the Faculty of Advocates is also key, as is the challenge to the Society to keep developing what it offers the in-house sector. 

What prompted you to stand as co-conveners, rather than sole convener?

Valiente: We met as part of a SOLAR working group a long time ago and have been friends ever since. From the beginning, it was clear that we both think very similarly and have the same love for the in-house role. We both want to do the very best to promote and represent the in-house community, and having the same ethos and drive was undoubtedly the main factor that drove the co-convener approach. Importantly, we recognise it is a demanding role, and sharing that job between two good friends will hopefully allow us to do the role justice.  

Saha: As Vlad says, we are both passionate about the role. For me, looking at the role against my existing commitments, time is always a challenge, unless managed well, and even then it’s not always achievable.

I think there is great strength in having two of us to share ideas and share the strain of the workload, particularly with the knowledge that we are both committed to working together. Come back in a year and ask us (and the committee and members!) how it’s going, but at the moment it’s feeling good.

What are the benefits of sharing the role, personally and for the in-house community as a whole?

Saha: For those we’ve been elected to serve, I think a major benefit is getting two of us for the price of one! It means two brains, two lots of energy, and two of us to get stuck in, which will mean greater cover for outreach across the in-house community. For each of us personally, we’ve got the other to bounce ideas off, to share any frustrations or worries and the ability to tackle them as a team. The pressures of the “day job” are real, but being co-conveners , partners, also means we can support each other in handling these competing demands for time.

Valiente: Having “two for one” is definitely a bonus. Between us, we offer wide ranging experience, skills and enthusiasm to represent the in-house community and ensure in-house lawyers’ interests are recognised and served by the Society. On a personal level, we get to represent a community that we both feel passionately about, which is an absolute privilege.

Key to working as co-conveners will be flexibility and communication. There are no hard and fast rules as such, as the role is a dynamic one and we both have demanding jobs which may from time to time have to take precedence. In saying that, we both very much like to be organised, to plan ahead and to have appropriate governance in place. We have already put appropriate communication mechanisms in place between us to ensure tasks are agreed, shared and completed. 

Saha: This is a new opportunity for us and while it’s early days, so far we’re working and sharing well – our parents would be proud!

The in-house community is so diverse, what are the ties that bind this sector and how do you hope to represent them?

Valiente: We have many ties that bind us together. At the forefront is the understanding of a very unique role. We work alongside our clients who have direct contact with us on a day-to-day basis: we are part of the business and governance. This brings a level of complexity in client-lawyer relationships that you will not find in other legal roles. 

We understand our client better than anyone, and this is crucial to the provision of tailored legal advice with long-term outcomes in mind. Our unique selling point is the added value we bring to the business in terms of early intervention and prevention work. We are like a legal smoke detector – alerting our clients and preventing negative short and long-term legal outcomes that we can foresee. This can save money, time and stress, and prevent reputational damage.

These are all characteristics that every in-house colleague will recognise and which bind us together – and allow ILC to represent the community as a whole. 

Saha: That’s absolutely right and I think one of the greatest ties that bind us is a real collegiality and camaraderie. We are not in competition with each other, which creates a fantastic, rich opportunity for not just open, collaborative sharing of practice but in developing practice and leading the way in the evolution of legal practice in our respective disciplines. 

The Society has responded well to the calls from the in-house sector by establishing the ILC to specifically look after and represent its interests. It is now firmly embedded in the Society’s structure and there is ever-increasing recognition by the Society of the needs of in-housers.

What particular challenges face the in-house sector at present, and what can the ILC do to help address these?

Saha: Like it or otherwise, there is no escaping the uncertainty across many if not all sectors, as a result of Brexit. The ever-escalating political uncertainty and unrest mean testing times indeed, and the profession is affected directly as well as through their client bases. This is acute for in-housers as Vlad mentions, given the particular role of in-house legal teams. I’m not saying the ILC will resolve Brexit, but it can play a pivotal role in coalescing the issues for the membership, and ensuring that the supports and actions the Society exercises, recognise the particular dynamics for the sector.

