Kathy Atkinson is legal director at Kettle Foods. She talks to us about training in-house, managing the reputation of one of the UK’s best-known brands, and what law firms get wrong…

Tell us about your background and how you entered the legal profession.  

I did a law degree because it looked interesting as a subject and I figured it would be a good degree to have for other careers even if I didn’t end up wanting to practice. My expectations of law as a degree subject were largely based on flicking through a copy of Smith & Keenan’s English Law which I found in my college library – I’m not sure that’s the best way to make such a fundamental decision as choice of degree subject but it appears to have worked out fine!

Having really enjoyed studying law I decided I needed to get some experience of practice before I could make a decision as to whether to qualify. I got a paralegal job at Eastern Electricity doing conveyancing – mostly buying parcels of land for substation sites and arranging easements for electricity cables. The company had a legal department of around 30 people and I got a good insight into what life as an in-house lawyer would be like. I was sold!

I persuaded the GC to pay for me to do the Legal Practice Course part-time over two years while I continued to work as part of my training contract, and I qualified after that.

Have you always wanted to be a lawyer? When you were at law school, what were your ambitions — did you have ideas about what shape your career would take?

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do for a career until I was already in work. Law was an area that interested me at school, but I was also interested in other things like writing, so I briefly entertained ideas of being a writer or journalist. By the time I was at law school I was also working in a busy in-house legal department and I had dabbled enough in various areas within the department that I knew general commercial law was the area in which I wanted to qualify.

From early on in my legal career I decided I wanted to work my way up to being on the board of a company – the idea of being such an integral part of a business and making a difference at board level was very attractive.

What’s training in-house like?

Training in-house worked well, it was more fluid than the very organised regime that my peers in private practice experienced and I rather liked that. The broad idea was to mimic the way a training contract would work in a law firm by spending a period of time with different teams within the legal department. However, it was rarely a fixed six-month stint in each, as the timing was flexed to respond to the needs of the business at any particular time.

The company had a separate company secretarial function and I spent several months working with them too which gave me the chance to see a different aspect of the company. There were a few of us at a broadly similar level in the legal department and we also took on regular trainee solicitor secondees from Eversheds so we could all support each other and share our experiences in the same way as in law firms that take on a cohort of several trainees at a time.

We often found that we were getting better quality experience and more client contact than was the case at the time for law firm trainees as we were considered first and foremost to be a resource in the department that should be used to the full.

You did a brief secondment at Eversheds during your training – have you ever had the desire to go to a law firm?

I was really keen to do the secondment to Eversheds as I had in my head an idea of what private practice would be like and I wanted to experience it for real. In fact it was not quite as I had expected.

Being surrounded by other legal experts was as enjoyable as I had anticipated, but that element wasn’t so very different to being in an in-house legal department, albeit on a bigger scale. I had expected it to feel like I was doing more law and much less business, but in fact I was surprised by how much the firm felt like any other business that is fundamentally about making a profit. I found it rather frustrating to be one step removed from clients and not to hear about what happened next after I had concluded my piece of legal advice.

The people in the firm were lovely and made me feel very welcome but I was glad to return to the in-house environment and I have yet to feel tempted to try private practice again.

You spent four years at EDF Energy before joining Kettle Foods in 2004. Why did you move away from the power sector and was it a difficult transition to make?

When EDF Energy was going through a restructuring and moving its operations to Surrey and London I decided I wasn’t willing to relocate for a role within the restructured organisation. I had initially been sole counsel in a 50/50 JV that was intended to be more agile and free to take risks.

However, the electricity industry had been in such a state of flux for some time that it was no great surprise that we ended up being 100 per cent owned by one of the huge energy giants.

As I was wanting to be part of a smaller and less structured business I decided to look around and it happened that Kettle Foods was recruiting its first in-house lawyer. I liked the company straightaway: the people were all extremely passionate about KETTLE® products; it had managed to retain the friendly feel of a small company despite its growth; and it had ambitious plans for expansion. Plus of course there’s nothing like working for a snack brand that is well-known and so well-loved!

With my general commercial background the transition was pretty straightforward –  after all, a contract is a contract for the most part, no matter what the subject matter. The main difference was the regulatory aspect – I no longer needed my knowledge of things like the electricity distribution code, but I had to get to grips with food labelling legislation instead.

