With local government lawyers heading to York next week for Solicitors in Local Government’s annual Weekend School, we ask Guy Goodman, the group’s present chair, how the organisation can help its members through what promises to be a turbulent period.
What do you see as the main challenges facing local government lawyers?
I have concerns about shared services if it means that people begin to see the cost of everything and the value of nothing. I will never believe that legal services is a back office function or merely transactional – the role of the lawyer in local government is very central to the delivery of services and the vibrancy of the organisation as a whole. The legal department is like a corporate glue in terms of governance, standards and ethics, decision making and I think that you separate out legal services from that at your peril.
This is the importance of the discussion about the monitoring officer role. I know some people see this as an albatross around lawyers' necks, but I do not see it that way. I have always seen the role as a facilitator because the monitoring officer is one of the people closest to the decision-making process and it is by occupying that role and being seen to be enabling in that role that I think the Chief Lawyer positions his service or her service as being at the centre.
The legal department's role is about being proactive and being involved in strategic matters at an early stage. That is the difficulty with shared services – the further you remove legal services from the corporate centre and the more you regard it as simply being transactional, the later you bring the lawyers into the process. The real value of the local government lawyer is in helping to ensure that you fix the parameters of what you can do and that you help to plot the journey that your corporate client wants to make.
Some authorities may bring in shared services quite deliberately where the lawyer is seen as being obstructive or difficult. This is where lawyers have to help themselves. They have to have the right mindset and to move away from being seen as being difficult or awkward. We can't just be the people who are seen to say 'no' all the time; we have to be the people who say ‘yes’ and find solutions to problems.
The driver for much of this is the budget cuts that many legal teams are being subjected to and we have to be smarter about how we run our departments in this environment. In particular, we need to strip out some of the administrative stuff that other departments can do and focus where, as a lawyer, we can add value.
We need to look at how our teams are constructed. When I was head of Adult Social Services and Children’s Services, I had a top-heavy team of lawyers with very little support, so we had these very expensive resources doing a lot of routine matters. What we did was we brought in a layer of legal assistants, and devolved work to them. You do not need a solicitor to do every part of a legal process.
We have become better procurers of legal services, but I think sometimes again we have to help ourselves. The problem with long-established panels is that the people on them become complacent and we need to disturb that complacency from time-to-time. We need to be smarter procurers and go outside our comfort zones sometimes. For example, particularly for a unitary authority, you should be building your capacity through skills transference from your private sector partners. If you are paying significant fees to an external firm for a PFI, I would expect to have some skills transference back in return, thank you very much.
Perhaps another danger that local government lawyers face is over-specialisation. One of the attractions of local government is that the variety of work available is almost limitless and my advice to people I have recruited over the years is not to do one area of work forever. If you want to specialise, then try to develop at least two specialisms. But I do think that this is becoming more difficult to achieve.
What people tend to forget is that local authority lawyers have already proved to be remarkably adaptable over recent years and we are still flourishing. The key to the future for local government lawyers is to develop the skills and knowledge that will enable us to adapt to the changing environment and to develop new roles for ourselves.
For example, if you look at Alternative Business Structures, SLG were initially quite concerned about the impact that might have, but on reflection, we couldn't find many good reasons why a local authority should not enter the market place. There may be areas where the High Street has abandoned ordinary folk either because they have not got the specialists or because of the geography. One of the SRA's models in its consultation exercise was a local authority setting up its own practice and entering the legal services market place. We could not see an objection in principle. That would inevitably change the nature of the role of the in-house lawyer, and that is something that we will have to proactively deal with.
How can the SLG help?
The role of the local government lawyer is increasingly about building relationships and being part of a team. It is about being creative and prepared to tackle new challenges not merely being a legal technician. We are continuing to push the message to our members that these are the sort of soft skills that you need.
Another important part of our work at SLG is to develop our knowledge network. SLG is a large network of very experienced practitioners of all shapes and sizes and an important role for us is to tap into that knowledge base and to share it amongst our members. To that end, when we redeveloped our own website back in September 2008 it was built around the knowledge network component and we entered a three-year deal with Sweet & Maxwell to have exclusive right to provide some their product.
That is why we work so hard to increase participation at a local level. We have some terrific branches like Yorkshire and The Humber, Northern, North West and North Wales and West Midlands which are examples of really good practice. But there are other areas which are still developing and the challenge for us to make sure that we have a local presence in all of our areas and that we are pulling in 30 to 40 people to our events.
