We recently caught up with graduate Mark Mills who studied Law and graduated in 2007. Mark’s now a Deputy Legal Director of Ofgem and shares his thoughts on Essex, a career in the public sector and what we can all be doing to turn the tide of climate change.

Hi Mark, could you first tell us a bit about your time at Essex? Why did you choose to study here?

I am local to Colchester and grew up about 10 miles from the University so had a local connection to the area already. When looking at universities, it was the strength of teaching at Essex that stood out to me. It’s a big transition from A-levels and the School of Law had some exceptionally good lecturers so it just made sense. One thing that really stands out is how the teaching staff found opportunities for us to really push ourselves to the best of our abilities. 

What is one of your favourite memories from university?

One of the things I’m most proud about is that a small group of us were the first students from Essex to go and compete in an international arbitration mooting competition. We spent a week in our third year in Vienna competing for the university – there were about 180 other universities from around the world and some of the other teams had about 10-15 students on them, but there was just a couple of us. It was such a fantastic experience and really showed me how much the university cared and went out of its way for its students. 

You graduated, and then what happened?

After I graduated, I went to Cambridge for my Masters and my time at Essex really set me up to take advantage of that opportunity. After my Masters I followed what I suspect is a well-trodden path in law – I went to a major international law firm for a 2 year training contract. I then spent six months in Brussels living and working over there, which of course at the time was the heart of the EU and was a great experience. At this point we were just coming out of the financial crisis and my firm couldn’t offer me a role in the area I wanted, so I took quite a bold move and left to pursue an opportunity that really interested me in public law, competition law and economic regulation. That was a springboard to where I am now – I went from the most junior lawyer in a relatively small team, and within ten years became one of the leaders of the entire legal function at Ofgem. 

Can you tell us a bit about your role at Ofgem?

We deal with some of the most complex and contentious legal issues that come up in the field of energy, regulation and public law and competition law. We contribute directly towards the UK’s commitment to achieving net zero. When I look back at the opportunities I’ve had over the last ten years, they are pretty amazing. I’ve travelled to other countries to talk about the UK system of energy regulation, and quite early on in my career in the civil service, I had the chance to go on a Foreign Office trip to Japan, Korea and Taiwan all in a week. A number of times my work has critical to things being reported on the front pages of the national newspapers or on the TV news. This is a reflection of how energy is so integral to everything that we do.

I was honoured to be chosen recently as one of The Lawyer’s Hot 100 of 2022 as a reflection of the important work my team, and my other colleagues in Ofgem’s General Counsel team, do to protect consumers.  I spend a lot of time looking at things that are being developed, but also have responsibility for dealing with more contentious things such as litigation and complex regulatory appeals. One of the things I find most interesting is acting as the bridge between different stakeholders within the organisation: to “get the job done” I have to be able to communicate and work effectively with those with a policy background, economists and engineers among others. It is a great challenge (but one which I think we all rise to most of the time) to make complex issues as simple as possible.  It certainly sounds varied.

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day in my role is certainly not a nine to five. Few days look like that! The civil service has a great commitment to its staff and looking after our wellbeing. But with energy having such a huge impact on people’s lives, I take my responsibility to consumers very seriously and often that means that when unexpected things happen my team and I need to work hard to try to make the difference. The majority of my work is as an advisory lawyer looking at how we can make Ofgem’s policies and regulation robust and legally sound. As a broader part of my role, I very much try to take a step back and reflect on those who have supported me during my career and do the same for others. I’m a part of the University’s Ethics Committee and mentor a few people too.

You may have heard the University’s commitment to reaching net zero by 2035 and declaring a climate and ecological emergency. What are your thoughts on what we could all be doing?

In terms of trying to enable net zero and become more sustainable, there’s a responsibility on us in government and regulatory roles to create the right framework for this. As an individual, there’s the need to consciously engage with the impact we each have on the environment – the first step doesn’t have to be huge, but we all need to take it. Informing ourselves so that we can engage constructively with the various ongoing debates is also important in my opinion. I’ve recently finished Bill Gates’s book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. It does a great job of explaining some of the key issues in a simple way. 

And do you have any words of wisdom for students looking to get into a similar industry?

To be honest that if you’re driven by money, the public sector is probably not for you! You must really love what you do. There are opportunities to seek rewards of a different type. You can take responsibility early on in your career and really stretch yourself. Being a public servant can be challenging and I am not going to pretend otherwise. It comes with a high degree of responsibility and sometimes things don’t go as well as you’d hoped. However, it can also provide a pathway to be involved in things which are tremendously motivating and invigorating.