It is time for local government lawyers to show they can make things happen, writes Nicholas Dobson.
Actors live in dread of becoming typecast i.e. identified with a particular kind of part. Sean Connery, for instance, once had trouble getting audiences to think of him as anything other than James Bond. He wished he were licensed to kill 007, once saying that: “I have always hated that damn James Bond…. I'd like to kill him.”
But this isn’t just an actor problem. Local government lawyers can also have difficulties in shaking off legal eagle typecasting that can sometimes feel stuck with industrial superglue: a dab hand no doubt with the heretofores but not fit to be let loose with the grown-ups. If this may feel a mite familiar – not of course for you but for a colleague, you might want to read on.
If your post is head of legal services or similar, in its nature this gives you valuable reach right across your authority's business. So whatever the departmental structures, you should be ensuring that you and yours are out there adding value at the corporate front line. For local government lawyers are pole-positioned to have a holistic handle on the entire corporate operations of the authority.
And you can do this provided you look at things through the full range of perspectives and not merely through a narrow legal prism. Add your general 'nous' or 'savvy' into the service mix and you should quickly build a reputation for helping forge sound strategic solutions as well as putting them into effect.
In short, step outside the legal comfort zone and get you and yours known for being there at the cutting edge of corporate projects. For, surprising and unfair as it may seem, authorities are not there simply to provide career opportunities for lawyers. They do of course exist to provide local leadership, governance, functions and services for those they have been set up to serve. And the stakeholder base is now increasingly broad and heterogeneous.
So as a head of legal services or strategic legal director, there will be a wide spectrum of elements to your role in addition to the formal components of your job description. Many of these will be implicit and are merely waiting for you either to make them explicit or take them on. They may include (amongst many others):
- Strategic and corporate playe
- Wise corporate adviser
- Corporate project leader
- Corporate Governance Champion and keeper of the corporate conscience
- Adviser to the Cabinet
- Adviser to Corporate Management Team
- Mover and shaker
- Departmental manager
- People developer
- Aligner of departmental functions with council strategic objectives
- Thought leader, and
If you have somehow got yourself into the strait jacket of narrow legal typecasting in your neck of the woods how do you break out? The answer very much depends on your relationship patterns and credibility at both officer and member levels. If this is at dangerously low levels, a move and a fresh start may well be the answer.
But if it’s merely a question of getting an already respected lawyer respected for a wider set of skills and abilities – basically seen in a new light – then a good place to start would be to create a personal action plan and discuss this with your line manager. Appraisal time is of course good but there’s no need to wait for that. If your relations with your line manager are a little less than positive, then you’ll need to find a reasonable way of working around this without giving reasonable cause for offence.
Start to take and express an interest in corporate projects and let this be known in the corridors of officer and member power or influence. Volunteer to lead a project – and particularly one where you feel your wider skills may add value. Identify a corporate strategy need, discuss with those organizationally responsible and suggest that you lead and take forward.
However, in doing these things you will of course need to operate some skilful people handling and deft footwork generally to ensure you don't tread on toes and irritate in the wrong places. But if you acknowledge and enhance the skills of others and are seen as supportive and interested rather than just nakedly empire-building, you are generally likely to be welcomed. People like do-ers – particularly those prepared to get their hands dirty.
As to your own people, you should be seeking to develop them as holistic lawyers i.e. those who have a good understanding of the legal and constitutional basis of local authorities as well as of their own discipline but crucially who also bring a wider corporate perspective – and wear their law lightly.
In carrying out your management role, it’s healthy constantly to bear in mind the nature and purpose of your department and its place in the wider organisation and public service ecosystem. For narrow managerial territorialism will serve no-one well, least of all yourself. And it goes without saying that all senior lawyers have a strong responsibility to nurture and develop the next generation of local government lawyers.
The key is for you and all who work for or with you is to be effective and to be seen to be effective both within and outside the legal envelope as someone who will make the right things happen.
For life, human beings and human affairs are infinitely more complex than a laser beam of legal analysis might suggest. And the lawyer who can see beyond the law to encompass the broader sweep of behaviour, events and affairs and who is able to use the full range of available personal, psychological, strategic and analytical skills is likely to win a lot more favour than any of his colleagues who remain set in 'heretofore-hugging' mode.
And although your duties may include running an in-house legal practice, it’s solutions your authority will be wanting and not legal engineering. So encourage your people to apply their law like a stealth bomber whilst they’re unleashing the rest of their talents. The results may pleasantly surprise and get you talked about – positively – where it counts.
© Nicholas Dobson
Dr Nicholas Dobson is a lawyer specialising in local and public law. He is also Communications Officer for the Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors.