What price efficiency? Local govt event looks at riding out the tough times ahead

With local governments ­facing major cuts over the ­coming years, the legal departments of these ­entities are under increasing ­pressure to drive efficiencies.

However, Buttery believes that there are some ­relatively painless fields of cooperation. “Training’s an easy win in terms of cost ­savings,” she argued.

It is often IT that drives cooperation, claimed ­Martin Ryan, programme director, regional improvement and efficiency, at the ­Association of Northeast Councils, adding that improvements in this area, such as creating a library of shared precedents, can reap benefits.

But Howell at Medway NHS Trust thinks that in a ­political battleground such as the NHS it is not that simple. “If you think investment in back office functions in local authorities is difficult, try thinking about the NHS, where [the choice is between] an extra lawyer or two incubators for the ­intensive care unit,” she said bluntly.

Nevertheless, Northamptonshire County Council’s new head of corporate ­governance Penny Osborne emphasised that legal heads needed to be proactive and seize the initiative. “The pace of change is very rapid in the public sector,” she argued. “I don’t think all of us will ­necessarily have a home there in the future.” She believes it is necessary for local government heads to get the right in-house teams in place. “You need to know where you are and who you can turn to,” she asserted.

Osborne uses psychometric testing to assess the roles that potential recruits are likely to play in her team, highlighting the importance that they are “risk-averse, emotionally [intelligent]” and that they have ­”political nous”. In interviews she asks them uncomfortable questions, such as, “What would you do if a client wept?”, the responses to which she claimed are “quite ­revealing”. She wants them to be able “to understand who is on the rise and who is not. Lawyers need to look at where resources are and where they are moving to – this influences the advice they give.” Morale should not be held back either by a lack of resources, she stated. “I just keep them sweet with chocolate and biscuits and smiles,” she quipped. “Maybe some way down the line [there’ll be] profit sharing as well.”