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Still in demand

A recent personnel survey by London Councils has found that lawyers remain amongst the most difficult groups of professionals for councils to recruit and retain, with junior lawyers harder to find than their more experienced colleagues. Derek Bedlow reports.

Despite the impending cuts facing local authorities, local government lawyers remain in demand in many areas and none more so than those at the more junior end of the profession.

A recruitment and retention survey of London Boroughs published in the summer by London Councils found that the capital's legal departments, at least, are finding it significantly more difficult to recruit and retain junior and mid-level lawyers than senior legal advisers and managers.

Seventy-six per cent of councils in London said that they had experienced difficulty in recruiting Level I (basic professionals) lawyers and 78% said that the same of those classified as Level II (experienced professionals). By contrast, only 67% reported difficulties in hiring Level III (principal professionals) lawyers and 64% said the same of lawyers at Level IV (divisional head/head of service).

When it comes to retaining staff, the difference between senior and junior lawyers is wider still. Seventy-two percent and 76% respectively said that they they had trouble keeping lawyers at Levels I and II, but only 56% and 57% said the same of Level III and Level IV legal professionals.

Overall, lawyers remain amongst the most difficult of the 47 employee groups on the survey to recruit, despite being amongst the best-paid local authority employees, the survey found, with only social workers, engineers, planners and occupational therapists harder to recruit and retain.

Make or buy?

At first glance, this looks surprising. It might be expected that the more experienced veterans would be in greater demand than their more callow counterparts, but for a number of reasons the reverse is true.

One reason for this state of affairs is the relatively low supply of junior lawyers to local government in recent years.

According to the most recent Law Society Statistical Report, local authorities in England and Wales provided 91 training contracts in 2008/09, just 1.7% of the total number of training contracts provided by the solicitors' profession. Paltry as they are, these figures actually represent a small improvement on a decade before, when just 61 training contracts were offered in local government, 1.2% of the total.

The problem with leaving training to private practice is that during the long boom in legal services prior to 2008, relatively few newly-qualifieds saw local government as an attractive option compared to the rewards on offer in the private sector.

“Junior to mid-level lawyers are generally harder to recruit than senior lawyers within the public sector because there is often the unfair perception that large regional firms or in-house organisations offer more exciting work and better exposure,” says Katie Allen, Business Manager at Hays Legal. “This issue is also emphasised by the lack of training contracts offered within the public sector; for example they may offer one or two a year whereas a large regional firm may offer and retain over ten.”

Similarly, holding on to junior lawyers is also difficult for many local authorities, according to Kaye Thumpston, senior consultant at eNL Legal Recruitment.

“I think that retention is probably more of an issue than attraction,” she says. “Because local government has historically been a 'job for life' industry, there are naturally a lot of solicitors at very experienced levels within council legal teams. I come across many junior solicitors within local government who have become frustrated by the slower rate of progression in comparison to their private sector counterparts and so look to move sectors.”

As a result,  the age and experience profile in local government is significantly higher than private practice. The current uncertainty around budget cuts is only exacerbating the situation.

“There are too many chiefs and not enough Indians” says Melissa Gudgin, consultant at Badenoch and Clark. “While local authorities don't over-promote, there is automatic promotion with seniority and people move up the pay scale. I would guess that the average PQE level is 8-10 years, maybe more. And, at the moment, people are holding on to their jobs as long as they can.”

The greater difficulties that councils encounter in hiring junior lawyers is also explained by the greater reluctance of junior lawyers to move councils, especially in the first few years of their careers.

“Junior lawyers are more likely to stay put in order to gain experience and wait until they have got more experience before they look to move,” says Hannah Cottam, director of recruitment consultants Sellick Partnership. “That applies across professional groups, not just lawyers. It is relatively easy to find NQs, and easier to find seniors, but keen and dynamic mid-levels really are in short supply”

“For more senior people, if they are offered voluntary redundancy, they often take it because they know they know they can get another job, or do a bit of locum work. It's the 'Indians' that are being kept on.”

Going private

While the future of shape of local authority legal departments is very much up in the air (see ACSeS panel identifies new models for local authority legal departments), the need for legal advisers is highly unlikely to disappear and private practice is not in a position to cost-effectively fill the gap.

One apparently obvious solution is for local authorities to recruit more from private practice, especially at at time when legal aid cuts and the downturn in commercial work is making private practice less attractive.

Yet although local authorities have been happy take newly-qualifieds from private practice, at more senior levels this has been less evident. The growing use of 'competency-based' selection criteria has made it easier for public sector legal departments to look beyond candidates with a long track record in the public sector, but many councils are still reluctant to take the perceived risk of hiring lawyers with private sector backgrounds, even in areas – such as childcare - where shortages persist.

“There are a large number of family private practice lawyers who would relish the opportunity to work in areas such as childcare, but due to the pressing nature of the work and because resources often aren’t available to train them the public sector may be missing out on a valuable source of knowledgeable, talented lawyers,” says Katie Allen at Hays.

Nevertheless, there is some evidence that this reluctance is slowly breaking down, for locums in areas of high demand at least, according to Victoria Wright, director of recruiters Law Absolute. “We are finding that our clients within local government are becoming more receptive to applications for locum posts from lawyers who have handled care work from the other side, in private practice, “ she says. “Further - this is proving successful. However, it is necessary that these lawyers truly understand care work, have a good knowledge of the Public Law Outline and can adapt to working methods and practice within local government.

Locums – experience is key

But what of those more senior lawyers that want a new challenge or find themselves in-between jobs? The good news here is that, for locum positions at least, the situation is reversed - experienced lawyers are more sought-after than junior staff and the locum market has yet to become over-supplied as a result of public spending cuts.

“For locums, people are after the experience rather than the middle-tier people and in the key areas, such as children's services, there are never enough,” says Hannah Cottam at Sellick Partnership. “Contracts and employment are also very busy, as is adult social services. Planning and property were very quiet, but that's beginning to change again. Senior lawyers have got the experience under their belts, they have a track record and they can go anywhere they like and say: look at what I've done.”

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