How do local authority legal teams win work traditionally undertaken by large private practice firms? Chris Skinner looks at the challenges.
Having worked as a lawyer in local government for some 34 years I have always been impressed with the scale of projects undertaken by councils. This is particularly so in the field of regeneration, where an area can be transformed by the intervention of the local authority. The quality of work undertaken by public sector lawyers is equally impressive, very much on a par with the work undertaken by large private practice firms.
Many local authority legal teams currently seek to sell their services to other councils. Some have long lists of other authorities they work for. Why is it, then, that councils seem to forget about what is available in the public sector when they have large projects to undertake? Why is it that often the default position is to outsource the legal work for these types of projects to national or London based firms of solicitors?
I ask these questions working, as I do, for a large, and shared, local authority legal team hosted by Norfolk County Council. nplaw, the name of the shared service, undertakes legal work for both the county council and the majority of the district authorities in Norfolk. With 80 staff, and specialist teams, nplaw has some 50 or 60 other local authority “clients”. It carries out some heavy weight property casework, acting for councils with substantial land holdings and development ambitions. It undertakes more compulsory purchase work than most, if not all, legal practices in the UK. It has expertise in State Aid and procurement issues. In fact, there are few areas of law where it has not got in house expertise.
Having said this, why don’t more councils – especially smaller ones – seek quotes from teams such as nplaw before handing large legal projects to private firms? Why, for example, does an authority instruct a national firm to undertake a large scale CPO, when nplaw does this sort of work on a regular basis? To be fair, some authorities do instruct nplaw to deal with this type of thing, but why are councils prepared to pay two or three times more to have the work done by someone else – when the expertise is already in the public sector?
Perhaps if we understood the reasons why this happens the public sector would be better placed to “win” this work. The answer, in my opinion, is threefold.
Firstly, councils do not actually know the services that other council legal teams offer. Local authority lawyers are not used to marketing themselves and tend to be modest about their achievements. We need to take a leaf out of the book of the private sector when it comes to promoting ourselves.
Secondly, council officers undertaking big projects can just assume that the private sector is best. They think, perhaps, that their own small legal team does not have the expertise, and never think that it might be available from another, larger, in house team.
Thirdly there can be a view that a council legal team just cannot have the resources to undertake something on a large scale. With larger shared service teams this just is not the case. For example, with a very large regeneration CPO project undertaken by nplaw for a Welsh council, with 7 multi-plot orders, there was one lead lawyer and three others who carried out the work.
Some people are, perversely, put off by the cost if they use another local authority legal team to carry out the work. No, not because the in house charge is too dear, but because it is too cheap! nplaw had the recent experience of being placed second in a tender exercise to undertake property work for a housing association, and being told that as the price was a third of that of the private sector firms bidding, it made the association rather nervous.
In conclusion, we must promote ourselves more, we must tell people some of the big projects we work on, we must tell local government generally about the incredible expertise we can offer, and we must tell our colleagues in other departments that we have more experience is some things than private practice. That way people undertaking, for example, regeneration projects where they need a legal input will think of the public sector first; and only go to the private sector is there is not a council team able to carry out the work.