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So you want to be.... a trainee solicitor?

Who: Matt Fox

Authority: Rochford District Council

Role: Trainee solicitor

High responsibility levels. Interesting and constantly changing work. Public service ethos.

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These are the three phrases I would use to describe life as a local government trainee solicitor, and are the reasons that I would recommend this path to any law student contemplating the next step in their legal career.

As a trainee solicitor at Rochford District Council, I have undertaken a varied caseload across a range of disciplines, taking full responsibility for the case from taking instructions to presenting the fees payable. Although my work is checked by my line manager, I am accountable for the course and progress of the case.

This means that client contact is a fundamental aspect of my role, for better and for worse! Whether taking initial instructions on a possible illegal eviction matter, or providing instant verbal advice on data protection concerns, my role is very much client facing, and being available to answer queries on anything and everything to do with the council’s powers and duties.

Although for the purposes of my role the clients are the other departments of the council or other public bodies, working for local government also involves public interaction, as the work you do directly affects residents’ lives whether you are creating a new public footpath by their garden fence or in clerking committees for planning and licensing permissions for nearby premises.

Having had experience of private practice, I know that this level of responsibility and client contact is a unique perspective to life as a local government trainee.

Even for an authority as small in size as Rochford, the variety of work that I have undertaken has been fantastic.

In a given day I can go from representing the council at the magistrates’ court in a health and safety case to amending the conditions of grant for the £5m Empty Homes Scheme for the Thames Gateway; from providing advice on implementation of the Community Infrastructure Levy, to working on the assimilation of the Public Services (Social Value) Act and the public sector equality duty into the council’s procurement processes.

This just scrapes the surface of the work that I have been involved with and will be involved with as I continue my training contract amidst the ever-evolving local government legal landscape. Whether advising on asset sales to provide best value, setting up a trading company utilising Localism Act powers for the conversion of an old office block, or recovering large debts, each day throws up new challenges and new powers to consider in order to provide effective legal advice in helping the council to innovate and deliver for its residents.

Life in local government law is unique in so many ways. For example, trainees have the ability to advocate in full hearings in the magistrates and county courts in their role as local authority employees. Further, as a council employee there are ample opportunities for involvement in personal and business development in helping the organisation do business effectively, and to be involved in external partnership bodies such as the ‘Public Law Partnership’, an organisation that allows for work and knowledge sharing and training for authorities across Essex, Hertfordshire and Suffolk.

Of course, the most unique aspect of life as a local government trainee is the political element. Ultimately, the priorities of the council are set by its elected members, and therefore the work that I do on behalf of other departments will take account of these priorities. When considering legal steps such as taking on prosecutions, rent reviews on community buildings, asset sales of council property, and procurements for the main service provisions of the council, an awareness of the politicians’ viewpoints and the court of media opinion is a central concern.

This political awareness ties into my final point about what makes life as a local government trainee solicitor so enjoyable, and that is the public service ethos that pervades all that you do. Knowing that each piece of work that you do has an effect on the quality of life of the citizens of the district is an aspect of the role that has simply no comparison in other private practice or in-house roles.

Having undertaken a variety of private practice vacation placements and the corporate electives on the LPC, I can truly say that this public service ethos, undertaking work across a vast spectrum of legal areas, with an excellent work/life balance, has been the right path for me.

Getting to this position has been an interesting journey, but one that has some commonality across local government trainees. Having completed my degree and LPC without any training contract success, I thought it would be a good idea to put my volunteering experiences to good use in search of legal roles in the public or third sector. I therefore started looking on websites such as Local Government Lawyer and jobsgopublic, and discovered that a number of authorities were seeking paralegal and legal assistant applications with very few direct training contract places.

At this time of budget cuts to local government, local authorities are unlikely to invest money and time in candidates they do not know, therefore getting into local authorities and making an impact through a paralegal position is an excellent way of getting into a trainee position.

Having found these roles, I applied and managed to successfully gain a paralegal position with Rochford. Nine months later, and I was able to turn that into a training contract, and I haven’t looked back since.

If you want a legal position where you take on a lot of responsibility, a day-to-day workload that is challenging, varied and rewarding, and a feeling that you have a made a difference to the community, then I cannot recommend enough life as a local government trainee.

Matt Fox is a trainee solicitor at Rochford District Council

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