In-house interview featuring a solicitor who gained the legal and commercial experience for a business development role with an oil and gas exploration and production company

Can you describe your current job? Do you have a strategy role? 

My job title is Vice President Business Development of an oil and gas company called Iona Energy. I am part of the executive since I helped set up the company. We are listed on the TSX Venture Exchange in Canada, but most of our assets are in UK jurisdiction. This includes the Southern Gas Basin (England). I attended business school in Michigan, USA.

In terms of supply chain I generally manage contractors and their employees rather than our employees. The people we use tend to be specialists at the extreme end of their experience, from all over the world. I mainly use outside private practice law firms because they have the specialisms that I need. We have a close association with Burness Paull, and also use firms in London, Canada and the US.

Given my job, I am close to company strategy and I work with explorationists, reservoir engineers, accountants, tax specialists and others to create direction and new business for the company.

What has been your career path?

My career path was through private practice in Edinburgh, then Edinburgh District Council, to an oil company in the early days of the oil industry. I was a contract and commercial law specialist. I got the chance to go international, and worked around the world for various companies before returning to London for 15 years when I started my family. This gave me the opportunity to work in different jurisdictions, some common law based and some from the various codified systems. An understanding of law in other jurisdictions is a rounding factor which broadens a general understanding of law and of people.

I worked in Libya when it was bombed by the Americans, flying from the UK. It was necessary to negotiate out of the country with help from authorities and governments. It teaches patience and extreme resolve. I was in New York on 9/11 doing a deal. That taught me that our societies are more frail than we imagine and we have to work hard even to maintain the status quo.

Eventually the subsidiary of a US company I was working for moved back to Scotland and Aberdeen, and I was part of the corporate team that sold it to a Danish company. It was a multi-billion dollar deal, but all the disciplines were the same as for a small deal. When I left the Danish company I set up a consultancy, and finally was asked to help set up an exploration and production company, which is what I am currently doing.

Describe a typical day in your job

A typical day may mean a trip to London to meet commercial people and lawyers from other oil and gas companies. This could involve a negotiation to purchase (or sell) assets or companies.

It may mean cold calling other companies or brokers, and it may involve talking to banks or private equity to establish whether we could finance these opportunities.

It may mean being in the office in Aberdeen to attend the various meetings for ongoing projects, developments or future strategy, talking to our main bank, RBS, or our outside tax specialists and accountants, Deloitte.

What gets you up on a Monday morning?

Radio Five Live and then the prospect of the cut and thrust of doing intellectual battle with the many disciplines that inhabit the oil and gas business, from the politicians to the roughnecks.

What are the current hot topics in your industry/sector?

The current hot topic is what will happen after the “No” vote, on the licensing to explore for and produce oil and gas, where will DECC now locate themselves, and how will the tax revenues be allocated. There are many subsidiary questions which flow from that.

Away from the politics, the key issues for me are the tax incentives for oil and gas companies in the future to encourage them to invest on the UK continental shelf, by drilling more wells and particularly exploration wells. Oil and gas reserves are depleting, and although there is agreed to be still a lot out there, it is harder and more expensive to exploit.

The legislation needs to give companies the strong incentive to drill higher risk exploration wells and to develop more costly fields, utilising newer and more sophisticated technology. Owners of existing platforms and pipelines need to be encouraged to invest further, or leave the UK North Sea by selling on to others who are prepared to invest for the future. The Wood Report needs to be implemented, and soon. Shale gas is still some years away, if it works, and wind turbines will only ever provide about 20% of the energy that Scotland and England actually need. As the UK imports more oil and gas, that affects our economy adversely. New legislation is needed if the UK is to fully exploit its oil and gas reserves.

What do you like most and least about working in-house in your sector?

I like most that I am dealing with highly competent and motivated people who want to get things done. What I like least is low level bureaucracy and things that get in the way of progress.

What do you look for when you get external legal advice from solicitors or counsel?

I look for specialist understanding of the subject. I do get the services I need and I repeat use because the people I use get results.

I think in the future there will be more specialisms in private practice and more niche work, and there will be more generalists like me (as a generalist oil and gas lawyer) in-house.

How does the future look for in-house legal teams in your sector?

The future is bright for in-house lawyers and legal teams in oil and gas. It is an international business so it gives a chance to work in other jurisdictions and with other nationalities. There are many who won’t like to hear it, but oil and gas and the industry that provides it will be around for a long time yet and will provide substantial energy and taxes for our economy here in the UK.

What makes a good in-house lawyer? What's your career advice for young lawyers?

A good in-house lawyer understands the client or customer's needs and business intimately. He or she is the extreme specialist. My advice for young lawyers is get a generalist background in the best firm you can get into and then specialise. I specialised in commercial contracts and contracting and took this forward into oil and gas.

Do you take students for placements or offer traineeships/secondments? Does Scottish legal education and training provide the necessary skills for your organisation?

We don’t take students or offer traineeships/secondments as there is not the time to train them properly. I personally would want to spend one-to-one time, and the intensity and pressure of the business prevents that. Certain responsibilities cannot be delegated! We do have interns who do not get paid, as then it is their risk whether they get anything from their time with us or not.

Scottish legal education and training does not provide the necessary skills for the practical reality of working in my organisation. I am not sure that it should. I think some risk should always be taken by the individual to try something and see if it works out, and if it doesn’t to try something different.

How do you think in-house lawyers today are perceived amongst the wider legal profession?

I think they are perceived reasonably well. It is often a different job. I think there is a notion from private practice that they are the more lawyerly professionals. They probably are, since that is the intention for what they do. In-house lawyers very often, for example, get paid for adding value for shareholders whereas private practice lawyers may get paid for winning a legal case or argument.

What keeps you busy outside of work?

I am kept busy with my family and home, my garden in the country, music, my home in Eire and I am chairman of the local community council.

What one thing would you take with you to a desert island and why? What one thing would you put in Room 101 and why?

I would take a source of music or my iPhone, assuming I could charge it. I would put traffic into Room 101 because all the other cars should not be on the roads where I want to drive!

Where do you see your career heading?

At over 60 I am not sure I have a career, but I see more of the same in starting new companies, and retirement only when it is clear there are more interesting things to do out there.

The Author
Robin Baxter is a committee member of the In-house Lawyers Group (ILG) and responsible for establishing the ILG North East network Questions posed by Sara Scott, vice chair, ILG
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