What is the future for SLG?
In some respects, the new website was about trying to redefine what SLG is. We operate in a very different environment to when I first started in local government 20 years ago.
The landscape for SLG I think has changed significantly and is continuing to change. The old model of a membership organisation that effectively is the only group that is catering for its membership has changed. We are competing in the market place, not only to a degree with our sister organisation ACSeS, but also with all those firms wanting to have local authority business and those who are already provide services for local authorities through panels and who are offering added value services.
SLG realised some time ago that working in partnership with other organisations enhances the SLG brand and adds value to the offer that we can make to our own members. So where we can we will try to work in partnership.
One thing you learn as Chair of SLG is that you have the stewardship for one year and what is really important is that you ensure that there is some continuity of thinking and plans of action, otherwise what you have is a sort of stop-start. Therefore, I have developed with my Vice Chair, Steve Turner from Hull City Council, and the rest of our National Executive Committee a three-year plan to ensure that we have a viable organisation in the future.
The other challenge is to increase our persona as a national organisation and we are very much trying to bring together a group of people to work on those national issues so that the burden does not fall on a small group of office holders.
In the main SLG is in good heart. We continue to be supported by the Law Society financially for most of our running costs which is greatly appreciated and we have a very, very good working relationship with them.
They have come to appreciate the fact that we are probably better placed than they are to know what our members want and to deliver that. They have realised that working in partnership with us is a good thing. We had the joint consultation with the Law Society last year on Chief Legal Officers which I thought was a well-run exercise and we have agreed with the Society that when the opportunity comes to push on those issues in the future we will continue to do so, so it was a very useful exercise. We are very keen to work in partnership with them. It is a good relationship that we have worked on and I think we are well respected.
However, what I would like the Society to do more than anything else is to watch its rhetoric and to stop thinking and talking solely about law firms. It is important for it to remember that there is a vibrant employed sector. Sometimes it is the softer things that are really important.
Why have you made pro bono such a focus of your time as Chair of the SLG?
Pro Bono is not an area that local government lawyers do a lot of work on, and the question was: why not? I think a lot of it is that we have always been frightened of potential conflicts of interest and perhaps also the view that working in the public sector means that we make a contribution already. What we are trying to do is debunk those myths, saying there is pro bono work that does not involve conflicts of issues. You can do work for smaller charities, small organisations, you can do online advice, you can do the public education talks so there are lots of contributions that can be made. We have got lots of skills that we can add to that mix.
We have developed a partnership with LawWorks and agreed one with Lawyers for Schools where we are going to have a local government lawyers in schools initiative funded for three years by the Trust, supported by the Citizen Foundation. We are going to set up three sites throughout the country where we will bring together local government lawyers to deliver Lawyers in Schools, teaching law modules to 14-15 year olds in deprived schools. It is a really, really good initiative.
There is no reason why employers should not see pro bono work as being a development opportunity for their staff which has the added bonus of value for money and provides a beneficial way of getting CPD. We need to educate employers, heads of legal and also our own members to say this is something you should be thinking about pushing for – even if it is an hour a month or a couple of hours a month.
But, it is one of those issues you have to keep chipping away at. There are no miracles going to happen overnight, it just takes damned hard work.
What is SLG’s view in the practising certificate (PC) fee debate?
The Solicitors Regulatory Authority’s decision to introduce a 60/40 split in the PC fee between firms and individuals is welcome news, albeit with some caveats. It is long overdue that the burden of the PC fee should be shifted away from the in-house sector as it is clearly our colleagues in the private sector that carry the greatest risk. So while the SRA's proposals are a step in the right direction, we would like to see it closer to 80/20.
The other part of the current proposals that we are unhappy with is the contribution to the compensation fund. What became very transparent last year was that a part of the Practice Certificate fee always went to the compensation fund. So what we saw last year, for someone like me, was another unexpected £130.00 for the compensation fund – which came as a bit of shock.
We made the point that in-house lawyers don’t usually hold client money and, again, that the regulatory burden should fall on those who do. However, if we are looking at a PC fee of £400-£500, then I think that is to be very much welcomed. I will not consider the battle to be won until I see that practice certificate request fee note that says £500 rather than £1,300.
I think that will encourage those authorities that have started to think about whether they should pay the PC fee to recognise that solicitors have a professional qualification and should have a practising certificate.
Solicitors working in local government should have a practising certificate. We have worked very hard for them and, more generally, I think it is about being one profession.