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Survival strategies


2010 is going to be one of the most difficult years in living memory for lawyers wanting to find a job, or even stay in a job, in local government. Nevertheless, there are rays of hope, especially for those who understand this market  and respond smartly, writes Neasa McErlean.

First: the bad news. “I fully expect there will be pay freezes for solicitors working in local government this year, unless we can do something about it,” says Peter Allenson, national organiser for public services at the Unite union.  He is currently negotiating 2010/11 pay terms for 1.6 million local authority workers with the employers.  So does he think the expected job losses will also reach lawyers? “They are going to be affected,” he replies grimly.

Allenson’s views are backed up by the four recruitment firms that LA Life spoke to for this article.  “Over the next 12 months, it’s going to be difficult, particularly in the lead-up to the general election,” says Kelly Wadkins, head of the locum team at Sacco Mann.  “All of our clients are talking of redundancies, cutbacks, restructuring legal teams and even shared services.”  And Katie Allen, business manager at Hays Legal says: “The impending budget reviews are already creating caution among local authorities and some are pre-empting budget cuts by taking measures early.  Some employers have put salary freezes in place and we are seeing others ask their legal teams to take reduced salaries or look at flexible working options in order to avoid making redundancies in the department.”

But there are, in fact, plenty of caveats to this bad news.  As Allen suggests, the local authorities are trying to avoid lay-offs.  “Redundancies will be the last resort,” says Andrew Kelliher, senior consultant at Badenoch and Clark.  And while pay freezes could be widespread, Rachael Woodman, one of the legal managers at Sellick, unlike Katie Allen, is not expecting the pay cuts that have happened in some parts of the private sector to come through to local authorities. “I have worked in placing people in the public sector for ten years and I’ve never known a pay cut,” she says.  In short, local authorities look likely to do as much as they can to limit the human damage.  “Vacant posts will be targeted first,” says Judith Barnes, governance head at the Eversheds local government department.  “And I don’t expect there to be a large number of compulsory redundancies.  They will try to do it voluntarily.”

Many eyes will be on Westminster City Council where, after two phases of cost-cutting through flexible retirement, personalised hours and other novel solutions, phase three - redundancy - is due to start in April.  Job losses of “upwards of five per cent” are being sought, according to Westminster director of human resources Graham White. “Our legal and administration team are going through the same change programme as the rest of the council,”  he says.  “These changes are significant and structural. We are looking for ways they can be more efficient and effective.”  He hopes that the job losses - for which redundancy notices are due to go out in July - can be done on a voluntary basis as far as possible. But he says that the needs of the business, especially in the way service delivery is being redesigned, will have an effect: “That might move the direction of travel differently to where volunteers are coming from.”

On the locum side, the recruiters are expecting a rather challenging year before the sector gets more buoyant.  “In the next financial year, and probably for the next 12 months, people are going to be really tight in the way they spend,” says Wadkins of Sacco Mann.  “But the locum market will come back.”  In early 2009, rates in some parts of the locum sector sagged as demand fell off, according to Sellick.  Whereas property locums had previously been able to charge as much as £50 an hour, their rates halved quite sharply.  Rates in property now range between £17 and £25 an hour, according to Sacco Mann.  Recruitment of locums has become slower and more bound up in red tape.  Northamptonshire County Council, for instance, stopped recruitment of temporary staff overnight on 6 October except in exceptional cases - and other councils are introducing other kinds of restrictions.

The good news is that demand for legal work is actually likely to increase in local authorities (especially if we have a Conservative government later this spring), the councils are trying to box clever as a way of resolving their problems and there are opportunities for determined and canny lawyers.  

Local government legal departments are already seen as operating on a skeleton staff. Rachael Woodman describes the embarrassment of  hearing the odd job candidate from private practice cite a better work-life balance as a reason for wanting to move over.  “You hear people say that and you cringe,” she says.  In fact, legal heads up and down the country are pondering how to get more out of their already-stretched legal teams, says Judith Barnes of Eversheds.  “Heads of legal have got to prioritise more,” she says. “Most legal departments will be expecting to have a cut in the budget allocation they get.”  As a result, she expects to see more attention paid to such issues as clever case management, training client departments to liaise more efficiently with the legal teams and, in particular, shared legal services.  Several authorities now have shared legal heads and still more are thought to be considering pooling their legal teams.  Lincolnshire Legal Services, the centralised unit which was created from six different legal departments back in April 2008, is an interesting model.  No redundancies were made or even countenanced when Lincolnshire County Council, Boston Borough Council and four district councils merged their legal squads.  Speaking of the present position, Eleanor Hoggart, assistant director of Lincolnshire Legal Services, says: “We are certainly not looking at redundancies.  Because we have been making so many savings, we are growing.”

The fate of many lawyers obviously lies in the hands of their legal heads and other superiors and, in these cases, there may not be a great deal that junior lawyers can do to affect the course of events.  “It is likely that the response to the budget will vary geographically as local authority legal teams will be subject to very different pressures,” says Katie Allen of Hays.  

But some individuals will have to have to take matters into their own hands immediately if they want their careers to flourish. “Local government lawyers should be flexible in terms of learning new areas of work,” says Judith Barnes. Those who are laid off, either from private practice or from local government, could try to get a foot on the ladder by doing locum work.  And even if they do not have experience of child care law, they could get a locum here if they are prepared to start at the bottom and work hard.  “We have more jobs than candidates,” says Wadkins of Sacco Mann.  Describing rates as “recession-proof”, she says that rates there have gone up to between £25 and £45 an hour.  

And if the worst comes to the worst and lawyers are laid off, they may not have to wait that long for a recovery in the market.  While the experts we spoke to here are unanimous in predicting a difficult 2010, they are also agreed that sheer demand for local authority legal services will force the market to improve pretty soon.  Speaking of the locum sector, for instance, Kelly Wadkins says: “Any slight downturn in the locum market is going to be short-lived.  As soon as there is a pick-up, the local authorities will have shortages again.”

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