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So you want to be.... a contracts and procurement lawyer?

Who: Sam McGinty

Local authority: North West Leicestershire District Council

Role: Contracts and procurement solicitor

I had never really considered a career in local government; it had never been on my radar. I trained in private practice in a commercial firm and during my two years, I realised that contracts was the direction I wanted to follow. I now work as the sole contracts and procurement lawyer for North West Leicestershire District Council.

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When I joined the council in 2011, I knew nothing about working in local government and less about public procurement. The council had developed an innovative arrangement with leading midlands firm Browne Jacobson to help ease my transition into the sector and support my learning. It was a steep learning curve, but the support from both organisations helped enormously. Although we still work closely with the firm in many ways, I now work independently on a day-to-day basis.

The variety of instructions that cross my desk is the best part of my job. As the only contracts specialist at a district authority, I get to look at everything from grant funding agreements for local charities, to multi-million pound procurements.

I have advised our housing team on their £36m Decent Homes procurement, let multiple frameworks for different teams and drawn up agreements for various purposes across the council. I advise on intellectual property, employment, construction, state aid and corporate governance issues related to the arrangements the council has in place. Occasionally, contractual disputes arise and I do my utmost to help bring these to a commercially sensible conclusion.

Then there are the more specific issues which are becoming ever more important to local authorities: charging and trading, savings initiatives, working with other authorities and public bodies to help economise. The council recently launched a ‘Buy Local’ initiative to help support businesses in the district and support the district economy. Working closely with the procurement team I helped to implement this in various ways, including redrafting the council’s contract standing orders and training officers on the importance of the initiative.

Although the public and private sectors are different, the advice needed is still commercial advice. Yes, there is more impetus on customer services than perhaps some of my old clients, but local authorities are having to take a more business-like approach and their legal advice should match this.

What makes my experience different to lawyers in larger authorities is that I really get to know my instructing officers. The council employs fewer than 600 people and I deal with a broad range of officers, from the leisure centre managers to revenue and benefits officers, the refuse and recycling team to the chief executive. I have developed a real understanding of how their individual services work, what motivates them and how best to achieve their desired outcomes. They are more than clients, they are colleagues.

Our team has a genuine open door policy, so we are involved from the very start of a project or idea, through to signing the contracts and beyond. Helping to shape the journey of an initiative and see it come to fruition is incredibly satisfying and officers appreciate knowing that we are available to help them.

We are a Lexcel accredited practice, with a range of external clients, including other county based local authorities and further education colleges. Although still public sector bodies, their needs and demands are different to my council and it makes them challenging and rewarding to work with. We pride ourselves on providing practical advice, in the environment we know best.

I believe strongly in the importance of pro bono work and the council fully supports me in this. I work closely with De Montfort University’s Leicester Institute of Legal Practice, mentoring students, supervising the law clinic, as well as speaking at open days and other events. I am also part of the Lawyers in Schools programme and an active member of the local and national Junior Lawyers Division.

The council recognises the value this work gives to the community and the benefits for my personal development. I am currently undertaking the Law Society’s Diploma in Local Government Law and Practice, which is already proving beneficial. Training is a high priority at the council.

A lot of people think contracts is one of the most boring subjects on a law degree, but in practice it is more than just the battle of the forms. Working in contracts and procurement gets you involved with a wide range services, touches a great number of legal areas and allows you to be really creative. The added dimension of working for a public body only makes it more stimulating.

Sam McGinty is a solicitor at North West Leicestershire District Council

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