In-house Lawyers’ Committee members have contributed to this account of the 2020 conference, reborn as the In-house Virtual Legal Festival

What makes a conference a festival?

The Society’s first three-day, fully online conference took place across 6-8 October.

This article can only select some highlights for attendees and facilitators on what made this new format of CPD event a dynamic and fulfilling experience in this year of seismic change.

In addressing more than 100 attendees from in-house solicitor members spread across the world, this year’s keynote speakers, Dr Stephen Hearns, A&E consultant, Air Ambulance Rescue and Arrochar mountain rescue team, Siobhan Moriarty, GC at Diageo, and Sandra Leece,

GC at Vattenfall, certainly had a different experience to the usual face-to-face conference keynote presentations. The format allowed for increased dialogue and collegiate engagement, as well as notably relaxed discussions on the issues raised.

The timing structure allowed for a short morning session with panel insights, followed by an extended lunch break to either take time away from the screen or catch up on the day job, including an optional drop-in lunchtime discussion “knowledge café”, followed by a two hour afternoon session of legal updates from sponsors DLA Piper, Pinsent Masons and CMS, and keynote presentations. One delegate commented: “As a telecoms lawyer I am ashamed to admit I was sceptical that this virtual conference would work – but it did. The programme being spread out over three days with good gaps between sessions meant I was able to both attend the conference and continue dealing with my normal work. Well done to all involved in making this event such a success.”

Day 1: peak performance

The first day saw RBS solicitor Marliese Perks named winner of the Law Society of Scotland In-house Rising Star Award for 2020 (Journal, October 2020, 38). Society President Amanda Millar announced the winner to a unique round of applause with all mics on. The 2020 Rising Star Award judges agreed that Marliese’s achievements were very impressive at such an early stage in her career, she having played a key role in a number of business-critical matters, working on a variety of complex contractual arrangements and navigating regulatory challenges.

Amanda Millar and keynote speaker Stephen Hearns then shared their takes on peak performance under pressure. Hearns explored many concepts, including methods and terminology to recognise in yourself to move from a “zone of frazzle to a zone of flow”. He based his advice on his 2019 book, Peak Performance Under Pressure, on the psychology of pressure and how it can both positively and negatively affect the ability to perform. Top tips included the preparation required for performance; having a pause away – a rally point; positive self-talk; methods to cognitively offload using delegation; and cognitive aids by simplifying in a back to basics manner.

Rachael McLean, head of the Strategy & Business Division at the Scottish Government and host of the day’s knowledge café session, reflected on the theme of wellbeing:

“I’d echo what both Amanda Millar and Dr Stephen Hearns commented on in their sessions, for anyone who is struggling to take annual leave at this time or to take a break from work during the day. You can’t pour from an empty cup and, while you may feel that having some time out or taking time off will do more harm than good, it’s so important to recharge your batteries. Trust that, as you would cover for a colleague who is on annual leave, they will do the same for you.

“What I have personally realised is that we can each only do the best we can to get through these unprecedented circumstances. We are all human and we have to cut ourselves, and each other, some slack. We are all facing our own challenges and the best thing we can do is to keep talking to each other and offer kindness and support. This will pass, but the best way of getting through it is together.”

Day 2: leadership

Day 2 opened with an update from Lorna Jack, the Society’s chief executive, and a review of the In-house Lawyers’ Committee’s projects and strategic priorities in the past year, led by co-conveners Sheekha Saha and Vlad Valiente.

The day’s panel session expanded on the actions of in-house lawyers in the COVID-19 pandemic, with Melissa Moore, commercial property solicitor at LexisNexis UK as chair of the discussion. Senior legal counsel who featured on the panel were Karen Gribben, head of Legal – Scotland Region, Network Rail, Susan Ferguson-Snedden, head of Legal & Compliance at Historic Environment Scotland, and Calum Stacey, legal manager and company secretary at Total UK Ltd.

The session focused on how the pandemic has affected the work of in-house legal teams at three very different organisations. Delegate polls run by the chair, largely reflected by the panellists, found that 65% have been busier than ever since lockdown began; 79% have had to work outside their area of expertise; and 30% envisage their legal department increasing over next year. Overall panel members highlighted a very positive pivot by their teams in terms of adopting new working practices, and indicated that the virtual environment has facilitated better communication with internal clients. It appears that COVID-19 has allowed in-house teams to re-evaluate their roles, resulting in a positive repositioning of legal function within an organisation and bolstering the reputation of this department.

