A career in local government legal practice offers tremendous opportunities, writes Mark Hynes, Director of Legal and Democratic Services at London Borough of Lambeth.
I have reflected on my own career in local government over the last 20 years and considered what advice I would impart to individuals now contemplating a career in local government working within the in-house legal team.
Certainly if you are entering local government as a trainee solicitor, then one unique advantage you enjoy over your counterparts in the private sector is the rights of audience that are conferred on officers within a local authority before a Magistrates’ Court. Certainly this is an attractive proposition to those trainee solicitors who wish to get an early taste of advocacy in the cut and thrust of the Magistrates’ Courts, where local authorities will often be bringing various prosecutions, such as trading standards and planning enforcement matters.
Also, a trainee solicitor can expect to be spoilt for choice in terms of the wide range of areas that in-house local authority lawyers get involved in. There is often a huge amount of employment law, and within my own authority (with more than 4,000 employees) solicitors are never short of having to give advice to HR colleagues on a range of disciplinary and grievance issues as well as advising on Employment Tribunal claims.
There is then the commercial property work that is undertaken in-house, with authorities often being engaged in disposing or acquiring properties as part of their capital programme which often runs into millions of pounds. There is also a large amount of regeneration work and this is particularly so in London at the moment.
Other areas of law include public procurement and contracts, with the local authority spending £millions per year on a huge range of contracts for services such as roads maintenance, insurance, social services care provision and the like.
Social services itself is another area where in-house lawyers are very proactive in terms of advising on care proceedings and child protection matters generally. There is also planning law, licensing law, education law and litigation, as well as advising on general local government law and governance issues.
In fact, I would be struggling to think of a more varied work environment for a trainee solicitor to gain valuable legal experience.
In terms of employment prospects, it is the very nature of local authorities that they are traditionally very hierarchal in terms of a management structure. Within Legal Services this is the case as well. Trainee solicitors who wish to progress will first of all undertake a solicitor role in one or more areas and then specialise as a Senior Solicitor, Principal Solicitor, Head of Legal Services and potentially Director of Legal Services and beyond!.
Clearly the opportunities for progression within this hierarchy will be varied between authorities and I do think it is important that lawyers within local government who wish to progress are prepared to move around from authority to authority. In my own case, I have worked at a range of authorities, including borough councils, unitary authorities, county councils and, lastly, a London borough. That is not to say it is impossible to progress through the structured hierarchy within just one authority, but clearly opportunities will be that much more limited.
Another selling point in relation to a local government legal career is the focus and attention that many authorities give to training and development of their staff. Many are accredited with the Investors in People Standard as well as the Law Society’s Lexcel accreditation and training can include, (as in my case), being sponsored to undertake an additional qualification such as an MBA or MPA, or other appropriate training which often goes beyond the Law Society’s CPD requirements.
However, I believe that training and development of staff is not just limited to attending the odd training seminar or undertaking a further qualification. There is also the opportunity to develop through secondment opportunities, both internally and with partner law firms where such arrangements exist. Indeed there is significant development that can be achieved by having a combination of an in-house and external firm resource working on specific projects such as major capital regeneration projects within the authority.
I also think that the skills required of lawyers in local government have changed in the time that I have been fortunate to work within the profession, and I do see a need for lawyers to be much more entrepreneurial, particularly around creating opportunities for generating income.
Clearly we operate under a different regime to colleagues within the private sector in that we do not have to actually meet billing targets, although that said there are a number of authorities that operate on a full charging and trading model within their authorities.
For me the key issue is about looking for opportunities to sell the legal services to other potential bodies within the locality of the council. This has often included providing legal advice to schools and other public bodies under the Local Authorities Goods and Services Act, but with recent relaxations by the Solicitors Regulatory Authority, legal work can now be provided to a much greater range of third sector and voluntary groups, including charitable bodies within the borough. Again, this opens up a huge opportunity for local authority lawyers to be advising a much greater range of organisations.
Finally I would say that the unique characteristic of working with a local authority is of course the political dimension. This will often require in-house lawyers to work collaboratively with members to ensure political aims are achieved where possible and will vary from providing legal advice at regulatory committees such as planning or licensing to advising members at Cabinet meetings, full Council meetings and the like.
Certainly as someone who has been privileged to have worked in local government over the last 20 years, I have no hesitation in commending to colleagues local authority law as an excellent springboard for a challenging and rewarding legal career.
And one final reflection, of course, is that many lawyers specialising in providing public sector work within the private sector firms almost without exception started their careers in local government.
Mark Hynes is Director of Governance and Democracy at the London Borough of Lambeth. He is also President of Lawyers in Local Government.