AS the producer of iconic drinks brands such as Glenfiddich, The Balvenie, Drambuie and Hendrick’s Gin, family-owned whisky business William Grant and Sons has a vested interest in ensuring its intellectual property (IP) is protected.

The job of doing that falls to the company’s in-house legal team and, ultimately, newly promoted general counsel Greg Bargeton. And while one “brilliant” member of the 16-strong team takes the lead on IP matters, Mr Bargeton said the fact that so many members of the family that founded the firm back in 1887 are still involved in the business means there are plenty of people willing to get involved in identifying any breaches that may have occurred.

“Challenges to our brands come from all over the place, but everyone in the business is so passionate about our brands that they all keep an eye out,” Mr Bargeton said. “We get information from the chairman down. We get emails saying ‘have you seen this’ and we get bottles sent through that people have bought because they thought it looked suspicious.”

These breaches can end up in the company heading to litigation, something it generally works with City law firm Taylor Wessing on. That said, Mr Bargeton noted that his preference is to follow the “pragmatic” approach taken by Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) legal head Alan Park when it comes to brand protection.

“In the US people tend to go to court before breakfast and we have a few cases running there but our attitude is that we don’t go looking for fights,” Mr Bargeton said. “We don’t always get it right and Alan Park, who is brilliant and immensely pragmatic, will give us a gentle steer. They do an amazing job protecting Scotch around the world.”

Not that all the work the legal team handles is IP-related, with Mr Bargeton noting that the range of matters it deals with continues to grow. Though he maintains strong working relationships with firms including Burges Salmon, Pinsent Masons and Shepherd and Wedderburn, he said he tends to only use external advisers where “heavy lifting or specialist advice” is required.

“We would always partner with an external firm on M&A work, although we don’t do a huge amount of M&A work - just before I joined the company bought Tullamore Dew and it recently bought Drambuie,” he said. “The funny thing about M&A is that it doesn’t matter what the value of the transaction is you still have to do the same amount of legal work.”

Not so long ago businesses like William Grant would have passed a far greater share of their legal work to external law firms, but that has changed in the years since the financial crash. With more and more lawyers turning their backs on private practice the ability for companies to develop legal specialisms in-house has grown, meaning teams like Mr Bargeton’s can have far greater choice about what they keep for themselves.

“Our attitude has always been that we’d rather do it ourselves because we see it as an opportunity to connect with the business,” he said. “We’re really loathe to see that experience leak out and become something that law firms can benefit from. Last year was one of the busiest years we’ve ever had but we underspent on our outsourcing budget.”

It is a trend Mr Bargeton would like to see continue, which is why he is looking to grow the legal team. Having numbered six people when he joined the business from Carlsberg Breweries a decade ago, the team is now 16 strong, with most of those people based at the company’s North Lanarkshire headquarters. The plan is to bring that up to 21 within the coming months, while also increasing the team’s geographic coverage.

“Most of the team is based in Bellshill but we have a smattering of lawyers elsewhere - we have one in New York and one in Singapore,” he said. “Part of the work we’re doing this year will be to have bigger teams in key geographies - we’ll have someone in Richmond to cover EMEA, another in Manhattan, one in India and another in Singapore.”

The team has already grown with the appointment of David Williamson, a non-lawyer who previously worked at the SWA. Although his background is in corporate affairs, Mr Williamson’s expertise in the area of trade is proving vital to Mr Bargeton’s team given the impact of trade tariffs by the US and the ongoing uncertainty over Brexit.

“The US tariffs have been applied so they do impact us but the bit everyone is holding their breath about is whether those tariffs will increase,” Mr Bargeton said. “Ideally, if everyone could work their magic, they’d be removed - what we really want is a de-escalation of this issue, not an escalation.

“On Brexit, we’ve taken lots of practical steps to try to mitigate the risk, but I’m always reminded that this company started in 1887; if you think of all the political upheavals that have happened since then we can weather these storms.”