Mark Smulian highlights the role that EM LawShare's Development Network plays in advancing the careers of local government lawyers.
Local government is a complex, stimulating and often misunderstood field of legal practice. Encouraging applications, developing existing team members and retaining quality lawyers poses real challenges to in house teams with limited budgets. For individual lawyers, being able to map out a clear career path and identify their next professional move can be equally challenging.
EM LawShare’s Development Network is a way of trying to help overcome these hurdles. The EM Development Network brings together more than 200 local authorities and public bodies - with seven leading law firms - to offer lawyers in local government the chance to expand their expertise and for employers to future proof their workforce and grow their own talent.
The EM LawShare firms are Anthony Collins, Bevan Brittan, Browne Jacobson, Freeths, Geldards, Sharpe Pritchard and Weightmans.
EM LawShare was originally a local authority-led buying consortium in the East Midlands, set up in 2006 to establish a framework contract of external law firms that could work with councils as needed.
It now has members from Plymouth to York and provides, with the partner firms, a range of services and support to members beyond simply purchasing legal services.
The Development Network draws on this spirit of collaboration and innovation, as Sam McGinty, Head of Legal Services at Loughborough University, explains from his own experience: “Elizabeth Warhurst [Head of Legal and Commercial Services at North West Leicestershire District Council] had a challenge to recruit a contracts and procurement lawyer and could not find anyone suitable.
“Browne Jacobson, one of the members firms, suggested joint recruitment with bespoke support so someone with the right skills could gain the knowledge needed.
“That ‘someone’ was me. I was employed by the council, given targeted supervision by members of the in-house and Browne Jacobson teams and seconded at times to Browne Jacobson and given targeted supervision.”
Mr McGinty says the Development Network grew from the ethos behind this model and now “encourages local authorities to think outside the box” about how to recruit and retain the right lawyers by offering a blend of public and private sector experience.
“People think recruitment is hard, but it is better to spend an hour thinking about different ideas than six months moaning,” he says.
“One of the problems in public organisations is that you can’t normally create speculative posts; if you create a post you have to fill it and the Development Network can help local authorities to do that in a competitive marketplace.”
One lawyer who benefitted from the Development Network is Emma Graham, who trained with North West Leicestershire and still works in local government in the region.
She recalls: “I was in a dual role with the council and Browne Jacobson. The benefit I got from it was working alongside Browne Jacobson’s trainees so I gained professional skills and attended events with them.
“When I returned to North West Leicestershire the firm mentored me and I can still pick up the phone to people there to talk over complex matters.”
Ms Graham also says it was beneficial to her career to get an insight into the way in which the private sector works.
Being placed with Browne Jacobson meant, “I got to see the other side, an in-house lawyer normally has no need to go out and get work - it is just there - but I learnt how to win external work and this was a time when North West Leicestershire was seeking to do that with other public bodies.
“Browne Jacobson gave me insight into how to liaise with external clients and how to sell yourself and drum up business.”
She spent six months in all with the firm and looking back thinks: “My training was better than it would have been if I had just been with one local authority, it was a broader experience I think comparing myself now to colleagues.”
When Emma returned from her secondment to complete her training, she was able to pick up much more complex matters and worked alongside her head of service, Elizabeth Warhurst, on various strategic projects.
In another example, two lawyers who worked for Nottinghamshire County Council in children’s care needed another specialism to qualify and the council was able to arrange placements with partner firms for six months and so instead of moving on to gain their extra specialism both are now qualified and still with Nottinghamshire.
When Ashfield and Mansfield Shared Legal Service wanted to add a contracts lawyer and a property lawyer, the Development Network helped it bridge the gap between the two lawyers it wished to appoint and their expertise in new areas in which they wished to practise.
Tehrim Raza was a newly qualified solicitor specialising in contracts and Sarah Hall, Head of Law and Governance at Mansfield, felt it would be essential for her to build on her skills and knowledge to undertake the role with confidence .
Ms Raza joined Freeths for an intensive two-week placement, after which Ms Hall says: “I was delighted that she felt equipped to deal confidently with queries and knew where to look for advice and precedents on contract law matters.”
Jemma Handley, appointed at the same time, had 10 years’ experience, including in local government, but was keen to expand her knowledge.
She joined Geldards for two weeks where she carried out legal research for complex client queries, and drafted contracts, leases and title deeds. On her return she could “hit the ground running”.
Although all seven firms are involved, Bevan Brittan currently leads on the Development Network. David Hutton, head of its local government team, says the network helps local government to retain staff by allowing them to develop their careers in ways that might not otherwise be available unless they moved elsewhere.
Mr Hutton explains: “Lawyers who want to progress their careers may feel they are not getting that support and may leave, so the network plays to a retention issue.”
He says local government and private sector lawyers “can help each other and knowing that support and opportunities are there would help to attract more people to local government.
“Heads of legal should better see the benefits of this opportunity, which is there but not always taken advantage of.”
Bevan Brittan takes both trainees and qualified lawyers who want to work in new fields from local authorities “for example to show them how procurement cases are done, while others come to see how the firm works from the inside, and they learn from that”.
EM LawShare has made the Development Network one of its key priorities, and has also found interest in the concept from non-legal fields such as planners and marketing.
“I would encourage those interested to just pick up the phone,” Mr McGinty concludes.
Mark Smulian is a freelance journalist and a regular contributor to Local Government Lawyer.