Why should this be? Those surveyed said that they particularly like doing a job that involves serving their local community rather than trying to secure ever-higher fees for their firms. They appreciate the reasonable working hours in local government, especially those who need to spend more time with young children. They are also pleasantly surprised to find that local authorities are often very good employers in terms of flexible working and so on. The local authority legal world is one where women already outnumber men, and although there are still elements of glass ceilings, women can, and do, become heads of directorates and chief executives.
But we must be realistic and clearly recognise the limitations and frustrations of public sector work. Some are shared with our private sector colleagues – frustration at the quality of legislation, the over-prescription by Whitehall, and the bureaucracy. Some problems are those shared with colleagues who work elsewhere in the public sector – lack of resources and an ever-increasing range of expectations being raised without the means for delivery.
While pay in local government is often less than in some parts of the private sector, it is notable that more local authority chief executives are drawn from the legal profession than from any other sector. Top solicitor local authority chief executives are receiving pay in the region of £150,000 per annum.
Research conducted has found that pay is not the top issue among solicitors in the 25-35 age group. Fewer than 10 per cent surveyed gave top priority to pay. Far more important has been working for an employer that offers opportunities for advancement and career development. Solicitors value a sense of achievement in their work and they attach great importance to a working environment that offers stimulating contacts. The phrase most often used is 'quality of life'.
The LGG is steadily increasing the number of courses being provided for solicitors who are transferring from private practice into local government. It is interesting that those questioned have been pleasantly surprised at how much they enjoy local government compared with private practice. This was not the conclusion they had initially expected. Often the most surprising discoveries are the variety of challenges and the different ranges of people met in the course of any week.
One theme that is starting to emerge across the legal world is how to leave private practice with dignity. Too often, private practitioners see the only legal career as involving direct work for clients in a particular sphere such as high street general practice or a City specialism. Local government provides a stepping stone for development into management, policy or service delivery sectors. That is not to say that local government does not face challenges. Traditionally, the way to promotion and more pay has been to increase the amount of management, while decreasing the amount of pure legal work. However, we should be increasingly aware that we need to maintain a balance and retain and reward those who have no wish or aptitude for management, but who offer excellent legal services to their communities. Innovative councils, such as Essex, are developing salary structures to accommodate such aspirations.