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DFS General Counsel & Company Secretary, Liz McDonald

November 20, 2017

DFS General Counsel and Company Secretary, Liz McDonald, recounts the highs of working as an in-house lawyer, offers some useful productivity tips for lawyers and reveals her love affair with retro sweets!

Before your time as DFS General Counsel, what influenced you to become a lawyer?

Most of my family are scientists; my four older cousins are all super bright, and I think that put me off the science route. But I’m naturally inquisitive: I always want to know the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of anything and everything, and I love solving any kind of puzzle.

I love the law, but, as I studied for my degree and interned for law firms during my holidays, I realised that, actually, I was more interested in working within a business. I identified that my ideal role would be in helping a business grow and develop whilst avoiding the legal and regulatory pitfalls all companies face.

Today, it isn’t that uncommon to do a training contract in-house; but back in the early nineties it was very unusual. When the opportunity came up I jumped at the chance to do my training contract in-house with the Halifax, and I have never regretted it.

In my role as the DFS General Counsel, I get to practise law in an exciting and dynamic environment, with an overview of the whole picture in the context of the business. It’s true that in many cases lawyers aren’t called in until something has already gone very wrong, but working in-house is different: you are a colleague first and a lawyer second, and you have input on a project right from the start, enabling you to influence how it develops.

What made you choose to work as General Counsel at DFS?

Prior two working at DFS I was General Counsel at Poundworld for two years and thoroughly enjoyed the variety of work in the retail sector. It’s a cliché, but no day is ever the same.  Prior to that, I’d never worked in retail, but it was an industry that I’d always kept an eye on and wanted to experience at some stage of my career. 

As an in-house lawyer with over 20 years’ experience working mainly in the service sector, the chance to learn something new in the retail sector and something that impacts everyone’s daily lives was really exciting. Everyone is a ‘shopper’ and a consumer; we all have opinions on what we like and don’t like. 

What is the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?

“Take a deep breath – it’s just a bad day, not a bad life!”

This is what my first boss said to me after my first experience before a District Judge. That judge seemed to delight in my misery!

What piece of advice would you give to millennial lawyers looking to join the legal profession?

When it comes to your to-do list, do the task that you least want to do first! We all have that challenging task sat in our ‘jobs tray’: that piece of work that we don’t really want to deal with and the longer we leave it, the bigger it gets. The sooner you tackle it, the better you will feel!

Another piece of advice: give yourself the time to think things through fully before responding. We live and work in a very fast-paced world, much more so than when I started out. Technology is great and makes us much more responsive, but with everyone in business working faster than ever before, you can feel pressured into giving a snap response to a request for advice without considering all the angles. As a lawyer working in a dynamic environment, it’s important to feel confident enough to say, “I will get back to you as I want to think about that.”

What song was no1 when you qualified?

Spice Girls – Wannabe.

What was your first non-legal job?

Bar work, at a local pub near my home. I think, like most students, it was a great way to socialise and earn money at the same time. Plus I met my husband whilst I was working there!

Who would you most like to get stuck in a lift with?

Sir David Attenborough.

What do you like to read?

In the last year, I really enjoyed ‘By Myself’, Lauren Bacall’s autobiography. I like anything by anything by Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers. I love all those murder mystery novels from the 1920s and 1930s, the golden age of English detective fiction. My favourite gadget definitely has to be my Kindle.

Favourite restaurant.

Anywhere in the Med where I can enjoy a long lazy lunch with plenty of rosé wine.

Favourite holiday destination so far, and where next?

Kenya. It’s an amazing country, and I am lucky enough to have visited several times, so I know it quite well. I’m off to South Africa next, as I really want to visit the wine region and do the Garden Route.

Guilty pleasure?

Retro Sweets – I love Flying Saucers, Sherbet Pips, Midget Gems, White Mice and Liquorice Sticks… there’s many more too!

Default ‘tipple’…?

Gin & Tonic.

Top 3 things on your “bucket-list”?

  • Hot air ballooning
  • Snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef
  • Visit the Galapagos islands

Most embarrassing moment?

There are too many to remember! However, in my previous role, I was reminded of the need to concentrate. Poundworld had regular staff sales to raise money for Marie Curie, their corporate charity partner. The team did an amazing job in raising money for the charity.

I was once stuck on a long conference call when an email went out to all staff saying that a snap staff sale was about to start. I knew that the team had some boxes of old fashioned liquorice sticks that I really wanted, so I emailed, asking for a couple to be put to one side for me. I meant to reply to Debbie alone, but I hit ‘reply all’ and subsequently told all of head office about my love affair with liquorice.

I didn’t realise until several of my colleagues started coming up and leaving boxes of liquorice on my desk! I ended up with far too much liquorice, but fortunately it is a family favourite so we all enjoyed it.

What was your first car?

A white 1976 MG BGT.

Most annoying phrase you’ve heard in the workplace.

“We are where we are…” A lawyer I work with used it a lot and it always infuriated me.

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