What have been the biggest challenges for you at Kettle? We as consumers see the upmarket crisps on the shelf but what is going on behind the scenes for a lawyer? What takes up the majority of your time in your current job?

Protecting the KETTLE® trade mark has been high on the agenda from the time I first joined the company. The success of the brand has made it very attractive for others to try to copy. We’re now so well established in the UK that we rarely have issues here, but we still find in other jurisdictions that third parties will try to trade off the goodwill that we have built up. We have good trade mark registration coverage worldwide and we’re not shy about taking action to protect our rights, but my preference is always to sort these things amicably.

There’s a lot of contract work, putting in place contracts with all our suppliers, customers, distributors and agents. Plus we do a lot of work with our Marketing team, supporting them with terms and conditions for social media competitions and the like.

A lot of my time over the last few years has been taken up with acquisitions. We’ve had 3 years now of buying one business a year and even though they may be small they always involve a similar amount of work. The work can feel disproportionate to the value of the business we’re buying at times, but I enjoy doing them.

When we bought Metcalfe’s skinny popcorn last year it felt like a particular breakthrough, a step on the path of us moving towards being a multi-brand organisation. Completing a transaction that will be transformational to the business always feels really worthwhile.

You manage an in-house legal team at Kettle and presumably you hire junior lawyers from law firms. What do you think they find surprising about life in-house? Are there skills they aren’t equipped with things you have to teach them?

We’re a very small team of two currently. I’ve had team members over the years from very different backgrounds, for example a law graduate who I trained up until she was ready to apply elsewhere for a training contract, to my current colleague who qualified several years ago and practised family and criminal law before joining Kettle Foods after a career break.

I think coming from a law firm lawyers tend to take a little time to adjust to being more familiar with internal clients. There can be a tendency to treat people as clients rather than colleagues and there is a danger that the advice given won’t be accessible enough to the people you’re dealing with. In-house lawyers have clients from a much broader cross-section of all levels within the organisation. This is in contrast with the clients of private practice lawyers because only certain people from a company will be authorised to instruct external lawyers.

I encourage team members to think of themselves as a businessperson first and a lawyer second as that’s what will be valued by the rest of the business most. Our non-legal colleagues want someone who can understand their pressures and objectives from the inside and can then give pragmatic advice and support.

Law firms must pitch to you for work a lot – what are the things that impress you about the firms you’ve used, and what do law firms get wrong?

I like the firms I work with to do whatever they can to understand my business. If they are willing to take the time to find out about what is going on for us currently and what we are therefore likely to need most then they are more likely to be able to help us.

However, most of the time the people-relationships will be what keeps me coming back to a firm – if I enjoy working with someone then human nature dictates that I am more likely to want to repeat the experience. This applies particularly for corporate transactions as I have to spend a lot of time working with the individuals involved, with especially intense periods in the run up to a transaction completing. If we get on well and can relate to each other then it can really ease the burden at what can be a very pressure-filled time.

Hourly billing is what firms are still getting wrong, it is a model that I think is failing. It doesn’t work with how I am expected to run my legal budget and it is frustrating that I don’t have more options. Even if a firm is willing to offer fixed fees, the way in which they come up with the fixed fee is to work out how many hours the work will take at the relevant hourly rate, which isn’t really the point. We’re not big enough as a company to be able to demand different types of billing arrangements but I keep encouraging law firms to look at this in the hope that more of them will alter their approach.

What advice do you have for students hoping to pursue a career in law?

It seems very tough out there for people starting their careers now, I’m sure it only gets harder each year that passes. Although I graduated in a time of recession I still always felt like there were opportunities. Now the competition is so fierce and with escalating student debt adding to the pressure, students have a tough call to make on how far to take their legal aspirations before trying something else.

I would encourage students to get as much relevant experience as they can, and preferably before committing to further study with its attendant high course fees.  If you can try a few different areas of law within different environments (including law firms and in-house) then you have more chance of discovering what you find most interesting and that will enable you to focus your search.

It’s much easier to convince a prospective employer that you would be a good candidate for the role on offer if you can demonstrate why you want it based on what you have discovered from prior experiences. I also think new routes in to the profession like apprenticeships are to be welcomed and are worth exploring.