Legal pioneers: Patricia Barclay, a former in-house counsel now with her own practice providing general counsel services to cutting-edge businesses without their own

Setting up a multi-award winning legal firm that specialises in the life science sector, and being the only current Scottish fellow of the American Bar Association, hardly seem distinctions brought about by happy accident. Patricia Barclay, however, whose achievements these are, says she only took up the law because she couldn’t think of anything else to do.

“I considered mechanical engineering, but was talked out of that, and ended up at Edinburgh in 1979 taking a standard honours legal degree.” Traineeship with the then Strathern & Blair followed before she took a masters at Oxford.

Despite encouragement to pursue an academic career, she opted for an in-house role at Pfizer. Her work with the company included a five year stint in New York before she returned to the UK to join the startup, Vanguard Medica (now known as Vernalis). After two years there, she became general counsel of the Ferring Group.

That role was based in Copenhagen, and she believes she joined at the right time: the business was being brought into a new corporate structure and was expanding globally. When the head office transferred to Switzerland, however, there was a parting of the ways. Barclay then took on the role of general counsel at Solvay Pharmaceuticals in Brussels, but stayed only a short time before deciding to return home to Scotland.

In 2007 she created her firm, Bonaccord. She recalls: “I wanted to do something useful and productive. I had global contacts and lots of experience and I thought I had a way of making that available to small Scottish companies.”

Initially, the reception was chilly. Approaching Scottish law firms for outsourced work, she was invariably told, “You don’t know anything we don’t know.” However, she began receiving referrals from some large English firms, and, after some serious networking, started to pick up work in Scotland too.

Bonaccord’s aim is to provide a general counsel type service to smaller science based businesses. “I feel I can offer something distinctive in this role”, she explains. “Among other things, I can make introductions and offer my informed thoughts on deal negotiations. Having been on the other side, I know how large companies think.

“The most interesting jobs are those where you have the opportunity to get to know people, work with them over the years to build their business and bring in all the contacts and experience you have gained to help them move forward.”

The model has helped the firm win multiple awards, including UK Life Science Law Firm of the Year in 2013 and 2014. On a personal note, Barclay was awarded a Fellowship of the American Bar Association in 2010, although she remains unaware of the reasons behind that recognition: “It’s just an honour that drops from on high. Perhaps it’s old age – hang around long enough and people notice you exist.”

Despite the somewhat random nature of her career choice, Barclay has contrived to make an impressive mark, and her work still stimulates. “We don’t just do life science. We have clients in other chemical and engineering fields, operating at the cutting edge of new technology. It’s really exciting.”

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