Councils emulate private practice models in modernisation drive

Local authority lawyers are embracing private practice methods as the sector faces increasing pressure to modernise

But change is proving difficult to put into practice, according to speakers at The Lawyer Local Government Legal Services Reform Conference in Westminster on Wednesday 17 June.

A range of different approaches to reform were represented at the event, from Kent and Essex County Councils’ approach of selling legal services to external clients to Lincolnshire County Council’s radical plan to unite lawyers from several local authorities into one enlarged team.

Kent legal chief Geoff Wild stressed that there was no single solution to the problems facing council legal teams, which are being required to provide more services with ever-shrinking budgets.

He added: “There are so many different models out there at the moment. Each of us works in a unique authority; we each need to take decisions which our legal needs require.”

Mirza Ahmed, who runs the legal arm of Birmingham City Council, the largest local authority in the UK, urged his colleagues to adopt a more businesslike approach.

“The key driver for me is commercial acumen. The organisation and people within it – they’ve all got to have it,” he stated.

Eleanor Hoggart from Lincolnshire Shared Legal Services was present to report on the progress of the scheme a year and a half into the project.

Last year, Lincolnshire and five other regional councils set up a combined legal function that will service other public bodies.

Hoggart, an assistant director, and her 80 or so colleagues have three years to make the service commercially viable before direct council funding is withdrawn.

She revealed the ambitious targets set by the council, with a year and a half left until the end of the trial period.

The in-house team is expected to slash external legal spend from £1.5m to £350,000 and generate efficiency savings of £4m.

Hoggart said the project was performing better than expected, although there were teething problems with IT and conflict management.

“We didn’t address conflicts,” she admitted. “Our first one happened two and a half weeks after we opened. We were pushed very quickly into producing a conflict protocol.”

The notion of consolidating legal teams within a region is gaining momentum in the public sector.

When Hoggart asked the conference attendees how many were thinking of implementing similar schemes, around five members of the audience raised their hands. She urged other councils to be bold and not to spend too much time weighing up the minutiae of a legal merger, adding: “The key is to keep it simple. Don’t take the lawyers’ approach because you won’t get there.”

Some councils have consolidated legal teams by necessity because of the establishment of nine new unitary authorities earlier this year.

The unitary councils merge all district, borough and city councils in a region into a single super-authority.

Linda Walker, former head of legal at Durham County Council, had overseen the process before leaving the authority after the new unitary council went live on 1 April.

She spoke about the difficulties of uniting lawyers from eight local authorities before the launch date.

Delays meant that the assistant heads of legal posts were not filled until May and the unitary authority has only just appointed a permanent head of legal.

The council’s new chief executive has also reduced the budget for using external lawyers by a massive 90 per cent. The external spend of the nine councils had run into millions – it has now been limited to £60,000.

Walker had pitched the Kent model to council bosses, only to have it rejected ahead of the merger. “They didn’t like it. They said it was too theoretical and couldn’t work,” she revealed.

But not every speaker at the conference gave unwavering support to consolidation in local government law.

Solicitors in Local Government (SLG) chair Guy Goodman was more cautious. “What’s clear is that in shared legal services context is important,” he said. “It works for some people in some contexts. It doesn’t work for others in other circumstances.

“We have to let shared legal services develop organically. One size doesn’t fit all.”

In the final panel discussion of the day, Ahmed, Wild, Walker and London Borough of Tower Hamlets head of legal Isabella Freeman debated the ratio of support staff to lawyers at council legal teams.

Wild said: “We were very bottom heavy.” But instead of cutting support staff, he expanded the number of lawyers employed by the authority. He now has around 75 lawyers and 35 support staff.

Ahmed employs roughly 160 lawyers and 81 support staff at Birmingham.

Wild also urged heads of legal to restructure their teams regularly in order to maintain standards.