The award-winning legal team for the company responsible for the whole of Scotland's water supplies has to be ready for diverse challenges, as this month's in-house profile reveals

Where do you come from, and what was the career path to your current position?

I was born in Birmingham and brought up in Ayrshire. My original intention was to study history at university but I developed an interest in doing law and I have always enjoyed the wide variety of different legal issues which arise working for a utility. I studied at the University of Aberdeen, trained and qualified at Brodies and also worked at McClure Naismith and McGrigors. I joined Scottish Hydro Electric plc around the time of privatisation in 1991 and quickly became involved in major oil and gas purchase contracts and projects to acquire combined-cycle gas plants. In 1996, I joined the newly formed North of Scotland Water Authority as head of legal and from there progressed to my current position.

How is your in-house legal team structured, and how much input do you have on business strategy and governance?

I inherited three different legal teams which I integrated into one, based in Dunfermline. We comprise nine Scottish solicitors, two paralegals and two support staff. Our main role is to provide legal and company secretarial support to Scottish Water and its main subsidiary companies, Scottish Water Horizons and Scottish Water International. The workload varies enormously and every day brings a new challenge. We spend more than £500 million a year on capital projects, so there is a focus on procurement, conveyancing and construction law. In addition we work in compliance areas such as data protection, freedom of information, regulatory and Competition Act compliance. I am corporate secretary to the Scottish Water board and also provide legal and secretarial support to the remuneration and audit committees. We have an unusual legal structure as a public corporation, and we have to comply with both public sector governance and the UK Corporate Governance Code, and benchmark our performance against the private English and Welsh water utilities.

Scottish Water’s Legal Team won the Law Society of Scotland Public Sector In-house Legal Team of the Year award in 2012. What did this mean to you and your team?

This was a great achievement shared by the whole team, who all contributed to the submission, and a great motivator going forward.

What is a typical working day for you?

As a utility operating across Scotland, new challenges can arise each day in relation to access to our sites, customers, procurement, regulation and contracts. I encourage my team to develop close working relationships across our business. We have found that a number of seemingly complex issues which arise with customers can be resolved by taking the time to meet them, listen to their concerns and explore potential solutions. A lot of the work that we do involves explaining to external solicitors our specific legislative environment and statutory powers.

What motivates you on a Monday morning?

I am part of a team which provides an important service to one of Scotland’s biggest businesses. We are trusted to serve 2.46 million households and 150,000 business premises across Scotland. In March 2015 we were named as Best Large Public Sector Employer at the inaugural Scottish Top Employers for Working Families Awards.

What was the biggest change for you when you moved in-house and what do you really enjoy about working in-house?

Time constraints often mean we can’t verify everything or make detailed file notes, although we do have a form of time recording. As part of a very customer-focused organisation, I enjoy the challenge of liaising with a range of people across Scotland and finding solutions which benefit us and our customers. We provide advice to our International business, which has developed due to us being seen worldwide as an efficient regulated public utility, and a number of companies who face demands of growing populations, water shortages and efficiency challenges look to learn from our journey. The supply of quality water is an essential of everyday life, and when piecing together Victorian titles I appreciate the huge investment made by our predecessors on which we are building.

We like to smile: while laying a new water main at a remote location, the local landowner suggested we lay it under a road which, he claimed, was rarely used and could be closed. At this point an ambulance sped past on the road, lights flashing, and our original approach was agreed.

Has your organisation experienced any major change recently?

In April 2015 we started our new regulatory period, a six-year programme to 2021. In the decade since we formed in 2002 we have made significant progress, initially delivering operating cost efficiencies of 40% in the 2002 to 2006 period. Customers continue to benefit from an average household charge which is lower than that in England & Wales. The income from customer charges helps pay for our £3.5 billion capital investment in the next six years which will further improve drinking water quality, protect the environment and support the economy and jobs in the construction industry.

My team has been involved in exploring innovative procurement models to assist in delivering efficiencies over this period. In addition, we have had to deal with contractual arrangements for our staff working for International in a range of countries including Qatar, Canada, Ireland, Poland and New Zealand.

What is the most unusual work request you have received?

A request for advice in relation to the conversion of the steamship Sir Walter Scott, which has operated on Loch Katrine since 1900, to burn biofuels and its subsequent disposal to a charitable trust.

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

Good communication skills are important, as is the ability to tailor our style to fit the audience, relate to a range of individuals at different levels across the business and understand their drivers and concerns. You need excellent negotiating and commercial skills and also the ability to be aware of the wider reputational impact of your actions.

What do you look for when you seek external legal advice from solicitors or counsel? How do you see the in-house/external legal relationship changing?

We have framework agreements with a number of external legal firms, which our in-house legal team monitor, and all external instructions come through us. We look for practical advice which provides solutions to issues and also understands that any external communication must reflect our customer service-driven values.

We see our external partners as an extension of the in-house team, and our internal customers want “no surprises” when it comes to fees. Our current frameworks explore different ways of managing external costs which are efficient for both us and our external providers.

What are the current hot legal topics in your sector and how does the future look for in-house lawyers?

We have large property holdings, with more than 8,000 titles, and we are currently a major public sector landowner in Scotland. The new land registration procedures and the Government’s proposal that public bodies should endeavour to register all land holdings within five years are presenting a challenge, as the vast majority of our titles are on the Sasine Register. I think the approach of companies to the appointment of in-house lawyers is to a degree cyclical, but I think businesses currently recognise the value of in-house lawyers, not only in providing legal advice but also managing business risk as well as commercial and regulatory challenges.

You are one of the speakers at the Update seminar on “Leading and managing an in-house legal team” in Glasgow on 9 September. Does Scottish legal education and training provide the necessary skills for working in-house?

Yes, although as a utility, we find that the increased desire to specialise challenges new employees, given the range of work that we encounter. My team are prepared to move out of their comfort zones and develop their skill base to meet the challenges of working in a utility. We also have to recognise where we need skills externally and further develop core skills internally: we are developing an internal construction law expertise, given the capital expenditure during our regulatory period.

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

I think perceptions are changing, particularly from external lawyers whose clients have water and sewerage issues, and we actively work to try and find a solution for their client who is often also a customer. More lawyers move between private practice and in-house and vice versa, and this has benefited both areas of the profession.

What keeps you busy outside the office?

I am a keen road cyclist, having entered a number of sportive challenges. I am also currently on the vestry of a local church. I have always been interested in modern history and my holidays are spent travelling in slightly unusual destinations such as Macedonia, Albania, Romania and the Ukraine.

What would you take with you to a desert island, and what would you put in Room 101?

A James Bond DVD box set, but without a DVD player or power it would probably be a range of books, particularly historical espionage novels. As far as Room 101 is concerned, I think it would be lifts. I dislike and avoid them, often hauling luggage up four flights of stairs, which helps keep me fit.

The Author
Tom Axford, Corporate Secretary and head of legal, Scottish Water Questions put by Graeme McWilliams, committee member, In-house Lawyers Group
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