The many hats interview: Gayle McFarlane

This week I'm delighted to profile Gayle McFarlane, partner at Cordery, a specialist practice. Cordery provides innovative ways of helping General Counsel, Compliance Professionals and Heads of Legal across industries manage compliance.

Gayle, how did you end up being a commercial lawyer?

I’ve spent my entire career as a commercial lawyer, having decided to study English and French Law at university mainly because my family thought I liked an argument a little too much!

I qualified as an IT and E-Commerce lawyer, just as the e-commerce bubble started to burst, but as regulation started to hot up. I was hooked on how new technology was going to fit into the existing legal framework, and how we as lawyers would keep up with commercial innovation. I’ve been running with the pack ever since, spending some time as a professional support lawyer and indulging my interest in the black letter law, before moving back to client service a good few years ago to get my teeth back into solving problems for my clients. My move to Cordery really sealed my ambition to focus on technology, law and compliance.

What type of projects are you working on at the moment?

We work on a really wide range of issues at Cordery. I focus on “information law” – data protection, freedom of information, confidentiality and data security, and e-commerce and consumer law, but I have a wide an varied background in commercial law and supporting in house lawyers. I understand the pressures of our clients’ businesses.

Can you fill us in on a memorable moment of your career?

I don’t think I’ll ever forget telling an opposing lawyer in a negotiation to “shush” – finger to lips and all. I blame it on the fact I have a young daughter, and I was so frustrated at the fact the opposing lawyer was (a) not listening, and (b) talking herself into a hole. But where your clients are trying to foster a long term relationship, you often build up a good working relationship with the other side - so the commercial team forgave me, even if I’m not sure she ever did…

I'm sure we've all felt like doing that some time!

What makes a lawyer a commercial lawyer?

Understanding your clients’ business. Unlike a corporate transaction, where the deal is done and never the twain shall meet, our clients are either seeking advice on how to run their business in a compliant fashion in the long term, or building robust relationships with customers and suppliers that they want to last. You need to understand what the particular objective is, and cut through the legal complexities to show the business that the law isn’t just a barrier to stop them doing what they want to.

Is there a common problem you come across time and time again as a commercial lawyer?

On the compliance side, it’s a perennial difficulty - the urgent often beats the important hands down, and it’s difficult for business to find the time to deal with nipping problems in the bud. Until they become the urgent issue when a problem, such as a security breach, arises.

What tips do you have for making legal advice more digestible/commercial for business?

Plain English, and telling clients what they need to know first. It’s very easy for lawyers to want to explain exactly why they came to a particular conclusion. But clients look for a trusted advisor who will tell them the answer first. If you need to go and explain afterwards, there’s no harm in that, but focus on what the client needs.

What advice would you give to someone entering the commercial law arena?

Do it! I’ve loved it.

Ironically, I would say that despite the focus on making everyone commercial, when you’re starting out the important thing is to make sure you understand and know the law. Commerciality will come with time and experience, but it’s worth nothing if you don’t have the solid foundation of legal knowledge underpinning it.

Do you think that the profession is doing enough to make lawyers truly commercial?

That’s a big question. The firms that I have worked with have been really good at exposing lawyers to business issues and working closely with in house teams. The profession needs business to welcome us in and let us support them at a grass roots level so that we can have the knowledge that allows us to stand in their shoes.

So, what could we be doing better to train lawyers working at the sharp end of business and commerce?

Great supervision and mentoring. We learn by seeing first and doing afterwards, with some background reading going on in tandem. I think that the relationship between junior lawyers and senior lawyers has weakened because of the pressures of workload at both ends of the scale, and that’s a real shame. We do need to pass on the baton.

Is there a recent development in commercial law that concerns you?

The new data protection regulation is going to mean changes for a lot of businesses. I think because it’s been rumbling around in the background for such a long time now, people are becoming complacent. But it’s important that we are engaged – data is such a huge part of so many businesses now, and employee data affects all businesses, that it is bound to have an impact.

Finally, of all the hats you wear, which is your favourite?

Well, it’s red, and pointy, and… I’ve seen my hat! I want my hat back! (for fans of the famous “I want my hat back” book – highly recommended for small children and parents alike).

And what do you do to switch off from the day job Gayle?

I try not to feel the need to switch off from the day job! I really love what I do, and as a single mum working full time in a competitive industry I often have to work “creative” hours to make sure I meet the needs of my clients whilst still meeting the needs of my family and friends. If I didn’t love what I did that would be very difficult, so my RSS feed reader happily has LexisPSL updates sitting there next to recipes for playdough or gingerbread houses so I can integrate the two!

I do love to bake and find it great for relieving stress, and I’m a very amateur photographer – mainly portraits.

Thank you Gayle, great insight into your world!

If you're a commercial lawyer in private practice or in-house, and would like to be profiled in our series of interviews, please get in touch with the PSL Commercial team.

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