Alison York, Head of Legal at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), discusses what it’s like to work as an in-house solicitor to protect the natural environment of Scotland.
Tell us a bit about the legal team at SEPA
I head up the Compliance & Beyond Legal team in SEPA. There are many different aspects to the work our team does, but a large part of our work is to provide advice to SEPA on environmental law and regulation. There are 20 in our team with a mixture of full time and part time staff, based in Edinburgh, Dingwall and our office at Eurocentral.
How has your career led you to your current role?
I started off as a conveyancing solicitor in private practice, but had always had an interest in the environment. So when an opportunity came up to be a SEPA solicitor back in 1997 I grabbed the chance and have been there ever since! I became head of the Compliance & Beyond legal team last year, having had various roles in the legal team over the years.
What are the most important skills you need to have to be a successful in-house lawyer at SEPA?
The skills you need are very varied. You need to have very strong technical legal skills. Then in terms of general skills I would say that the most important things is that you are a great communicator, and in particular good at translating complex law into plain English. You need to be a great team player, working closely with colleagues from all professional backgrounds as well as with your legal colleagues. I would also say that the most successful SEPA solicitors are pragmatic and flexible and have excellent influencing and negotiation skills.
Personally, what do you find the most interesting aspect of your work?
As a lawyer in SEPA, I love that we are not part of a remote service, but play a key part of multi-disciplinary teams working to make sure that the environment and human health are protected and to ensure that Scotland’s natural resources and services are used as sustainably as possible. Environmental law has developed so much over recent years and keeps developing. For example SEPA recently obtained new enforcement tools, and is now able to serve fixed and variable monetary penalties and to agree enforcement undertakings with businesses. Developing the use of these new tools by SEPA is an area of work I have loved being involved in, and its just one example of the innovative legal work that solicitors in SEPA are involved in. One of the best things about being in our legal team is that no two days are ever the same!
What advice would you give to someone interested in joining the team?
Don’t be put off if you don’t have any environmental law experience! Think about the transferable skills and experience you have. Have your worked in a regulatory background? Or a criminal background? Have you got experience appearing in court or at hearings? Have you worked in-house as part of a multi-disciplinary team? Of course having all these skills and experience together would be amazing but unusual! Any one of them would be a reason to apply for a job in SEPA, particularly if you want to be part of a great team of lawyers working with other professionals who are all motivated to work together to protect and enhance Scotland’s environment, helping communities and businesses thrive within the resources of our one planet. We actually have a couple of positions that we are currently recruiting for, so have a look at Lawscot Jobs for more information.