However, concerns were raised around the loss of on-the-job learning and how to support more junior or new colleagues.

The festival plenary welcomed Siobhan Moriarty, GC and company secretary at Diageo, for the keynote session, from a virtual background of Landsdowne Road, home of the Irish Rugby Union team.

Moriarty reviewed ideas of authentic leadership and the question of why should anybody be led by you, taking questions throughout, facilitated by Bruce Beveridge, a past President of the Society. She discussed Diageo’s leadership ambition, “To create the best performing, most trusted and respected consumer products company in the world”, and its development. In order to achieve this, Diageo needed to lead differently over the long term. One of the Diageo standards was authenticity, defined by:

  • Stand for what you feel is right and important
  • Do what you say without exception
  • Role model the Diageo values
  • Build and sustain trust with others through real relationships.

She discussed in detail the development of the authentic leadership movement, defined by authors Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones, and explored its concepts with practical examples in the four leadership practices to be authentic with skill:

  • Become a situational sensor: hone your context reading skills
  • Know and show yourself just enough, and which part of yourself to disclose to inspire actions in others
  • Get close but keep your distance, knowing when to empathise and when to step back
  • Communicate with care; be clear and compelling, and create a vivid picture.

Authenticity, with a personal integrity that inspires others, was “the emotional cornerstone of great leadership”. It was a notably insightful way to bring a close to the day.

Day 3: collaboration

Arlene Gibbs, solicitor at Aberdeenshire Council and host of one of the knowledge café sessions, reflected on the day 3 conference theme of “The future of the in-house legal function” in this way: “With many of the in-house community managing changes to their working practices combined with an increase in their workload, it might already feel for some that the future has landed.”

However, it was clear from the presentations, panel session and discussion that, despite the challenges, there is optimism that the future is bright.

The day began with an engaging and thought-provoking presentation from Neil Campbell, managing legal counsel, Outsourcing, Technology & IP, Royal Bank of Scotland, on the O-shaped Lawyer (see Journal, September 2020, 36). That is, that good, all-round solicitor we inspire to be and wish to have working in our organisations. Delegates learned how the five Os (openmindedness, optimism, ownership, originality, and opportunity) would complement a technical legal skillset and help future-proof the legal profession. With in-house lawyers being at the heart of their organisations and working closely with their stakeholders, their having the skills to build lasting relationships, create value and demonstrate adaptability – as well as knowing how to apply the law – is the key to driving and influencing organisational change.

This concept of collaborative working also featured in an interesting and diverse panel session chaired by Bruce Beveridge. Rob McIntosh, Marliese Perks and Suzanne Wilson shared their recent experiences of collaboration, efficiency, innovation and opportunity within their organisations. The panelists agreed that necessity often drives collaboration and innovation and that, in times of financial constraint and with “more for less” set to continue, it was important that in-house legal teams made best use of their solicitors’ skillsets, and the information and technology available to them.

The panel also discussed the concept of early intervention and the benefits to in-house legal teams of having senior management buy-in. This theme was explored further in the final keynote session of the festival, with Sandra Leece of Vattenfall AB speaking enthusiastically and passionately about the positive impact lawyers can have in the boardroom. Sharing her experience of being a member of the C-suite in her organisation, she explained that she brings “an analytical, ethical, and holistic perspective to corporate decision making”.


All in all, the blend of online accessibility and opportunity to drop into discussions while keeping on top of day-to-day work was popular. As another delegate commented: “This course thoroughly deserved the name ‘Festival’. A fantastic lineup of inspirational speakers and presenters. Heartening to hear shared experiences in times of COVID and a wealth of ideas and perspectives which I will certainly take further.”

Sheekha Saha and Vlad Valiente, co-conveners of the In-house Lawyers’ Committee and overarching chairs of the festival, rounded up with their appreciation for the positive engagement and lively discussions that took place across the festival’s three days in albeit a uniquely different format to the usual in-person conference day. The in-house legal virtual festival is another example of the innovation and ingenuity that can come to the fore in times of crisis and change. Roll on 2021.

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