Tell us about your career path to date?
I started at Perth & Kinross District Council in 1987 and then transferred to the unitary Perth & Kinross Council in 1996. My intention had been to stay for about three years, but counting has never been my strength. I gradually realised and appreciated the terrific variety of work and the opportunities available. I also appreciated working for client services, the established relationships that allowed, and working closely with colleagues across different professions and disciplines. I became a legal manager in 2005 and I was given a wider remit in 2017.
You’ve recently stepped down as President of SOLAR. How did you first become involved?
SOLAR is the Society of Local Authority Lawyers & Administrators in Scotland. It has existed in its present form since the current local authority structure was introduced in 1996. Every Scottish council is a member, as are some other public sector bodies and partner organisations. SOLAR has around 10 different specialist groups and an executive committee.
I first became involved shortly before major reforms to the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act were passed in 2006. Meeting SOLAR colleagues to discuss common concerns about those changes and learning from them was of tremendous help. I then became co-chair of SOLAR’s Planning Group and held that post for about 10 years.
What were your priority areas of focus as SOLAR President?
In addition to the President’s post, we have both junior vice president and senior vice president’s posts. This provides a good opportunity to understand what the President’s role will entail. You won’t be surprised to hear that in April 2019 I hadn’t foreseen the global pandemic arriving the following year. Then in March 2020 I cleared out of my office in a hurry for what I thought would be a four to six-week stint at home. As our understanding of the pandemic changed, so did the priorities.
Over the past two years, my priorities for SOLAR were much like those in our council’s legal services and those of my own team: what were our immediate priorities? How could we continue delivering services effectively? Was the legal framework adequate? And so forth. At the same time, most people were working remotely, sometimes in challenging circumstances. It was important to provide an opportunity for colleagues across the country to share concerns and experiences.
Much of the work in my year was reactive. Unfortunately, I did not have the normal challenge for a SOLAR President of organising an end of year conference, but we hope this will resume next year.
How important is it to find time to look beyond the busy “day job”? What sort of areas would you encourage in-house solicitors to get involved in?
I would say it’s important. Despite some media portrayals, it seems to me that most committees and voluntary organisations are delighted to have a solicitor or two in their ranks. Many of us are familiar with assessing constitution documents and other governance arrangements; we have some familiarity with data protection and the role of OSCR. Working for clubs and the third sector can be hugely rewarding either as a complete change to one’s day job or because it does link back to the day job. I won’t direct further: most of us have hobbies, or encounter causes or receive requests from time to time.
But I also realise that with a day job, families, carer commitments, or other responsibilities, additional undertakings aren’t always possible and that’s okay too.
What was your main driver for working in the public sector and the areas of practice that you have concentrated on?
As I’ve mentioned, the main driver for me was the quality and variety of the work and the opportunities it has given me. I have worked in several areas, for example litigation, as a clerk in the former district court and in employment law. Over the past 20 years I have been particularly involved in the council’s role as planning authority. That used to mean participating in planning inquiries, but they are less common now. It has given me more than a few trips to Parliament House and it has been a privilege working with some excellent members of the Scottish bar along with Edinburgh agents over the years.
How have you and your team changed the way you work in recent years? What have the successes and challenges been?
One of the biggest changes must have been the move to more digital-based working. That was crucial in adapting so quickly to enforced remote working and must be considered a success. Now we are moving to hybrid working and establishing just what this means and considering the different challenges associated with this.
World news can be relentlessly hard to take in at the moment and this can be a great source of anxiety. Do you have any thoughts on how lawyers can look after their own mental and emotional wellbeing?
That’s such an important question that I am cautious in responding to it. The protection of mental and emotional wellbeing is not an optional extra. Many years ago, I worked on a case with a brilliant employment lawyer who told me he’d learned far more from his unsuccessful cases than from those he had won. He was absolutely right but, equally, those successes should not be dismissed too quickly either, nor any of the more mundane day-to-day achievements.
It is now more accepted that people should be able to reach out for help, and that it is a strength and not a weakness to do so. But I suspect there is still more to be done on that front. We see excellent work carried out by our colleagues or external partners most weeks; it’s not wrong to share that observation, whether directly with them, with their manager or both. A supportive environment is vital for mental and emotional wellbeing and we all have a part to play in achieving this.
What are the key challenges for in-house teams? How does the future look for in-house lawyers?
Key challenges must be in matching or exceeding the expectations of client services, usually with limited staff and time. Their expectations can be high and may need to be managed and priorities agreed. We operate across such a range of areas and in areas of constant change, a challenge which is obviously not confined to the in-house lawyer.
Despite increasing budgetary pressures, I think the future for in-house lawyers looks good. We are a sizeable proportion of the profession in Scotland, and I think there is now a better understanding of the in-house and public and private sector roles. I am grateful to all those who have worked, and who continue to work on the Society’s In-house Lawyers’ Committee and otherwise supported the work of the Society which has helped strengthen our profile and fostered that understanding.
How have attitudes and working practices in the legal profession changed in the law since you started out?
I mentioned recently to a trainee that I was admitted shortly after the introduction of the Sasine Register in Scotland – and then worried that this had been accepted without question. When I acquired a practising certificate in 1987 we were respected as a profession – and we still are. Clients needed assistance then and they do now. I suspect the level of trust across all professions has reduced over time though.
Although there are many constants, the amount of change has been enormous. We have seen both criminal and civil legal aid budgets restricted to a dreadful degree over the past 20 years. This does not affect my own work directly, but it is still a cause of concern. Otherwise, those short respite periods enjoyed while letters or internal memos were delivered ended as instantaneous electronic communication arrived. On a positive note, the necessity for remote working because of COVID meant that technological opportunities have had to be seized. A colleague has just secured a warrant from a sheriff through Webex, without leaving her desk. The sheriff was isolating because he had COVID and was working from home. This is unremarkable now, but it would have been astonishing just over two years ago.
What advice would you give lawyers who want to start a career in-house? What makes a good in-house lawyer?
I’d have to know the form of in-house career, as my experience is limited to the public sector and a local authority. If it was in my sector, I would strongly encourage them. I might say that when I began I would occasionally be asked why I was working in-house, but now private sector practitioners are more likely to ask if there is an opportunity for them to join me.
A good in-house lawyer? I do think it helps if you have a commitment to the public sector and a desire to make a difference.
What are your thoughts on training in-house versus training in private practice?
That’s easy – I want both! There is a lot of knowledge held in-house and when it comes to delivering training for non-solicitor colleagues, we know them well, the challenges they face, and we can tailor their training around this. But I would not want to be without access to private practice expertise either. At times there is a need for either the greater specialisation or expertise which private practices may possess.
What is your most unusual/amusing work experience?
You’ve stumped me here. I wonder if I have confronted the unusual so often that I am no longer sure what it is? Fortunately, there is still a lot of fun had and amusing experiences encountered. I’m not sure I can recall the most amusing now, but it is also possible that I’d better not recall it!
Finally, what do you love about your role, and what do you love doing when the working day is done?
I do love the diversity of the issues to be covered in any one week, the challenges they present and the people I work with to accomplish this.
When the day is done, although my childminding days have long since passed, I seem to have switched to child’s dog-minding days. Short walks with him are a great part of the logging off process!
Geoff Fogg, Perth & Kinross Council and Past President, SOLAR