Ex-Dentons lawyer finds wild life
In this edition we interview Niall Watson, who jumped out of the City (Denton Hall – now Denton Wild Sapte) to do something different and is now one of two lawyers at WWF-UK (formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund). How did he get there and what is it like?
mtl: Hi, tell us about your legal career so far - how did you end up using it to protect wildlife?
Niall: I started out by studying law at Victoria University in New Zealand in the 1980s. Originally I was planning to be an animal behaviouralist but the job prospects didn’t look great at the time so I chose law as a safer bet. I got into environmental law at University but, as it wasn’t exactly an established practice area in those days, my first job was as an energy lawyer for a large firm in New Zealand. Not quite my cup of tea but an interesting insight into the world of Big Oil.
In 1989, I arrived in London with every intention of moving on quickly to travel around Africa. But I was lucky enough to get a great job in the environment group at Dentons just as environmental law was really taking off as a practice area here, and before I knew it I had been there four years. But by then I was beginning to realise that maybe a big commercial legal practice was not for me. The work was interesting but I felt like I was part of an assembly line – waiting for the next problem to solve without ever really getting to see what the final product looked like. I wanted to have a bigger emotional investment in the work I was doing.
So I chucked it all in and took off to Africa with no sense at all of what I would do on my return. Some friends said I was foolish to turn my back on such a promising career but Africa was a revelation for me. To get an insight into the different cultures, the politics, the poverty, and the conflict between wildlife preservation and people’s livelihoods was the best education I ever got. And I was lucky enough to get a volunteer job at the Environment Liaison Centre International in Nairobi working on the Biodiversity Convention, one of the two principal treaties to come out of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. When I returned to England in 1995, I pestered WWF until they finally relented and gave me a job working on the Convention (not as a lawyer) and I haven’t looked back since.
mtl: Great, but how did you make the jump to Legal Advisor?
Niall: Well, WWF had never had an in-house lawyer so I was constantly being asked to advise on legal issues anyway. Eventually, I realised my legal skills were something useful I had to offer and the Directors agreed. So, after four years as a conservation officer I was appointed as WWF-UK's Legal Adviser. My role is split between doing the usual in-house lawyer thing – contracts, intellectual property, charity and company law etc – and doing legal policy work on a wide variety of the issues we work on.
WWF is not just dedicated to the conservation of wildlife. Its work covers six key areas, species conservation, forests, freshwater, marine eco-systems, toxic chemicals and climate change.
The organisation also works on the main influences on those issues, such as globalisation, international trade and investment, business sustainability and general international development issues. I’ve also recently been doing a lot of work on oil and gas developments in developing countries so there’s a certain synchronicity to it all. But Climate Change is going to be a major focus for WWF over the coming years.
mtl: It sounds very interesting, but how is the lifestyle, money and so on?
Niall: Well, suffice it to say that after 10 years here I’m still not earning as much as I was at Dentons but, you know, money isn’t really an issue – I’m comfortably off and have as much as I need. As for lifestyle, I couldn’t be happier – I live in a nice part of the country (Surrey) doing a job that I love with people I respect for a cause that I believe in. I’m a pretty lucky sod. And one of the things I really notice is that, even though in many respects I’m working as hard as I ever did, I never feel remotely as stressed as I did in the City. The only one putting pressure on me is me.
mtl: We understand that you occasionally recruit interns to help you out, tell us more about that and how anyone who is interested can find out more….
.Niall: Well, there are only two of us in the Legal Unit here, doing an awful lot of work, so we welcome all the offers of help we can get. I probably get a call a week from a lawyer wanting to work for WWF or the NGO sector more generally and we’ve been very lucky to have a number of often highly experienced lawyers come and work here on a volunteer basis as a stepping stone to making that shift. We also have a number of practising solicitors and barristers who do pro bono or reduced fee work for us. Anyone who is interested in helping out or volunteering should take a look at our website (link below) and get in touch.
mtl: Does the WWF still get confused with the World Wrestling Federation?
Graduated from Victoria University, New Zealand
Joined Rudd Watts & Stone in New Zealand
1986 - mid 1988
Travel and working around Europe
Mid 1988 - mid 1989
Contract legal position with NZ Ministry for the Environment
Mid 1989 - late 1993
Denton Hall - London
(now Denton Wilde Sapte)
Late 1993 - early 1995
Travel around Africa - worked for Environment Liaison Centre International, Nairobi for 6 months
Maternity cover at Nabarro Nathanson, London
Niall: Groan. You would have to bring that up wouldn’t you? Yes, we still get a bit of that but things have improved a lot since we won our court case against the Federation and they changed their initials to “WWE”. We weren’t very popular with a lot of wrestling supporters but it was an important win and has made doing our work an awful lot easier.
mtl: Niall Watson, thank you very, very much for speaking to us. Good luck with your wedding and all your work.
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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