Hot on the press

If you ever thought being in-house was the soft option, think again. Kathryn Hobbs talks to The Guardian’s legal head Siobhain Butterworth about practising law at high speed

Before Guardian Newspapers hired Stephens Innocent (now Finers Stephens Innocent) assistant Siobhain Butterworth in 1997, its legal work was sent out. Olswang effectively filled the role of general counsel, checking stories before they went to press and handling the complaints or claims arising from them. The group, which incorporates national newspapers The Guardian and The Observer, as well as numerous websites, had reached the mid-1990s and a multimillion-pound turnover without employing a single in-house lawyer.

Media and the law go hand in hand. Every single story in any newspaper, magazine or website has the potential to cost the publisher money. Libel litigants are often high-profile celebrities, businesspeople or politicians with deep grudges and equally deep pockets. Given the amount of legal work – particularly libel matters (pre and post-publication) – endemic to newspaper publishers, The Guardian was spending millions on legal fees each year. It needed someone in the middle to keep track of where its money was going and if possible to make savings.

Butterworth trained at Stephens Innocent. In 1996, a recruitment consultant presented the possibility of joining The Guardian. “I wanted to try going in-house somewhere at that time. I was a Guardian reader and this was a broad role, balancing contentious and non-contentious work,” she recalls. “I liked that I could use a wide range of skills.” The job on The Guardian offered Butterworth a suitably wide remit. It provided the opportunity to shape and lead an in-house team while exploring more esoteric ideas in action. “I did a degree in philosophy, so I was already interested in freedom of expression and privacy. I was very interested in working with these ideas as well as law,” she explains.

Butterworth was interviewed and got the nod. She went from all-purpose media, copyright and personal injury lawyer at a West End firm to being head of a hitherto non-existent legal function at a mainstream daily newspaper. Butterworth prefers the word ‘challenging’ rather than ‘daunting’ to describe her first few months in-house. She argues: “It was just common sense. You look at where the legal spend is, and in our case it was on libel. It made sense to give priority to that.”

Butterworth brought much of the pre-publication process in-house. She hired other lawyers and, during her five-year tenure, has increased the in-house headcount to six. A couple of members of her team concentrate on contracts work, but the bulk focus on making sure that stories are read for potential libels before they are published.

This is not a job for the faint-hearted. The Guardian has had its fair share of court action – Jonathan Aitken, Neil Hamilton and David Shayler to name but a few. But Butterworth is adamant that the threat of litigation should not stop the press from being both bold and contentious. “The most important thing for this business is that a paper gets out every day,” she says. “We don’t see our job as saying no to things. We want to find a solution so that we’re able to say yes. You have to know how far you can go and suggest structural changes.”

Butterworth joined just as disgraced politician Jonathan Aitken was wielding his ‘Sword of Truth’. In addition to this now infamous trial, there were some 57 or so other ongoing cases. Last month, Stagecoach chairman Brian Souter withdrew his libel action against The Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell in one of the few cases brought against a cartoonist. Litigation is a daily hazard for The Guardian legal team, so Butterworth needs people who are up to the challenge. Mistakes can be astronomically costly, so you cannot afford to make them.

Butterworth asserts: “You have to want the responsibility. There’s no partner to say ‘I can’t do this work’ to. Everything on your desk is urgent. The time pressure is unbelievable.” For the in-house team, deadlines are unremitting. Each day a newspaper has to appear and all potential problems have to be vetted. In addition to her daytime team, Butterworth has a cadre of night lawyers, who from dusk till dawn are reading stories for libel. She estimates that this twilight team handles at least 600 stories every night.

Butterworth aims for an environment where people enjoy what they are doing despite the pressure. “Job satisfaction is very important to me. It’s important that the people working with me feel supported,” she states. Butterworth emphasises the need for people to be able to raise a hand and wave for help if they find themselves out of their depth. And she does now have people to back her up – a far cry from the single office and computer she started with in 1997.

Although her team now numbers six, which proves that she must have some pulling power, Butterworth says that it is difficult to find good people willing to move in-house. She goes further, arguing that, of those who are interested, only a handful are suitable. “There’s a tiny pool of libel lawyers that can do this kind of work at this level. You can’t get by by bullshitting,” she says. “And there’s also the fact that, in private practice, you can earn significant amounts of money.”

Despite the difficulties, Butterworth revels in her role. She comments: “We’re here to do a very good job, to advise the company and to keep costs down.” The in-house team, excluding the contracts people, divides its time roughly half and half between checking for libel and litigation.

Preparing the ground prior to publication is where Butterworth is able to rake in costs. This is, of course, money that comes in handy should a trial crop up. Beyond stating that litigation is her biggest expenditure, Butterworth will not reveal how much she spends on external firms. “I don’t have a budget to spend,” she says. “We have no control over who wants to sue us.” She adds that if you want the best to defend you in court or prepare your case, you have to pay for it.

In most instances, Butterworth turns to old favourite Olswang. She is of the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ school of thought and has longstanding relationships with individuals at Olswang, Davenport Lyons and Lovells. She knows the service she will receive when she sends work out and how much it will cost. “When I came we already had a really remarkable external firm and there’s been no need to look elsewhere,” she says.

Olswang’s libel specialist Geraldine Proudler helped Butterworth to find her feet. “Geraldine was very supportive. She knew the newspaper back to front and helped me learn the ropes,” recalls Butterworth. Proudler remains her lawyer of choice. “There are very few lawyers with her experience,” says Butterworth. “If you’ve got the best, why change? Libel is so crucial to our business that it wouldn’t make any sense to send it anywhere else.”

While Proudler and Olswang had The Guardian relationship sewn up, The Observer offered law firms the opportunity to display their wares before Butterworth. She has settled on Lovells, saying: “David Parsons is a brilliant lawyer. He’s very academic and has fantastic attention to detail.”

Should Olswang suffer from a conflict of interest, then Butterworth calls upon Davenport Lyons. Both firms also act for the company on intellectual property (IP) matters.
“I feel very comfortable instructing external lawyers on litigation,” explains Butterworth. “I’m confident that they aren’t giving me overly cautious advice. They give me a range of options and provide direction. The process is discursive.” Discursive sums up this in-house team. They liaise closely with journalists, discussing stories and arguing over the finer points of defamation law; and they do much the same thing with the firms they outsource work to.

The Guardian in-house team will grow as the business it serves expands. Butterworth has taken on a Davenport Lyons assistant to work on IP and libel matters and plans to hire more. It does not seem likely that the charms of private practice will succeed in luring Butterworth back to a firm. She observes: “The legal profession in private practice can feel very cloistered. It’s nice not to work only with lawyers. For me, I really enjoy working as part of a team, with in-house, editorial and external lawyers all helping to get a story out.”

In-house is not the cushy option as far as Butterworth is concerned. “We should be operating at the same level as a high-standard media team in private practice,” she states. Butterworth and The Guardian do not offer an easy ride. One recent interviewee decided that private practice sounded much the more relaxing option. Applicants should take note.
Siobhain Butterworth
Head of legal
Guardian Newspapers Limited

Organisation Guardian Newspapers Limited
Sector Media
Turnover Undisclosed
Employees 1,400
Legal capability Six
Head of legal Siobhain Butterworth
Reporting to Managing director and The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger
Main law firms used Berwin Leighton Paisner, Davenport Lyons, Lovells and Olswang