Frustrated at the lack of senior positions available in local government legal practice? Nicholas Dobson gives advice on how to boost your career.
Bravely inching up a high greased pole was (and in parts remains) a traditional test at many local fairs. It therefore offers a ready workplace metaphor for the struggle towards your own particular top table. It was certainly an image used by Benjamin Disraeli when in February 1868 he first became Prime Minister. As he later said: "I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole".
Unfortunately for local government lawyers, the promotion poles have recently become a lot greasier and less plentiful. For although once every authority had its own legal section (even if that was sometimes just one Batperson and their Robin), nowadays austerity cost pressures have prompted extensive rationalisation.
These include different types of shared service where, for instance, one legal head can be top honcho for various different authorities (e.g. Lincolnshire, Norfolk (nplaw), LGSS Law (Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Councils) and the South London Legal Partnership (Merton, Kingston, Sutton and Richmond Councils).
So you’re talented, dynamic, ambitious, underpaid and under-appreciated. At least that’s what you, and possibly also your spouse/partner and your parents think! But although enjoying what you’re doing as far as it goes, you’re starting to feel somewhat bored and restless. You’ve been doing it now for a good while and in your view you’re outgrowing it. And frankly, looking at some of those you see holding down top jobs, you know - just know - you’d do it better! For if the powers that be could only see the real you they’d be knocked out at the sheer brilliance....
Time then for a hard strategic look at yourself and your options. What you really and truly are good at. What you actually most enjoy doing. And what you don’t. Plus an honest reality check, perhaps from a trusted and respected mentor, who is able to give constructive feedback about you and your strengths and weaknesses. For up top on the greasy pole is not necessarily as wonderful as it looks from down there. And when you’re up the only place left to go is often only down.
So here’s a few thoughts that might help your thinking on where you go from here. For those disenchanted with the frying pan will want to avoid escaping into the fire.
With the assistance as suggested of a respected mentor, you need to form a strategic career plan tailored to who you really are and what you’re best at as aligned with the rapidly changing workplace scene and the needs of your personal situation. Such an honest self-evaluation may well highlight areas for you to build on or develop, for example through enhanced experience in your current workplace in addition to any relevant formal training. Therefore, create or seek opportunities for growth in your current position, for example, by volunteering for visible corporate projects which can give you a chance to make a name for yourself in your own authority and perhaps beyond.
But if and when all possibilities have been exhausted in your present situation, you need then realistically to look at the options available that will suit you. That is to say the real you; not the ‘you’ you might imagine you are or would like to be. But the ‘you’ that other people see.
Are you for instance essentially a black-letter techie lawyer? Or do you see law as merely one appliance in the problem-solving toolbox? Do you like nothing better than spending many hours delving deep into or creating a complex contract or are you better at sealing the deal more high-level in a complex commercial negotiation? Would you rather do the thing yourself or delegate it to others without losing the responsibility for it? Are you persuasive and good with people? Are you potentially good at sales (a vital attribute for those in or considering private practice)? Are you equally at home presenting to a large audience or quietly creating strategic options from complex and voluminous documents? Only you know what you are or what you can fairly readily become.
As to whether public or private, the key difference is that the local government sector exists to provide local governance and services whilst private legal practice exists to provide profit for its proprietors. Good hard-wired legal skills and instincts are of course needed for both. But whilst in the public sector you need to be a good politically aware player, tailored to the public authority governance and stakeholder context, in the private sector you also need to be at ease with sales as an increasingly important element of the role the higher up the ladder you manage to ascend.
The unfortunate fact is that both in the public sector and in private practice there are significantly fewer ‘chief’ positions than in days of recent yore and frequently also fewer qualified lawyer posts. So far fewer local authority heads of legal and senior management positions. And in private practice, a lot fewer qualified solicitor and partner opportunities. And if the ladders to partner level are now much higher and testing than ever before, it can often be even tougher when you manage to get there.
So (although there will be an increasing onus on heads of legal to provide more career grade opportunities for their talented lawyers) you may well need to adjust your notions of what will bring you career satisfaction This may be particularly resonant if you have say small children or other family commitments and don’t wish to be constantly painting perennial Forth Bridge job applications and interviews in far-flung places. For those seeking local authority promotion have generally had to be prepared for frequent authority moves. The current scene is no different, except that, as noted, positions are fewer and much less stable when they do exist. For the prime focus of local politicians is naturally on what will benefit their area and play well with their constituency base. In that context providing career opportunities for their lawyers is unlikely to feature on their radar noticeably or at all.
A senior manager or leader, me? Best be cautious about going there if you’re not particularly easy, good or persuasive with people. For management is all about dealing with all types of people (from the hard-working and helpful to the frankly lazy, negative and obstructive) for whom, and for whose work, you will be ultimately responsible. And that will often involve carrying the can when things go wrong. And they certainly do - and will!
So in the local authority context an effective manager is likely to be someone who (amongst other things):
- Is good with people, forming effective professional relationships at all levels;
- Sees the wood for the trees, even when there are lots of trees in full foliage;
- Has sharp and sound legal, policy and strategic instincts;
- Has keen political awareness;
- Has good presentation skills, tailored to the needs of different audiences and requirements;
- Communicates in writing clearly, concisely and accessibly, again tailored to the particular readership for which it is written.
- Is tough-minded, flexible and resilience, coping well with inevitable adversity, setbacks and knocks.
- Has an extensive personal hinterland so your self-definition extends beyond your job role.
But of course the higher you go the further you can fall. And it can sometimes be tough, unfair, unfriendly and occasionally duplicitous in and around top table. For it was ever thus in all spheres of life. And if you’re up top, the buck stops with you. As Shakespeare’s King Henry IV remarks at the end of a speech bemoaning the insomniac cares of high office: "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown" (Henry IV Part 2, Act 3, Sc 1).
Being right will not be enough. For many in power will put pressure on you to give them the advice they want to hear rather than the advice you properly need to give. But your job is to create the right climate and personal relationships at all levels so when you need to do so you can speak truth authoritatively unto power. And if push comes to shove you also need to have enough personal resource and resilience (as the old 1936 song had it) to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again.
Getting on the radar
So you’ve done your self-audit, are now realistically clear about who you are, what you have to offer and you want to take your career (or at least your cv) to the next level. The question is, how? A good start is to get yourself noticed on the radar of influence. Preferably though for the right reasons!
So once you’re realistically confident about your offering (and those who know generally agree) you might start to put yourself and what you do about a bit. Volunteer for key corporate projects including those without a primary legal focus. Write articles. Put on training sessions for senior officers and members. In short, like Thomas the Tank Engine, become a ‘Really Useful Engine’. The more you’ll do, the more you’ll learn and wider your influence is likely to spread. And next thing you know you may well find yourself in the running for those jobs that always previously eluded you and went to people you didn’t rate but had the experience you didn’t have.
But the journey to where you think you might want to be may well be a lot rougher than you think. But, as former CEO of the Gucci Group, Robert Polet has remarked: "It's only by going through tough experiences that you can grow". However, as mentioned, having a sound personal hinterland is essential. For you need to have some solid independent sense of self to fall back on if Blofeld’s trapdoor one day springs open beneath your executive chair. Because ultimately it’s only family, friends, personal contacts and quality of life that really matter and endure. For as Shelley’s 1818 sonnet Ozymandias about the broken icon of an ancient and forgotten tyrant shows, position and status lack substance and have very short shelf lives.
Dr. Nicholas Dobson is a Consultant with Freeth Cartwright LLP specialising in local and public law. He is also Communications Officer for Lawyers in Local Government.