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Starting out in Law within Local Government

Susan Desfontaines shares her experience of progressing a legal career within a local government setting.

Emerging from university with a 2:1 law degree at the tender age 51 and looking to progress to solicitor qualification, I was a career changer rather than a late bloomer. However, generally law firms were not falling over themselves to entertain this flower with a training contract, despite a business background and strong transferable skills.

Not being one to dwell on the negative, and with the introduction of the SQE looming at that time, in 2019, I landed a part-time post as a legal officer with a local authority litigation department and for the first time ever, I was working in the public sector.

The culture shock was not so much of a shock as a joy, and suddenly I was surrounded by professionalism, knowledge, dedication, experience, and a willingness to share that experience and knowledge in order to teach me, not just how to do the job I signed up for, but how to really excel at it.

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The attitude towards me and the skills I already possessed was progressive, and my strengths were accurately assessed and quickly utilised, hence, I felt valued from day one, as I embarked on a learning curve that was as akin to a skate boarder using the Grand Canyon as a half pipe.

Local authority law departments are very often swamped with caseloads and from the outside they can be perceived by the newly graduated as stressful places of toil, with smaller rewards than are offered by the private sector, in surroundings that don’t quite match the glass and shine of magic circle offices often aspired to by graduates with a 2:1 or above. Management use fly swatters to ward off the dark rain clouds of budget cuts, while often being required to be superior people managers, in order to motivate and retain a good team in a setting of instability, fast pace, challenge and change. 

However, in this setting the advantage is that the workload is large and varied enough to challenge and stretch any aspiring solicitor and is an opportunity to quickly add your hands to the pump and contribute. For me my department is a den of opportunity to learn, to be part of a team and to be exposed to different areas of law. It is a place of camaraderie, encouragement, and a place to use my full skill sets to make a difference.

In business practice I survived for many years by having to produce good results and stability can be attained the same way in local government.

As the “newbie” I had a monumental amount to learn, but I was still allowed to have a voice. What I brought from business practice and past project management was listened to and I was quickly given work to do that was varied and interesting. While my main remit is criminal litigation, in the last three years, I have been encouraged to use my strengths in civil litigation, been included in policy drafting and project managed my own brainchild to recover an otherwise forgotten income stream for the council's benefit.

Once my competence was assessed, I was given rights of audience in the Magistrates Court, for me, an opportunity for legal experience that can only be described as on a par with a full set of sluice box mats at Parker Schnabel’s Klondike claim. The fun part is that often my opposing solicitor advocates or counsel do not see me coming, (me being a lowly government legal officer) at least, not until justice is delivered by the Magistrates or District Judge.

There is no arguing that the SQE 1 exam is brutal but having passed well on the first ever sitting of the exam, and with SQE 2 later this year I am feeling bright about marching forward towards qualification. I haven’t needed shiny offices, or walls of glass to feel the sunshine on my career change and for law graduates looking to qualify on the SQE route I am amazed that the opportunity to gain valuable qualifying work experience within local government service is still somewhat overlooked by my fellow graduates.

I am a local government lawyer and, according to my principal will make a strong local government solicitor, but I will attain this accolade in the future because of the local government opportunity, and because of the collaborative and supportive environment that this setting offers. It is fast, it is challenging, it is never boring, and it makes me better as a professional.

Starting out in law with local government, particularly with the introduction of the SQE qualification route, is not a second-best option to a training contract. It is a base to gain some of the best experience and learning available, to grow in confidence and to push for excellence, and it is, most undoubtedly, my privilege.

Susan Desfontaines is a legal officer with Luton Borough Council.

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