What can be done to generate goodwill amongst staff in the legal department in these difficult times? Richard Williams suggests some possible strategies.
The number of hours to be worked by a local government lawyer as set out in their Statement of Particulars has long since ceased to be an accurate reflection of their weekly time commitment. Even the standard Job Description qualification to this provision that from time to time you will be expected to work over and above the 40 hours (or thereabouts) has become the epitome of understatement.
As most employees choose public service, at least in part, to give something back to their community, it has not historically been a problem that legal managers have relied on a generous slice of goodwill to keep clients happy and to maintain or enhance service standards. In a year’s time, however, it is likely that the child protection solicitor who is wearily taking out the files from her briefcase at 9 pm after making tea and putting the children to bed because she is covering for a sick colleague at court the day after is also subject to one or more of a pay freeze or cut, no increment the previous April and car park charges. In a time of unprecedented austerity, how can leaders generate the goodwill amongst staff that is vital to deliver services and maintain the reputation of the legal function within the authority when they have less incentive than ever to offer it?
It is not possible to provide a detailed answer to this question in this article but I share some headline thoughts based on the experience of managing staff who have recently undergone unitary transition and many of whom have a new place of work, a new job and a new line manager to get used to along with the stringent savings measures that apply to all of us.
This may seem a strange “incentive” but we have a great opportunity to emphasise that performance review and reporting is not a stick to beat out incompetence but is a demonstrator of excellence and value.
As part of a new focus on performance management at Cornwall, we are engaged in a comprehensive process of Business Process Re-engineering. Streamlining the way we do things is not just about driving out inefficiencies but enables staff to eliminate the frustration of waste and to create a way of doing things that saves time, makes their lives easier and enables their work to be more rewarding.
We can easily make the false assumption that lawyers like to do things their own individualistic way and would resist attempts to standardise. The reality is that by taking duplication and delay out of the process, the client is happier and the lawyer has the benefit of a procedure that is shared and understood by the team but does not stifle personal flair or creativity.
Pressure will be rightly applied to review and possibly reduce this budget but the preparation of a comprehensive Service Training and Development Plan is both a catalyst to do this and gives new momentum to approach training in a more innovative way. Lawyers should research and provide more training for their colleagues and clients and be encouraged to write legal articles. Both attract CPD and develop new skills and instead of sending individuals to London, we are looking to bring trainers to the Council to deliver more bespoke events to a greater number of staff. This means that there can be a consistency of approach across the Council so that a recent Procurement Law Update by a Barristers Chambers (expenses only!) was well-supported and received by the Procurement Team and senior client managers as well as a wide spectrum of legal staff.
It is also worth looking at imaginative management development – such as The Colour Works or Olivier Mythodrama – rather than the traditional legal discipline training courses we rely on for CPD points. We are also looking to train our managers … before they even become managers … thereby succession planning, investing in our junior lawyers who have potential to advance and who we cannot reward in direct financial terms and reducing their chance of failure if and when they are promoted.
By this I do not mean a “flexi time scheme” which over the last 14 years I have seen imprison rather than liberate staff. We are trying to set overall work objectives rather than expectations of presence in the office for a certain amount of time at certain times of the day. Investment should be made in the technology of home working and good quality open plan offices and managers should be helped to fulfil their responsibilities based on intelligent performance review rather than thinking that unless a direct report is chained to the adjacent office desk, they cannot be sure they are actually working.
A clear and confident vision
Local government legal services can try to survive these difficult times either by heading for the bunker or by seizing the opportunity a crisis presents us. In parallel with doing what we do better, we are going out to offer our services to Big Cornwall! We are good at what we do and we are going to persuade other public services in the county (and beyond) to use us or work with us. It is a demonstration of quality to our corporate masters and a resounding note of confidence in our sacrificial staff.
Taking positive measures to generate goodwill should not be a cynical ploy and reliance on staff working above and beyond the legal minimum should not be an excuse for poor or exploitative management. We cannot deny, however, that if we are to thrive in troubled times, we need our staff to be exceptionally motivated and productive and as leaders, we need to create the ethos and conditions that inspire that approach.
Ultimately, my child care solicitor should be able to watch House or indulge in Facebook when the kids are in bed but should she have to prepare cross-examination, the knowledge that the Service knows where it is going, is improving its processes, allows her to work from home when convenient and has identified her as a future manager and is backing that with effective training should help to generate the essential goodwill to go that extra mile!
Richard Williams is Head of Legal and Democratic Services at Cornwall Council