Nina Barakzai - proof that you can never stop learning

Posted in Interviews on 10 Jun 2015

1.Tell us about the In-house Counsel Worldwide (ICW)

It is a group that was formed from an affiliation group of 7 In-house counsel associations from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong in October 2011. We aim to unite the Global in-house legal community, for the benefit of all In-house counsels, their organisations and the profession, through cooperation and collaboration. The group now represents 13 countries, including India, Indonesia, Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka and the UK.

2.Tell us about your role as Vice Chair of the ICW

I am thrilled to have been chosen to serve as Vice Chair.  It is a really exciting group which brings together In-house counsel on a truly worldwide basis.  From a European lawyer’s perspective, it opens up a network of In-house lawyers who are able to share experiences and expertise in a way that helps all of us grow and develop, as we seek to deliver the best service we can to our internal clients.  Our work programme is due to be developed over the coming months, so many of these consistent themes of sharing and growing from shared experiences will be on our agenda.  As the immediate past chair of the UK's Commerce & Industry a Group, this a really exciting programme of work to get involved in, as we can be part of a professional development programme that will benefit all of our members.

3.Your day job is with Sky as Group Head of Data Protection and Privacy. Alongside your Vice Chair of the ICW you also sit on the Board of two Committees at the C&I Group – Corporate Governance, and Privacy and Security. Do you enjoy leading a very full professional life?

I think in every activity a lawyer does, there needs to be a strong focus on what you expect to learn.  I am fortunate that much of the work I do externally brings me experience that I can bring back into my work as an In-house lawyer.  I found that the insight I gained from colleagues working in the corporate governance arena helped me when I was developing my thinking on a programme to deliver Privacy by Design.  Much of the work I do as a volunteer in community charities has helped me better understand how vulnerable consumers may wish to engage with their service providers and suppliers. It also complements some elements of my work that require soft skills.  An example for me was being involved in the Lawyers in Schools scheme with colleagues from Sky's Legal Team.  We worked with teenage students in a local school to discuss how law is applicable to many different areas of their lives as young citizens. I had to use my legal expertise to explain and illustrate legal concepts such as intellectual property, liability and responsibility in a way that was relevant. This for me was the part where my knowledge as a legal professional was put to community use, to encourage and support school students starting to consider their career choices.  It also meant I had to focus on explaining clearly, legal concepts to non lawyers.  Much of my In-house role requires me to work with teams of experts who are not lawyers, so being able to explain things clearly without using the legal shorthand that another legal professional would understand, helps me build my professional and commercial effectiveness.

4.You are an Accredited Mediator and a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators. Do you have one case that you are particularly proud of?

I cannot pick one case in particular, but rather feel that when I decided to train in those two disciplines, I had no clear idea that the skills I was acquiring would be of such enormous use in situations beyond those I expected.  At the time I was studying for each qualification, I was handling a significant volume of disputes, usually through corporate dispute resolution schemes.  The training made me better able to reach practical and pragmatic outcomes, because it gave me a sort of skills toolkit to use to help bridge the differing views of two contracting parties. That toolkit is so useful in helping to assess what options each party might be willing to consider to reach a compromise solution and still work collaboratively.  Now, I am doing far less dispute resolution, but am using the toolkit to help assess legal risks and identify options for projects to deliver compliance with regulatory obligations.

5. What key challenges will In-house Lawyers face over the next five years or so?

In my work, the main challenges come from staying up to date with rapidly changing technology and applying laws which are themselves constantly being reinterpreted to fit new situations.  For an In-house lawyer, the need will be to stay close to their business, so as it changes to meet its commercial challenges, the In-house lawyer stays relevant and practical.   It is also the fun side of why I am a lawyer, trying to make sure my advice is relevant not only to stay within a culture of compliance, but one stage beyond this, of trying to predict how I might design a legal solution that gives flexibility in the future, as technology changes how and what we provide to our customers.  Not quite crystal ball gazing, but this definitely gives me the chance to create new ways of addressing legal risk whilst taking advantage of the commercial opportunities.

6. Why Law? You started life as an Accountant in the mid-80s and then retrained to be a Solicitor in 2000 - what made you change profession?

