Barnet and Harrow head of legal practice: Share option

Barnet and Harrow councils have merged their legal teams, and keeping things on track is head of legal Jessica Farmer

Spending money wisely might not always have been the mantra du jour in the City, but would things have been different if that money had been public – if lawyers had to choose between spending £100 on a barrister or on child protection?

Jessica Farmer

Jessica Farmer, a probation officer turned local government lawyer who is now head of legal practice at the newly merged London Boroughs of Barnet and Harrow, may have the answer.

Jessica Farmer, Barnet and Harrow

Title: Head of legal practice

Industry: Public sector

Reporting to: Hugh Peart, director of legal and governance services

Employees: 5,061 including school staff

Legal capability: 70

Budget for legal: £4m

Main external law firms: Some of those on the London Boroughs Legal Alliance (LBLA) are understood to include Dickinson Dees , Eversheds , Kennedys and Pinsent Masons .

Cut and thrust

“We have to advise on difficult spending decisions,” admits Farmer. “It’s public money and we’re involved in everything – from child protection through to clinical litigation. The scale of public sector cuts has made spending decisions particularly hard.”

One way of making those decisions easier has been to merge the legal departments of Harrow and Barnet councils, a tie-up that was completed last month. The Harrow-based shared service is expected to save the councils an estimated £4.4m on external lawyers, law libraries and office space in the next five years, a tactic that has proved popular for council legal teams (including Merton and Richmond upon Thames, Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington & Chelsea) reacting to public sector cutbacks.

“We’ve brought together two cultures and two ways of doing things, we can learn from each other and take the best of both practices – there are more people to bounce ideas off,” enthuses Farmer, who points out that the tie-up is mutually beneficial and that nobody was made redundant from the tie-up.

“What’s the point in having two councils doing exactly the same things, giving the same advice?” she asks.

But merging legal departments is not necessarily an ideal option. Farmer suggests that if it was not for the scale of the cuts – Harrow council needs to cut £70m in the next two years – the idea of a tie-up might not have come about. And, as with any big change, there has been some inevitable criticism surrounding the decision. Conservative councillor Paul Osborn, for example, voiced concerns in August when he told a local paper that the merger was a “risk” because unfamiliar legal advisers could be more likely to make mistakes.

Farmer could not comment on Osborn’s quote.

Service areas

No doubt the shared service arrangement will, in the end, save the councils considerable amounts of money, but Harrow was already limiting the amount of work it outsourced by using the London Boroughs Legal Alliance (LBLA), a 10-borough partnership that shares work between councils so less has to be outsourced.

The group’s panel, which is understood to include Dickinson Dees, Eversheds, Kennedys and Pinsent Masons, is expected to save members close to £2m a year.

“We don’t outsource much work at all, and [now we’ve merged with Barnet] most new projects will be done in-house,” confirms Farmer, explaining that her team has its own in-house barristers for employment, social services and housing, with more hires on the horizon.

“We are able to recruit specialists between the two boroughs which one alone may not have been able to,” she says. “If work is put out it will be channelled through the LBLA panel that was procured at the bottom of the legal market between ten London boroughs. For example, Bevan Brittan assisted us with the agreement with Barnet. We’ve also cut costs by introducing a wellbeing programme to support staff . In a year we’ve seen staff sick days drop from eight to one.”

But controlling the budget is not the only challenge. Farmer and her colleagues need to ensure they remain politically neutral (Harrow council is currently led by a Labour administration) and do not give out information that could be seen as backing one party.

“The legal department is involved in the local and national elections, so political neutrality is crucial,” she explains.

Public health functions will also be transferring to the council in April 2013 under the Health and Social Care Act 2012, a change that means the council will be given a duty to improve the health of the people who live in the area.

This must be difficult when the team is already juggling a mountain of legal work, much of which is very sensitive.

But with a legal team that works across a wide range of matters including social care, neighbourhood planning, child protection, benefit prosecutions, procurement contracts, health and safety, regeneration projects, judicial reviews and education, Farmer’s background seems perfect for the expanding job spec.

Unusually for a lawyer, Farmer worked as a probation officer for seven years before retraining and joining the legal department of Birmingham City Council.

“I guess having a background in social services makes me more sensitive as a manager,” she suggests.

What about lessons learned while retraining?

“Each council seems to have the same kind of legal issues and training at Birmingham made me think we [Harrow] could go larger – in Birmingham the legal department was big,” she argues. “A lot of councils are reducing legal staff – we’re bringing them together.”

James Pigott, principal solicitor – group leader (commercial and environmental group), Kent County Council (KCC)

The flurry of media interest in the abandonment of the West Coast Main Line contract process has raised the profile of procurement. This will inevitably lead to many more challenges, however speculative they may be.

The value of procurement and the expensive consequences of getting it wrong cannot be over- emphasised. Such challenges not only delay the granting of contracts and jeopardise services to the public, but also cause financial, reputational and political damage.

This against a background of relentless pressure on expenditure, most authorities are facing many more years of financial hardship, with over 25 per cent of budgets disappearing. The public consultation on Kent County Council’s budget proposals for 2013-14 has already started and includes a proposed total of £60m savings for next year alone.

While clients often do not have the funds to cover the costs involved, the call on legal services will inevitably increase. With property and staff rationalisation and the high risk of challenge over reduced service provision, the need for more and better legal advice is evident.

Lawyers face fresh challenges including finding innovative solutions for a range of issues in a shifting legislative landscape, so it is essential that they focus more intensively than ever on client’s costs and be proactive with regard to preventative measures

With a focus on training, our clients can be empowered to do more of the work themselves and avoid problems arising in the first place.