What is it like to work as an in-house solicitor in Higher Education? Sam McGinty reflects on the transition between local government and higher education and why he loves his job.
I joined Loughborough University in 2017 to run a small team of contracts lawyers supporting the University’s research, development and knowledge exchange activities. I had been a commercial contracts lawyer to date and this role had a heavy focus on intellectual property law, which was something I had enjoyed as a trainee in private practice, but had had little exposure to since qualifying.
In terms of technical legal knowledge of the area, the learning curve was steep, but satisfying and I was helped by having experienced colleagues who knew the area inside out. I wasn’t supposed to be carrying more than a minimal case load – my role was to drive consistency in approach (commercial, policy and drafting) to our contracting activity across the spectrum of research and development activity with external partners. However, facing similar recruitment challenges to those of local government, we remained understaffed and I was thrown into the detail of complex research framework agreements, international IP licences, spin-out companies (new enterprises predicated on University generated IP) and related litigation. It was demanding, but I loved it and it has inevitably helped with the development of policy and process in support of the activity at the University.
Look under the lid of any university and you will see a myriad of fascinating streams of activity, from fundamental research beyond the comprehension of a lay person, to innovations that have the potential to radically change our lives for the better. It is not just about whizzy technology. For example, Loughborough academics undertook the research that underpinned the Living Wage Foundation’s work, that ultimately made it into law. To be involved in these activities, even if just in sorting out the legal aspects, is incredibly satisfying and working with leading academics with a genuine passion for their work only enhances that feeling.
Understanding the context of a university and the complicated landscape in which higher education operates added to the steepness of the learning curve. My previous role was at a unitary authority and I had worked in a district before that. I was familiar with how local government worked, the law, the mechanics of governance and the purpose and priorities. On taking up post here at the University, I quickly exhausted opportunities to say “it’s a bit like local government…”, but in truth, there are a lot of similarities which made the transition from local government to a higher education institution smoother than it might otherwise have been.
Both local government and higher education share a significant role in the community and are sensitive to the needs for good communication with and reputation amongst our peers and stakeholders – you may have noticed universities receive press attention for a range of reasons and not only about student matters. Both local government and higher education hold public money and bear the burden of all that entails, the fiduciary duty to use our assets wisely and spend prudently. Both are subject to legislation like FOI, State Aid and procurement regulations – unfortunately there is no escaping any of those if you are thinking of making the change from local government to higher education. While it is not always understood, the Nolan Principles extend to representatives of universities too. We have a council and committee system of governance and have regulators who take a keen interest in what we deliver and the way we deliver it. We are on show too and good governance and transparency is key.
The skills an in-house lawyer needs to thrive in local government are just as valuable in higher education. While good drafting, research and analytical skills should be a given, commercial astuteness and being able to consider the bigger picture are just as valuable. The ability to spot a problem looming on the horizon, to find a solution and be able to generate a change in thinking to stop it being a problem again is key. Sometimes it is not about being the lawyer, but the sensible head in the room. Being able to manage your clients – and your clients’ expectations – should also be a given, but higher education will test that thoroughly.
Coincidentally, I was the first solicitor the University had employed and it was not long before I was being asked to advise on corporate projects and other legal issues as they arose. While not strictly speaking in my job description, it was a great opportunity to develop a better understanding of the rich and complex ecosystem of a university. Loughborough has four pillars – teaching, research, enterprise and sport – the latter is probably what we are most well-known for, having been listed in the Guardian league table as the number 1 university for sports in the world. We have exciting partnerships across campus (and indeed across teaching, research, enterprise and sport) with sports governing bodies, sports regulators and companies working in sports industries. While not an inherently sporty individual, getting involved in these projects has been really very exciting.
In May 2019, the team became Legal Services and moved to form part of the extended Vice Chancellor’s Office team. As part of this, we have expanded the team by adding property law to our portfolio of support. Loughborough is England’s largest single campus university and managing our property portfolio, including our growing science and enterprise park, generates no small amount of legal work.
As we bed in as a new corporate resource, we will look to the future to see what additional support we can provide to the university, to de-risk existing and new activity, to reduce our reliance on external lawyers and to help maintain the successful trajectory the university has enjoyed in recent years. Each university is structured differently (unlike local government, there is no triumvirate of Statutory Officers to drive certain structures) and colleagues at other institutions deal with a range of higher education specific issues such as student discipline, academic appeals and navigating the emerging regulatory landscape under the remit of the newly formed Office for Students. These issues are tackled alongside procurement, employment and data law, amongst others.
Over the last few years I have met a number of higher education lawyers who have spent some of their career in a public authority like me and frequently talk about the bits we miss and the bits we don’t. All found the transition challenging, but ultimately rewarding and it always feels that we are all quite content where we are.
Sam McGinty is Head of Legal Services at Loughborough University, a top five University and the top University in the midlands as ranked by the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2020.