At heart, I have always been interested in how organisations work within a risk framework to get things done.  My experience as a finance professional gave me great insight into the living breathing engine of how funds, operational resources and human ingenuity can all come together to deliver an outcome, whether it us building a motorway, drilling for oil or serving up great media content.  As part of my finance qualification, I completed a unit on law and found it fascinating, so once I qualified as an accountant, I went on to indulge my curiosity and do a law degree part time.  My teachers were fabulous, making the study much more like listening to incredible stories of how you could use language to interpret real life and where there might be ambiguity.  I also found my finance knowledge complemented my legal understanding, particularly in trust and revenue law.  As I was working throughout my legal studies, moving through the stages of my law degree, legal practice course and professional skills course, these were all a voyage of ever more stories.  My training contract was within In-house legal teams, so I was able to cover the seats required, and in fact, had many more than just six areas of law, as I worked with a range of different lawyers across the businesses.  Looking back, I never stopped being an accountant, I just added my legal skills to my portfolio.  It was just a real eye opener to see things from the legal aspect, and understand how finely nuanced language could be.  I suppose my curiosity to delve deeper into how law can affect business is where I started shifting to a more legal focus, rather than taking a conscious decision to change career.  In my head, I haven't changed careers, I have just enhanced my understanding of business, and had fun following my love of stories.  This is echoed by the role I have as the chair of CIMA's call for research papers on Big Data, where my privacy expertise is allied to my finance knowledge.

7. From a legal perspective you have always worked In-house – why did you not train, or indeed, work in Private Practice?

My experience in Thomson McLintock, now KPMG as a trainee accountant, gave me an awareness of working in private practice.  The variety of clients, the range of work, the multiple locations, business development objectives, the high pressured environment to achieve client requirements within certain timetables all sound so similar to a private practice legal environment.  The one common factor is that I had to do time sheets for every 6 minutes.  I had to do exams whilst training, and was hopeless at statistics, so when I failed that exam, it was an easy choice to leave private practice and use my finance knowledge where there was less need for stats.  As it turns out, it was the right decision for me because I moved away from audit and into management accounting, and became fascinated by the use of financial information within an organisation to drive its growth.  I qualified as a Chartered Management Accountant and began my In-house career in business.  The thrill at the time was that the qualification gave me a route into a global profession, where my finance skills linked me to other accountants all operating to global accounting standards, and all working to a global code of conduct.  It was like joining an enormous club of like minded individuals who all talked the same language, and had the same professional and ethical values.  Later in my career, I was lucky enough to be elected as the UK's representative on the International Federation of Accountants' International Ethics Standards Board, which represents and sets policy for accountancy bodies worldwide, and found many of my fellow board members were lawyers, rather than accountants.

8. Once qualified - what made you then specialise in Data Protection and Privacy?

I have always been intrigued by information and how it is used.  My work as a privacy professional started when I submitted the registration for the division of Reuters in which I worked, in the late 1980's.  As my career became more focused on regulatory matters and compliance, I built expertise in overall corporate governance frameworks, of which at the time, privacy played a part.  Having done competition law as a key part of my role at Oftel, when I moved into ntl, now Virgin Media, I was doing a broad compliance role and built the compliance team to handle privacy related activities such as subject access requests, liaising with enforcement agencies and embedding privacy into operational procedures, to make sure consumer data was handled appropriately.  The work was equally focused on business to consumer and business to business transactions, so when I shifted to Towers Perrin, now Towers Watson, they hired me for that expertise, as their Global Privacy Officer.  With any global business, and particularly with Towers Perrin being a pensions and human resources consultancy, there was a richness and variety of privacy work that is hard to beat.  I was hooked!

9. You are an avid supporter of two local charities – tell us about your work here

One charity, Elmwood Community Centre, is a drop in centre for mature ladies who come for a weekly session.  It started as a coffee morning, but developed into offering computer classes to teach them how to do word processing, access the internet and help them go online.  The centre also offers numeracy and literacy classes, dressmaking and yoga.  The main drive is to encourage the ladies, many of whom are grandmothers who have become isolated and stuck at home, to get out and meet other people.  It is amazing to see them interacting and sharing conversation and forgetting their worries for the morning.  My work as committee member is to help the centre with its administration.  The second charity is the Twickenham Brunswick Centre, which uses sport to help children develop.  Again, I help with their administration. They are looking for football coaches, so if anyone is interested in helping out, please let me know.

10. Who has been the biggest influence on your career and why?

I think my mum and dad.  They have always encouraged me to follow my curiosity, and challenge me to never assume that I have stopped learning. 

11. What has been your greatest achievement so far in life?

I think each one of my activities has taught me something, so rather than feeling I have achieved, I am more aware of how much fun I have had learning things and then putting that learning to good use.  Perhaps the achievement has been to realise that I can direct my own learning, rather than expect that I will be taught, even though it has taken me a while to understand that.

12. Tell us about you - childhood, education, career, family, interests etc.

I am the second daughter in a family of three sisters, one brother.  My sisters both live in the USA and my brother lives in the UK.  My sisters have professional careers as a paediatrician and aeronautical engineer, and my brother is an accountant and engineer.  We tend to congregate around our parents in the UK on family occasions and as we all have families and children, it can be quite noisy, boisterous and entertaining.  My mum used to be a primary school teacher before she retired, so she keeps us all in order!

Share this post