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Variety act

Find out from Michelle Sacks why life as a locum in local government can be extremely rewarding and boost your career.

Michelle Sacks started her career as a paralegal in the private sector, but after two years she became increasingly disenchanted and started to look at her options. In June 1997, Michelle started at Fenland District Council as a legal assistant and, within three months, knew that she wanted to stay within local government.

Local government has provided Michelle with an environment that was hugely interesting, varied and always busy against a background of change. She soon progressed to become a trainee, and with the support of her principal, qualified as a housing and environment solicitor.

Since qualifying, Michelle has enjoyed a varied career, working in a range of councils, from district to unitary, and metropolitan to county – all with different structures, decision-making processes, political environments and communities.

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Michelle has used her experiences as an opportunity to learn, using each role as a benchmark for continuous improvement, with the aim of building a better function that supports front line services and delivers to meet the needs of the community.

What influenced your decision to become a locum?

Firstly, I was working silly hours as a head of legal and had no work life balance. I had somehow managed to meet my husband and I was becoming a stepmother to three children and knew I wanted my own children. Working the sort of hours I had been meant I would not have time to develop a relationship with my stepchildren. Something had to give, but I loved my job and the work I did.

Secondly, my husband had been working for several years as a senior interim within the finance sector and suggested that I try it – he enjoyed the flexibility it provided him.

However, I was scared – I worried that I would never work again. Needless to say, I took the plunge and had my first assignment through Sellick Partnership – and I have never looked back. It was the best career move I have ever made.

How would you describe the locum market at the moment?

Many areas within the locum market are particularly buoyant. For many years the child protection market has provided readily available work at high hourly rates. Recently, I was seeking to recruit several locums for this specialism and they were few and far between, meaning their negotiating position was strong, especially as councils are reluctant to carry staff shortages due to the potential impact on child protection and the welfare of the child.

Contracts is another area where locums who are experienced in EU procurement and large scale contracts are highly sought after. There is a shortage of candidates in the permanent market which means recruitment is often unsuccessful, which in turn means locums are used to fill capacity. The volume of procurement is on the increase in the public sector. This is also an area to watch when the anticipated changes to Part B come into effect.

Conversely, property is still an area where demand is lower, although over the past 12-18 months, noting the increase in s.106 agreements that have been part of the planning application process, this may be about to change.

However, there are still a number of property locums in the market from the fallout of the recession. This means that when permanent posts are advertised, there is a good selection of candidates from which to choose, which reduces the need for locums. This has a knock-on effect on the hourly rate that a property locum can expect.

You have obviously been very strategic in your career choices. What influences your decision when considering a new role?

I am quite selective in my choice of role. After many years of operating at a senior level, I am reluctant to take a post which detracts from that profile – you are only as good as your last job – and therefore, I am only interested in becoming head of legal or deputy head of legal at a large council to maintain this profile.

This is an important consideration for my long-term career aspirations because if I choose to go back into the permanent market, I want to do so at director level. My choices now need to support that goal.

The nature of being a locum at the level at which I operate usually involves change management of some form and that is a specific interest of mine – being able to be part of changing a team, department or council for the better gives significant job satisfaction.

I like to hear about what is available in the market. However, if I have not yet completed my current assignment, I am reluctant to change mid-way, unless the role has changed since I was originally appointed or there is a recruitment exercise clearly in the pipeline. I also want to ensure that I don’t leave anyone in the lurch – as a locum, your reputation is everything.

How has being a locum enabled you to enhance your career and get to where you are today?

I have been able to work in several councils over a relatively short space of time (in employment terms) which means I have experienced a diverse range of projects, situations, conflicts, challenges, personalities and political environments.

The nature of a senior lawyer has changed over the years – I always say lawyers need to get down and dirty with the client to properly understand what the client needs in order to be able to give the best advice aimed at what the client wants, not what the lawyer thinks the client needs.

This means the nature of risk has to be understood. I have sat with many Leaders and chief executives who want to push the boundaries of what we can achieve in local government – they want to hear the risk options and how those risks can be mitigated, not that they cannot do something. If the risk is clearly explained, they can make informed decisions.

My working as a locum has put me in many more of these situations than I would have experienced in a permanent role. This has been a real benefit to my career and expertise, specifically the way in which I am able to present difficult scenarios.

My references are the testimonial to what I have been able to achieve and deliver in these roles in a personable and positive style, and because I have been building a portfolio of these references, employers are able to have a real insight into me and what I can offer, which would not necessarily have been the case had I not been able to work so diversely.

For you, what are the key benefits of being a locum?

  • From working in several councils of varying size, political control, internal systems and management styles, I have been able to learn and develop personally, using my skills and knowledge to promote continuous improvement;
  • I have seen some of the very best ways of working, as well as some of the worst – all of which I have learned from – and take these experiences to my new roles;
  • I have a degree of flexibility that I just did not have as a permanent head of legal. At the end of the day, I am a working mum with a family and while it may seem less flexible in that my roles mean I am away from home, because I am able to devote so much time to the roles in the week, my weekends are my own and I have quality time with my family. Having said that, there are always the times when you are up at 2am trying to finish a report. I think flexibility works both ways;
  • I like meeting new people – being a locum is the best way of developing your network and keeping up to date with what is going on in local government;
  • I am never bored. It suits my personality to be given a task and get stuck in immediately. As a locum, with goals to achieve in a short space of time, I do not have the luxury of time. This means I have to make an immediate impact with the people, at all levels, with whom I work or I wouldn’t succeed; and
  • I am a local government geek and get real pleasure from working in so many different council environments.

Michelle Sacks is Deputy Head of Law at Staffordshire County Council

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