Jennifer Mellani writes about her journey to being a local government lawyer specialising in health and social care.
In February 2013 I met the CEO of a major Mental Health Trust at an award ceremony. We spoke about the NHS and our shared passion for it. It was striking the different prospective of a professional working within the public sector from that of a professional working in private practice for the public sector in what felt a remote reality.
At the time of this encounter I had spent 13 years providing NHS clients with the legal support they needed as a specialist Healthcare Lawyer. I made on that night the decision to become an in-house lawyer. In August 2013 I was appointed to the role of Director of Legal and Trust Secretary of a Foundation Trust in Essex which marked the start of this fascinating and challenging journey.
It was the idea of providing an A to Z type of service that attracted me to the public sector. As an in-house NHS lawyer, I was acting as the sole repository of all legal matters affecting the Trust. It was no longer about chargeable hours at all costs, there was no more dipping in and out of issues without ever gaining a sense of ownership, no more having a million clients and never knowing any of them. It did not take long before realising I had made the right career choice, I have not looked back at private practice since.
But at the end of 2015, the prospect of working for a local authority presented itself, and I made an almost immediate decision to accept the role. I have been heading the Health and Social Care Team at ELS since then. Working in a political organisation such as a local authority is a completely different experience compared to working in the NHS.
Providing legal support to the council requires in depth knowledge of its complex governance, the political drives, the priorities and the pressures, its public accountability and its far reaching statutory responsibilities. It was a cultural shock to go from the corporate world of the City where my career started, to being an in-house NHS lawyer but equally challenging was the change from the NHS to the council.
And again, I can unreservedly say that the breadth of work and skill set acquired as an in-house local government lawyer has no precedent. In my current role I assist the council with all health and social care matters, commercial and contract work, strategy and policy work, healthcare matter, Mental Health and Learning Disabilities matters, Inquests, procurement, Integration and Transformation, Corporate Governance and Information Governance, Safeguarding and Court of Protection matters. No one day is like another!
But it is not just about the law, it is about building trust and personal relationships with your colleagues who are also your clients. These are also the aspirations of private practice lawyers, but it was only after becoming an in-house lawyer that I could achieve these aspirations to a meaningful level whish shaped the type of service I now provide to the council.
Whether you are considering a career as an in-house lawyer or you already are one, in my view there are four key questions who may wish to ask yourself:
- Am I seeking reward in the value I can add to my client?
- Am I prepared to step out of my comfort zone and become comfortable in every zone?
- Am I ready to take on more responsibility and guide my client from start to finish?
- Am I ready to embrace a cultural shift and revolutionise my working practice?
If the answers to all four questions are “Yes”, then it is time for you to take your talent out of private practice and in-house, and if you already are in-house, then I am confident you have made the right choice.
I am writing about my career move out of private practice to share with you my experience and encourage fellow lawyers to expand their horizons. Mine has been an amazing journey, I have been tossed around by challenges and lifted up by achievements, some things happened by chance and some through careful planning, I developed skills and knowledge in many areas of law and I now understand what being a “360 degrees” lawyer really means and I owe most of this to being an in-house lawyer.