The Guardian's ex-legal director keeps her hand in with law on the side of her new ombudsman role
Siobhain Butterworth trained and worked at Stephens Innocent (now Finers Stephens Innocent), before moving at six years' PQE to The Guardian, where she set up their legal department. After more than a decade as the legal director there, she became the “readers’ editor”, an ombudsman role, which includes writing a weekly column. However she still lectures and runs seminars on media law topics and she has recently co-written a chapter on disclosure sources for a media law textbook. We spoke to her about her career…
mtl: Hi Siobhain, can you start by telling us about your career in private practice?
Siobhain: I trained at Stephens Innocent (now Finers Stephens Innocent), where I was exposed to a mixture of both contentious and non-contentious work. As a newly qualified solicitor I left the firm to move to Cornwall with my husband and young baby. I worked as a litigator for a very good (much bigger) firm down there called Stephens and Scown. Although I enjoyed the work we missed friends and family and moved back to London after a year. I returned to my job at Stephens Innocent, much to their amusement as they had laughed at me for leaving in the first place. It was a great firm to work for and I had lots of fun.
I remained an assistant there for a further five years, by which point I was six years' PQE and looking to become either a partner or to move in-house. I originally applied through a recruitment agent for a job at M&S but was put forward for a role at The Guardian which involved setting up their legal department. Although I had done some libel cases and had good litigation experience, the reason I was given the job was because I had also done non-contentious work. At that time they needed someone with varied experience and a broad base to set up a legal department, rather than a media law specialist.
mtl: Tell us about life at The Guardian.
Siobhain: I was the legal director there for over a decade and grew the department from just me to twelve people by the time I left, including a range of junior and senior lawyers, rather like in a small firm. I effectively ran two different departments there for editorial and commercial work. They now have separate heads.
1982 - 1984
1984 - 1985
Worked for Thomson publishing on trade journals
1985 - 1986
Diploma in law, London
1986 - 1987
Worked for a music promoter
1987 - 1988
Law Society finals, London
1988 - 1991
Trainee and assistant, (Finers) Stephens Innocent
1991 - 1992
Assistant at Stephens and Scown in Cornwall
1992 - 1997
Assistant and Associate, Stephens Innocent
1997 - 2008
Legal Director, The Guardian
Readers’ editor, The Guardian, lecturer and author
I did a bit of everything myself and started the job just as the Jonathan Aitken libel trial was being prepared, which was interesting. Obviously we encouraged journalists to come to us with potential issues and we gave them regular libel training and refresher courses. I also worked on some interesting disclosure of source cases, and some of those went to the Court of Appeal. On the commercial side, I was lucky to be there when the newspaper set up its own printing plant and bought new presses, which only happens once every few decades. Of course it was also during this time that newspapers were going online and I saw libel law develop while I was in the role.
mtl: Why did you step away from the role of legal director?
Siobhain: I felt that I had been in the role too long and that it wasn’t very dignified to still be doing the same job after a decade. I didn’t want it to be a lifetime’s work. There were two very good lawyers who were able to run the two legal departments and it made sense to give them a chance to progress their own careers. I applied for some roles at other companies but then had an epiphany in that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be an in-house lawyer any more. I’d set up a department and run it for ten years and I didn’t want to go and do the same thing somewhere else..
I told the editor that I thought it was time that I moved on and that I was thinking about a regulatory role somewhere instead. He mentioned that the “readers’ editor” role was coming up and when it was advertised internally I applied for it. The job is essentially being the internal ombudsman for the paper and it appealed as it uses similar skills to law in terms of analysing information and assessing complaints, but whereas as a lawyer I defended complaints, I now assess them independently. The work includes writing a weekly column which is good because I’ve always enjoyed writing and I find it challenging.
I took the role as I saw it as progress and the chance to do something different, when lawyers in the UK are often pigeon-holed and faced with a glass ceiling and glass walls within businesses. I work in a small team, with no boss and I can only be removed by The Scott Trust which owns the paper. I can write what I want and am entirely independent. It is a liberating and interesting job and I enjoy the contact with the readers.
We receive a large number of complaints - about 400-500 a week. These can range from pointing out a grammatical error or an inaccuracy in a story to a complaint about an injury to someone’s reputation, plagiarism, conflicts of interest, or more general issues such as partiality. Some of these, for example disputes about the paper’s reporting of the number of people who have died since the invasion of Iraq take considerable time to research and I find that my work-load is as high as when I was the legal director.
mtl: Tell us about the legal work that you still do.
Siobhain: Although I’m no longer working as a lawyer for The Guardian, I still give lectures on legal issues and have taken some seminar groups on media law as part of the UCL LLM (something that I hope to do more of this year). I have also recently co-written a chapter on disclosure of journalist sources for a media law textbook. I do about the right amount of legal work to keep my hand in and stay challenged, though I don’t miss having a full-time practising role.
mtl: Do you have any advice for our readers?
Siobhain: It is pretty hard to get started as a media lawyer and you have to be very interested in current affairs. It is essential to be in the habit of reading newspapers and online publications. Being a good litigator is important because that is a core activity for lawyers working on the editorial side of the business. For those working on the commercial side, good drafting and negotiating skills are needed. It’s a small world and there are only a handful of media law firms that you should attach yourself to if you want to be an editorial lawyer. It would be hard to get a job at a newspaper without having a connection to one of those firms. Occasionally I hired people without media experience but who had sufficient interest and skills to be trained (e.g. I took both a criminal and an IP lawyer) but that was only when there were no other suitable candidates with a media law background. Most of the time newspaper departments would be too busy to train people themselves.
Legal jobs at newspapers are few and far between because the work is very exciting and fun and people tend to stay in their roles once they get them. There are very few people who regret moving in that direction. It is very interesting to work closely with journalists and to be involved in getting stories out. Another way of getting into a paper though is to work as a freelance night lawyer from 5pm-8pm. They are mostly supplied by barristers’ chambers and the work is known as libel reading.
As far as being a news ombudsman, it is more common to have been a journalist previously rather than a lawyer, but my background shows that it is possible. However I think you would really have to have worked for a news organisation previously in order to understand the way journalists operate. Making decisions over ethics would be difficult without having a relevant background.
mtl: Thank you for your time Siobhain.
Click here to read Siobhain’s column.
Click here to read more about being a news ombudsman.
To read an unrelated article about being a night lawyer, click here.
If you know any other lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives or who have a great work/life balance then please get in touch.
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