Valiente: Many in-house lawyers will be affected by reduced corporate budgets that will inevitably have an impact, whether that means reduction of staff, having to justify why current levels of staffing are required, difficulty in persuading decision makers to invest in more in-house lawyers, or a simple freeze on all recruitment. Such lack of corporate support may have a very detrimental impact on in-house lawyers already in the organisation. We must look to monitor such trends, and provide guidance and support for those affected. I think the ILC can be instrumental for providing a platform for airing such concerns and can provide guidance for both employers and in-house lawyers which promotes the added value and benefits of having in-house lawyers. 

What else have members been looking to the ILC to deliver? What member services do you think you can help develop?

Valiente: We have heard from many in-house lawyers who have emphasised the need for closer networking within the in-house community. Tailored CPD events and our in-house conference help, but we must do more. Further local engagement is needed and we are currently exploring options for an online platform which facilitates easier connections between in-house lawyers.

Saha: Given the continuing push to do more with less, and tightening of purse-strings, members regularly look to us as providers of high-quality, affordable CPD and training. Our vice convener Thembe Macinnes and Society executive Beth Anderson do a great job in shaping that programme each year; they are always keen to hear suggestions, so please, members reading this, send in your requests! Seriously, the pressures on all of us are often intense and we need to look after ourselves and each other. “Mindfulness” and “wellbeing” are becoming commonplace terms in professional discussion now, and the Society has carried out a profession-wide survey on mental health.

You’ve each got different levels of experience with the Society. What are your perceptions on how it has evolved over the years, and currently performs?

Saha: I think the Society has changed enormously in some ways and not at all in others. It remains as it always has been, an organisation for the members and of the members. But major changes have come about partly as a result of statute (including the transfer of some complaints handling functions to the SLCC), and partly as a proactive drive to modernise, to become more economically efficient, more corporately business-savvy – just as the membership is doing day in and day out.

Valiente: I suggest that a major change was bringing the In-house Lawyers’ Group into the Society’s committee structure. This has, in my view, improved the interaction between the Society and the in-house community. Being part of the Society’s governance allows the ILC to provide an even stronger voice and representation for its community, championing specific issues and concerns which might affect in-house lawyers.

What are you most looking forward to being involved in over the next year?

Saha: The in-house community, like the profession at large, is incredibly diverse. I am really looking forward to developing a deeper understanding of the experiences and needs of our members and what they expect from their Society – and yes, that of course includes the problems or challenges they are facing. How can we represent and serve them best otherwise?

Valiente: It’s crucial for us to be out meeting more of the in-house community, listening to their needs and doing our best to promote and represent them within and outwith the Society. 

What does the future look like for in-house lawyers?

Saha: Despite the challenging climate, I think the future looks very bright. The strength for our clients of a solid, high-performing in-house team is immense. We will be working with our members to support this delivery and with the client organisations to promote the value not just of the in-house team, but in that team having Scottish solicitors, a brand that can be trusted to deliver highest quality legal advice. The increase in the in-house sector of the profession says that there is growing recognition of this value, but there’s still more to do.

Valiente: Having been involved in the selection panel of the Society’s In-house Rising Star Award, I can confidently confirm that the future is looking very bright. We had a significant rise in nominations this year and the standard was magnificent. The nominations were put forward by employers who recognise their in-house talent and the direct benefit for their business. 

Around 30% of the profession works in-house and it’s great to see the in-house community on the rise; however I believe there is more we can do to promote the benefits of in-house work to employers. This includes promoting more in-house traineeships. We know that proportionately numbers are low, and we are currently carrying out research on in-house traineeships to better understand any potential or perceived barriers. We also want to promote in-house work within universities and schools to would-be solicitors and create guidance on how to develop in-house legal teams. We must promote and emphasise the added value in-house lawyers bring to their employers, and the risks they take if they are not properly resourced or supported. 

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