Who: Michelle Nicholls
Local authority: Staffordshire County Council
Role: Employment solicitor
Being an employment law solicitor makes real the fact that law is a social science. People are at the heart of all the work I do; it is people who I advise and it is people whom the advice is given about.
Having trained in a commercial environment with a heavy focus on contentious litigation as part of an in-house legal services department, never having worked in private practice, I believed that working in local government would be very similar and that I would still have one ‘client department’.
This is not the case. Whilst I have a main HR client, I actually have several clients across a variety of business areas of the local authority. I spend a lot of my time giving strategic advice and applying in practice, technical and complex legal principles to frontline, high profile projects. This takes me to the heart of the local authority.The work is demanding but enjoyable and is of a high quality.
The area of employment law is now vast, technical and at times it can feel like you no longer practise in one discipline area. The pace of work, especially in relation to the contentious element of my role dealing with claims, for example, of unfair dismissal, sex, race, disability and age discrimination and/or breach of contract, is fast and deadlines can be tight.
Non-contentious work such as drafting policies and procedures, secondment and compromise agreements, requires a sharp eye for detail. I spend a lot of my time breaking issues down, only to re-build them in a more orderly and sound fashion. This requires patience, analysis, good judgement and diplomacy. As a result every day in the office is different and interesting.
Even as a law student, local government was an area I was attracted to and I recall choosing non-compulsory elective subjects such as planning law and employment law as I believed these would guide me in that path.
However my working life started in a very different practice area. I view this as a positive though, as I bring different experiences to my role and use that alternative knowledge gained in my work for the local authority. It helps because the local authority has changed dramatically over the last few years with a strong emphasis on a focused and dedicated service delivery and in the commissioning of those services. It now faces the same challenges and issues as any other business.
Local government still holds its unique identity and some things remain specific to it, but I view this change as an opportunity to keep aware of and focused on the business skills that are very important in any role.
If an opportunity in local government is not available to you at the start of your career, do not be defeated. Keep working and focus on where you ultimately want to be.
I did this and I was lucky enough to be appointed to a role to support my then boss, who was a senior employment law solicitor to undertake multiple sex discrimination claims. This was a tough task, especially as I had no previous employment law experience, but I welcomed the challenge and my determination paid off and my knowledge grew. I have progressed to the role of senior solicitor, which proves that with hard work and dedication opportunities do exist in local government.
If I were newly qualified now and just starting out in my career, I would take every opportunity that came my way to have access to a legal department. Work experience placements can be invaluable and some local authorities run and offer structured programs. However difficult it may be, my advice would be to use every opportunity that may come your way to develop your professional skills, personal and social abilities, which with a focus on being an employment law solicitor, are all very useful attributes.
Michelle Nicholls is a senior employment solicitor at Staffordshire County Council.