This month the in-house interview breaks open a bottle with the man whose job revolves round protecting the good name of Scotland's national drink

What was the career path to your current position?

I started out in 1980 as an apprentice with Brodies WS in Rothesay Terrace. I still remember the cellar with tin deed boxes and grand titles painted on them. I then worked for Brodies as a qualified assistant before moving to a small country practice, Robert Wilson & Son, in Thornhill in Dumfriesshire. From there I answered an advertisement for a legal assistant at the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA).

Can you tell us more about your legal in-house function and how it is structured? How much input do you have in business strategy and governance?

The Association’s role is to do whatever it can to ensure the best possible trading conditions for Scotch whisky worldwide. The legal team consists of myself plus four lawyers, a paralegal and two support staff. As head of that team, my main task is to make sure that the description “Scotch whisky” is protected, and to prevent unfair competition by those that would like to exploit the reputation of Scotch whisky. Responsibility for all aspects of the industry’s strategy in protecting Scotch whisky falls to me, including input on any legislative initiatives which might impact on the protection of Scotch whisky.

What is a typical working day for you?

Catching up on the daily emails, and then probably preparing comments on a regulatory initiative from Brussels or the UK, or discussing our strategy for a particular litigation which one of my colleagues may be handling.

What motivates you on a Monday morning?

I work to live, rather than the other way about. But there is huge satisfaction in working for an industry which makes such a major contribution to the economy, and which has iconic status worldwide. I haven’t met anyone yet who hasn’t heard of Scotch whisky. I always enjoy the fact that the problems we are faced with are tangible – a new bottle on your desk every other day – but at the same time each bottle is invariably intellectually challenging when it comes to deciding how best to get the offending product off the market.

What are the current hot legal topics in your sector?

The EU Regulations which govern our sector are due to be revised, and there are proposals for harmonisation at EU level which could impact adversely on the protection of Scotch whisky in third countries. Along with our colleagues in spiritsEUROPE, we aim to influence the decision-making process at EU level to ensure that the legal protection afforded to spirits is not reduced.

The decision by the Inner House to refer the case on the minimum unit pricing of alcohol to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling is welcome. Apart from the parties and the EU Commission, six member states have filed submissions, as have Norway and EFTA. The case clearly raises issues which need to be decided at a European level.

What do you really enjoy about working in-house?

The knowledge that my role contributes directly to the economic output of the industry. Just imagine what would happen if Scotch whisky could be made anywhere…

Has your organisation experienced any major change recently?

Every CEO brings new ideas, but our current structure has remained essentially unchanged since I joined the Association 31 years ago. The credit for that must go to Colonel HFO Bewsher OBE LVO, who was the CEO when I arrived. A case of sound military planning that has stood the test of time.

What makes a good in-house lawyer?

Exactly the same thing that I was told 31 years ago: attention to detail, and responsiveness to the client – in our case, our members.

What is the most unusual work request you have had?

I was invited by an official in the DG AGRI of the EU Commission to taste some spirits – from Vietnam, I think – poured from a demijohn containing a large snake which had been pickled in the alcohol. Vile. A standing joke, apparently. The brand names which foreigners choose to give to their fake Scotch whiskies can also be very amusing. Viagra Royal Scotch Like Whisky is a recent case from China, but my favourites are from the archives – Old Piss Scotch Whisky and Mac Rot Whisky, the latter two being a pretty fair description of the contents.

What’s your advice for young lawyers who want to start an in-house career?

Think out of the box. Thirty years ago the term “in-house” was rare, and the In-house Lawyers Group (ILG) was known as the Public Service & Commerce Group. Commerce was regarded as slightly grubby, and not part of the mainstream profession. Now it is very much front and centre. So my advice to any lawyer looking to go in-house would be to be imaginative, and go for job content rather than preconceived notions of a traditional career.

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

Clear advice given with precision, and the ability to present arguments effectively both in writing and orally. There is always another side to every case, but what I want is an honest assessment of prospects and a clever tactician. We litigate worldwide, and while we fashion the bullets, we rely entirely on our local agents to fire them.

How do you see the in-house/external legal relationship changing?

The international nature of our work means that virtually everything we do is done in conjunction with external legal counsel. They are the means by which we leverage our internal expertise worldwide. That is not going to change. The limiting factor for us is the volume of work any one member of the in-house team can take on at a time.

Does Scottish legal education and training provide the necessary skills for working in-house in your organisation?

Absolutely. We have recently taken on a newly qualified Scottish solicitor, and in fact all the lawyers in the team are Scottish solicitors. Scotch whisky is rooted in Scotland – and we all take professional pride in protecting our national product.

You used to be on the ILG committee. What did you enjoy most about this role and how do you see the current remit of the ILG developing?

It’s a while back now. But the best thing about working on the ILG committee was the feeling that, as a committee, we were raising the profile of in-house lawyers in the profession. Of course, most of the credit for that must go to Janet Hood and Colin Anderson, and it is great to see them both on the Council. The most enjoyable part of ILG work was networking and meeting colleagues from such a wide variety of business backgrounds. In-house lawyers will continue to be an increasing part of the profession, with many in roles where the provision of legal advice may be only a small, but important, part of what they do. Ensuring that such lawyers stay in the profession and do not drift away from it will be an increasing challenge.

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

We are now accepted as part of the mainstream profession, and individuals can and do move between in-house and private practice roles. That is mutually beneficial and a huge change on 30 years ago. When I meet foreign lawyers, it simply isn’t an issue. It’s a peculiarly British obsession.

What keeps you busy outside the office?

For most of my career I have served in the Army Reserve, latterly as Colonel (Army Reserve Operations) at HQ 51 Brigade. I retired from that post a few years ago, but am currently deputy chairman of Lowland RFCA, which is a statutory body tasked with supporting the Reserve Forces in the Lowlands.

What one thing would you take with you to a desert island and why?

A solar-powered radio. Primarily for classical music, but also to hear another voice apart from my own.

What one thing would you put in Room 101 and why?

Politicians – and I am not going to tell you which ones!

The Author
Magnus Cormack, director of legal affairs, Scotch Whisky Association Questions put by Sharon Wares, solicitor, The Highland Council, and ILG committee member 
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