Karen Caswell – head of export control – MAI –at BAE Systems (Operations) Limited Military Air & Information – discusses her career & what it’s like to train as an in-house lawyer

Karen, can you tell us a bit about your career to date?
I studied Law at University and absolutely loved the subject. I always intended to qualify as a solicitor at some point, but - never one to follow a traditional route! - I was really keen to broaden my experiences and have a go at something else first.

I started my career teaching A-level Law at my old Sixth Form College. I found working with 16 to 19 year olds to be a very rewarding experience. It was great to work with a group of young people who were enthusiastic learners and excited about their future careers.

I knew however that I still had more I wanted to achieve. So, in 2006, I started work as a contracts officer at BAE Systems’ Military Air & Information (MAI) division based in Warton near Blackpool. MAI, amongst other things, is responsible for the design, development and manufacture of military aircraft and other related military products and services to Government customers in the UK and overseas.

The contracts officer role was quasi-legal in nature. I worked on a set of contracts relating to the Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft programme, and I was part of a team responsible for drafting and negotiating a number of high value contracts with the UK Ministry of Defence and other business partners. However, about a year in, a vacancy was advertised for a trainee legal adviser and I jumped at the opportunity. I completed my training contract in-house (including studying for the Legal Practice Course part-time and a six-month secondment to Eversheds’ Employment team), qualified as a solicitor in 2010 and haven’t looked back since.

I’ve been lucky enough to get involved in some fantastic legal projects across a whole spectrum of disciplines over the last 10 years. It’s also been great to be part of a legal team that has transitioned from being quite a small resource (there were only a handful of lawyers in the team when I started), to a much larger combined legal and compliance team established as a function in its own right.

What was it like training to become a lawyer in-house?
The benefit - and also the challenge - of training in-house is that you definitely hit the ground running! As well as making sure that you’re learning the law, you quickly have to find a way to prioritise a large volume of tasks, provide advice that’s easily understood, pragmatic and solution-focussed and manage a whole range of stakeholders (including sometimes the difficult ones!).

On the flip side, you very quickly get to know the business you’re working in and develop strong working relationships with the people within it. You’re often in situations where you have to think on your feet, and you learn to provide answers to queries that are not only right from a technical legal perspective, but also take into account the wider strategic objectives of the company. It’s a real learning curve and a big responsibility, but you very quickly develop into more than just a legal adviser. You become a trusted business partner with a seat at the decision making table – and that for me at least is the real advantage of training and working in-house.

What does your current role at BAE Systems involve?
In March last year I became the head of export control for MAI. I report into the MAI chief counsel and me and my team of nine direct reports form part of a wider MAI export control community which is made up of about 40 export control professionals.

From an operational point of view, I help the business teams to develop project-specific export control compliance plans that are focussed on making sure that we have in place all of the export licences and other approvals that we need to deliver our products and services on time.

From a governance point of view, I’m responsible for ensuring that MAI has in place a robust export control compliance regime across all of its 70+ sites and locations worldwide. In big handfuls, that involves leading the development and implementation of export control processes, procedures and training across 14 separate functions (including Commercial, Procurement, Engineering and Manufacturing) and the development and delivery of an export control assurance programme (which covers both internal self-audit activity and preparing for external audits that are conducted by, or on behalf of, our UK and US Government regulators).

What’s the best thing about your job?
I really enjoy the nature and variety of the work that I do - no two days are ever the same. I also get to work with a whole host of people outside of BAE Systems, including senior compliance professionals in other defence companies, UK Embassy staffs in Washington DC and representatives of the US and UK Governments.
Because export control compliance is quite a niche specialism, I’ve had some really interesting opportunities over the last few years. I’ve designed and lead workshops for industry professionals at BAE Systems’ compliance conferences, and I was invited to be a guest speaker at a Global Trade & Regulatory Compliance Summit sponsored by Deloitte LLP in London last year.

The best thing about my job though is being part of a senior management team that gets to influence and shape our future export control compliance strategy.

Congratulations on being named the C&I Group North West Young In House Lawyer of the Year 2015. How did the award come about and what does it mean to you?

Thank you very much. I was genuinely surprised to win. I was nominated for the award by the MAI chief counsels and fortunate enough to be shortlisted. About a month before the awards ceremony, I was interviewed by a judging panel comprising Mark Levine from BCL Legal and Beverley Phillpotts from Peel Holdings. I was the last of the nominees in my category to be interviewed, and I followed some lawyers with really interesting roles. A couple even had props!

The judges asked me about my role, my team, my biggest challenges and why I thought I deserved the award. They both had great poker faces, and I left the interview feeling quite sure that I hadn’t managed make the world of export control compliance sound at all sexy! I only found out that I’d been successful on the night of the awards ceremony and I was thrilled to win.