Looking after Guardian News and Media Group’s legal wellbeing is a 24-hour job, but it is one that Nuala Cosgrove relishes. By Nina Goswami

Investigative journalist David Leigh has taught Nuala Cosgrove, the Guardian News and Media Group (GNM) director of editorial legal services, everything she knows. Well, everything about editorial digging that is.

Leigh’s exploration into the shadowy world of the UK’s biggest arms company BAE, including the organisation’s slush fund, saw Cosgrove having to pit her legal wit against some of the world’s most eminent lawyers.

Cosgrove says she would not have been able to do so without understanding investigative journalism inside out.

“BAE has been a legal minefield, but by working closely with David and understanding exactly how stories have been exposed has meant we’ve been able to fight advances to block the stories going forward,” she says.

“The great satisfaction from the BAE investigations into corruption had to be the launch of the [Serious Fraud Office] inquiry, where you know that you’re actually making a big difference.”

But Cosgrove’s job is not all about fighting for the greater good. She says it can be a hard slog, with the legal service having to provide 24-hour cover to the media group.

“The explosion of the internet has seen the world of news become a lot more fast-paced and has meant that we now need to be on call 24-7 as the group could publish at any time,” explains Cosgrove.

To provide such a full service, GNM has almost 20 lawyers on its team. This round-the-clock service led to a massive overhaul of the company’s legal team earlier this year following former legal director Siobhain Butterworth’s move to the role of readers’ editor, replacing Ian Mayes in April.

GNM split its legal offering into two divisions to cope with the influx of work, both on editorial issues as well as commercial concerns.

The restructuring saw Cosgrove head up editorial legal issues, reporting to The Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger, while Sarah Davis became the director of commercial legal services, reporting to GNM’s managing director Tim Brooks.

“The divisions mean that we have a clearer split between the different areas of work, such as editorial and commercial,” Cosgrove says. “Before we each would be doing a bit of both and even now there is still some overlap in relation to copyright and IP issues. But overall it means that we concentrate on our specialisms.”

For Cosgrove, her specialisms have circled around IP, defamation and litigation after working at media-focused firms Davenport Lyons and what was then Stephens Innocent (now Finers Stephens Innocent), making her the obvious choice for the editorial director position.

“Most of the lawyers on our team have had specialist experiences in private practice, including a former Olswang partner,” explains Cosgrove. “It means that much of the work that we get involved in can behandled in-house.”

As a result of having such a strong legal offering – including the group’s most recent acquisition, barrister Korieh Duodu from David Price Solicitors & Advocates in June – GNM, which owns The Observer in addition to The Guardian, has not set up a formal panel of external law firms.

Cosgrove explains that the preferred firm is currently Olswang, although Reynolds Porter Chamberlain is often used as well.

“More and more we’ve been instructing Taylor Wessing, but this has been in cases where the media industry has got together to stop an injunction against the whole of the press,” she adds.

The legal set up means that Cosgrove and her team tend to go straight to the bar for external assistance.

“We’ve all built up good relationships with the bar from our previous jobs and from our experiences here, so it makes sense that we go straight to the barristers as we know our cases inside out and are best placed to provide them with the relevant information,” she says.

Andrew Caldecott QC of One Brick Court and Andrew Nichol QC and Antony Hudson of Doughty Street Chambers are three favourites.

It was Nichol with whom Cosgrove held emergency talks in March this year when The Guardian managed to sidestep an injunction that had been the thorn in the side of the BBC over a new revelation in the cash for honours scandal.

“That day, leading to us publishing about Tony Blair’s aide Ruth Turner shaping her evidence [in the cash for honours scandal], was one of the most surreal days in my time at The Guardian and I can still remember it vividly,” recalls Cosgrove. “It was all very dramatic and kicked off in a big way while the editor was out for dinner.”

With a smile on her face, Cosgrove reminisces: “As a result of the key players not all being under one roof, we had to have a telephone conference to get everything sorted out swiftly. The biggest problem was trying to get the phones to work.”

Once the telephones were sorted out though Cosgrove’s team secured the permission to go ahead with the story – a good thing considering that the newspapers had already been printed and was being distributed as the legal debate was raging on.

“It’s impossible to really explain the adrenaline rush I had. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” enthuses Cosgrove. “But working with the group you can guarantee there’s something exciting going to happen, including the occasional bust-up leading to a spectacle on the newsroom floor.”

Name: Nuala Cosgrove
Organisation: Guardian News and Media Group
Title: Director of editorial legal services
Sector: Media
Reporting to: Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian
Turnover: £245.7m
Number of journalists: 700
Legal capability: Three full-time, one part-time and 15 locum/night lawyers
Main law firms: Olswang, Reynolds Porter Chamberlain, Taylor Wessing
Nuala Cosgrove’s CV
Education: BSc (Management Science), University College, Swansea; CPE, University of North London; LPC, College of Law
Work history:
1994-96: Trainee, Stephens Innocent 1996-99: Associate, Stephens Innocent
1999-2001: In-house counsel, Burberry 2001-02: Assistant solicitor, Davenport Lyons
2002-06: In-house lawyer, The Guardian
2006-07: Legal manager, The Guardian
2007-present: Director of editorial legal services, Guardian News and Media Group