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Meeting the childcare recruitment challenge

Following the Baby Peter case, childcare specialists have become the most sought-after of local government lawyers. Grania Langdon-Down looks at the qualities that make a good lawyer in this area and how councils are ensuring they have the right team in place.

Local authority demand for experienced childcare lawyers has rocketed after the death of Baby Peter to such an extent that they have become the highest paid legal locum professionals in the market, earning up to £40 an hour.

Rachael Armstrong, manager of recruitment agency Sellick Partnership Legal, says they have seen a 60% rise in childcare-related positions across the UK over the last 15 months.

“The tragic Baby Peter incident, in particular, has had a significant impact on this demand, as local authorities have reacted quickly to address criticism,” she says. “The demand for childcare specialists continually outweighs the supply, as clients consistently demand previous local authority childcare experience – meaning that strong childcare lawyers are not out of work for a prolonged period of time.”

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However, Armstrong continues, due to the stressful and highly emotional nature of the role, the majority of lawyers only work in this area for a couple of years before moving into another specialism.

Put these trends together, she says and this has led to childcare lawyers becoming the highest paid legal locum professionals in the market, earning up to £40 per hour. “These lucrative hourly rates mean that there has been an increase in lawyers that are keen to work in childcare,” she says, adding: “We have also seen in recent months locums being offered permanent positions as local authorities start to plan for the year ahead and realise that this is not a short term issue.”

Stuart Burrows, senior manager of recruiters Badenoch & Clark, has meanwhile seen demand more than double in social services, particularly relating to childcare, as a result of Baby Peter. “Legal care proceedings have risen nearly a third following the convictions for his neglect last year. In the North in particular, we have seen a six-fold increase in locum positions compared to this time last year.”

Burrows says the top rate tends to be paid to the very best people, or to pay someone “to go and work in an awkward location when the authority simply cannot get anyone”.

A more typical rate is in the £30’s, he says. “However, the increase in rates has meant that many temporary lawyers are getting paid significantly more than their permanent counterparts, which is attracting more solicitors to consider locum work.”

The right skillset

So what are local authorities looking for in their childcare lawyers?

Armstrong says: “Traditionally, a number of local authority childcare lawyers were Antipodeans, working without an English practising certificate. Following Baby Peter, a number of councils now refuse to employ Australian and New Zealand legal professionals, unless they have undertaken their QLTT, which is having an impact on the supply of childcare lawyers. Additionally, some private practice professionals have transferred to local authorities due to lack of work and job cuts, but the specifications of the local authority obviously determine how easy it is for them to secure a position.”

“What is making things trickier,” says Burrows, “is that clients are understandably insisting on a working knowledge of the Public Law Outline (PLO). This means that, whereas previously they may have taken on people who have been out for a couple of years, for instance on maternity leave, or from another jurisdiction with childcare experience, this is no longer the case.”

However, the lack of available candidates means councils are having to look at alternative recruitment options, such as re-training former childcare lawyers and recruiting family lawyers with relevant public law experience from private practice. Councils have also been taking on higher volumes of support staff, legal assistants and paralegals, to assist and give extra support to their busy childcare teams.

Still under intense pressure

While social workers were the main focus for criticism in the press over Baby Peter and other child protection cases, legal departments have not come out unscathed, Burrows says, particularly for the limited supervision of locums.

However, he warns that, without extra funding for more lawyers to cope with the increase in work, the pressure on locums will continue to mount. The question then is whether the pressure will put lawyers off entering this field or whether departments will create a more productive environment in which to work.

“From speaking to a number of heads of department, who manage the legal social services teams, the key seems to be the support that is offered to the lawyers,” he explains. “Some of the authorities have a good management structure to support junior lawyers, so that they do not feel isolated, and have assistance in some of the more complex matters they are dealing with. Unfortunately this is not the case in all authorities, and so some lawyers are burning out and looking to move to less stressful areas of the law.”

Making the best use of locums

So how are heads of legal teams coping and what are the pros and cons of using locums?

Uma Mehta is chief lawyer at the London Borough of Islington and chair of the Law Society”s children law sub-committee. “All local authorities are short of good child care lawyers because the work has increased while funding has decreased. There are a huge number of locum vacancies nationally and good ones are hard to find.”

She has five agency staff helping her team of eight childcare specialists. “Locums have to be properly supervised which puts extra pressure on managers. The pros are you can personally hand select the people who want working with you as part of your team. If you treat them well, with respect and dignity, they will learn your ways of working. At Islington, we pay for their training, which is rare.

“However, the downside is they can leave at any time with two weeks’ notice – Antipodean lawyers, in particular, love travelling – which means there is no continuity in cases.”

Retaining permanent staff is equally vital. Mehta is keen to encourage new opportunities for her team to keep them motivated. She has encouraged four of her lawyers to get their higher rights of audience to form an in-house advocacy team, which has the added bonus of reducing external counsel fees.

Ann Molloy is Assistant City Solicitor at Liverpool City Council, responsible for the children, families and education legal department. She has 19 lawyers in her team but only four or five specialising in child protection work.

She recently advertised for another post. “I hate doing it because the council is strapped for cash so I know another area, such as litigation, now won’t get their post filled.”

Molloy says she wants “someone who can hit the ground running with about three years’ experience and, hopefully, on the Children Panel. Several of the applicants are from private practice because it is bad out there for them and, although local authority work is hard, we have good terms and conditions of employment.”

She uses locums to cover maternity leave, but warns that it can be “a nightmare”, adding that “you never know if you are going to get a decent one – I have had some which have been awful”.

Committed to the cause

So, what makes a good childcare lawyer?

Graham Cole is principal solicitor for social services at Luton Borough Council and chair of the Solicitors in Local Government’s child care lawyers group. “You need a good knowledge of childcare care law and child protection practice,” he says. “You also need a good understanding of abuse and neglect and the reasons behind them, as well as how social workers work. You have to be robust and clear-sighted, patient and compassionate.”

Add to that good communication skills, he says. “It is no good sitting in your bunker. You need to understand what is happening with other people in the system and build trusting relationships with police, teachers, doctors, social workers - but that requires people to stay around long enough for that to develop.”

Given the pressures, why would someone choose this area of work?

Molloy was working in crime and family in private practice in the late 70s.  “It was a man’s world so I decided to move into local authority work – everyone thought I was insane. I have been tempted at times to move but this work is so worthwhile. There is something different about every case so, while the work is hard, it is rewarding.

“It’s also nice being on the side of the angels – I would hate to be on the other side representing parents who are never going to make it, who will always be alcoholics or drug addicts and I wouldn’t want it on my conscience if a child went back to them.”

For Cole, the work is “challenging but it is also rewarding because you know you are doing something of benefit.

“People always say to me ‘I don’t know how you do your job’. You do have to develop an emotional detachment but the day you say you aren’t affected by the work is the day you should stop.”

Grania Langdon-Down is a freelance journalist.







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