Building bridges in private practice

John Harrison has not yet completed a whole day in his new job, but he is already clearly at ease. The local government lawyer who scooped one of The Lawyer awards this year has made a leap into private practice and, after less than nine hours, he sits comfortably in the boardroom at Sharpe Pritchard.

His relaxed state is not surprising. While working at Southwark Borough Council, Harrison had a close relationship with private practice, and he will continue to deal with the planning-related work in which he has made his name.

He led the borough's team which won this year's Deal of the Year at the Lawyer Awards for work on the Millennium Bridge project, the planned pedestrian bridge over the River Thames.

It is believed he will also continue to act for Southwark on the high-profile Greater London Authority headquarters building, part of the u1bn development at London Bridge City.

Harrison's move is seen as a symptom of the ever-closer working relationships between private practice and in-house legal teams at local authorities – part of the rapidly-changing landscape Harrison sees in local government law.

“Local government legal services are undergoing enormous changes as we enter the new millennium,” he says. “One of which is a broader movement towards partnership. Local government is being forced to extend all sorts of relationships to a whole range of new partners.”

It is legislative changes brought in by the Labour government which have rocked the market in public law. The abolition of compulsory competitive tendering (CCT), which required local authorities to put out to tender a proportion of their legal services, will be completed on 2 January next year.

The new system of “best value” allows the authorities to look for a combination of quality and price from their external legal advisers.

“Local authorities will be back in control of the process,” says Peter Keith-Lucas, local government partner at Wragge & Co, which recently signed a partnership contract with Buckinghamshire County Council. “Best value opens the door for much more constructive relationships between private practice and the local authorities,” he says.

“The authorities will be able to look for a combination of services which will serve them best, instead of having to go for the cheapest.

“CCT meant firms had to expose a significant number of their own legal staff to competition, and it was biased against the in-house team.

“It put local authority legal teams under unfair pressure, and damaged the relationship with external lawyers because in-house teams were concerned not to disclose information which might give away a competitive advantage,” Keith-Lucas says.

Harrison sees the shift to best value as an exciting development for all concerned.

“CCT placed undue emphasis on cost and inadequate emphasis on the quality of legal services,” he says. “What local government is discovering now is that the processes by which you select a lawyer can't easily be set out.”

The new challenge for private practice will be coming up with that little bit extra, Harrison says.

“If firms are going to get the work from the public sector, they are going to be called on to offer extra value. Local government is looking for add-on services from their lawyers, like lecturing, tracking new legislation and sharing research,” he says.

That is the kind of relationship Wragge & Co has agreed with Buckinghamshire. “The council in-house team has a good range of specific local government skills, but cannot offer the range of skills and resources we can,” says Keith-Lucas.

“Buckinghamshire has a legal executive who will soon be coming on secondment to us for six months. They will gain from our commercial experience while we will benefit from their more specific knowledge.

“We are both learning all the time,” he adds.

Similar formal agreements exist between Nabarro Nathanson and the London Borough of Lewisham, and between Eversheds and Lancashire and Nottinghamshire county councils.

In addition to the exchange of knowledge, Harrison identifies the obvious economies of scale such close relationships lead to.

“We are not having to ask the same questions over and over again,” he says. “We get to know each other very well and a comfortable momentum is built up.

“The partnership ethos is going to become more and more prevalent. To quote our friends in Europe, it's a story of 'ever-closer union',” he says.

Alongside the significant legislative changes – which as well as the shift to best value include what Harrison calls “a very significant policy review on almost all fronts” – there is also a move to make local authorities take on the role of facilitators.

“The old way of working was to operate by means of negative regulation, like refusing planning permission for bad developments,” says Harrison.

“Now the local authorities are being much more pro-active. There is a growing recognition that by bringing together a variety of interests authorities can harness better results.”

As a result, councils are being asked to come up with new ways of doing things and are becoming more involved in contractual work between parties, says Harrison.

“That means the public authorities are looking to lawyers who will look for solutions and come up with innovative ideas,” he says.

“They are looking for private practice firms who will take on new roles, and are getting them involved at a much earlier stage. The public sector is being a lot more selective about firms they are choosing, and are getting increasingly rigorous in their decision making,” he says.

Ashley Badcock, senior partner at Sharpe Pritchard, says: “The public sector is in a much better position now than it was 10 years ago to make an informed choice about their legal service provider.

“Many have had experience of a range of firms under CCT, and now they can draw on that when selecting firms to work with,” he says.

The next challenge Harrison and his public law colleagues in London will face is the arrival of the Greater London Authority (GLA). The new mayor will take office next year and bring changes to legal relationships within the capital.

Tony Curnow, head of the public sector practice at Ashurst Morris Crisp, believes the new level of bureaucracy could mean plenty more work for lawyers.

“The two-tier system is inevitably going to be a cause for conflict,” he says. “Lawyers in the boroughs are going to be asked to review more regularly the decisions taken by the GLA, and lawyers in the GLA will looking closer at things done at borough level.

“There will probably be some difficult skirmishes on the rightness or wrongness of decisions.”

Curnow expects the GLA to recruit a significant in-house legal department of its own. “The old GLC legal team was a fairly formidable size,” he says. “There will inevitably be quite a chunky legal team put in place at the GLA.

“They will be looking to recruit some good lawyers from the boroughs, so there will be an explosion of job opportunities for lawyers.”

Harrison is not so openly optimistic. “It is too early to say whether it will mean more work,” he says. “But it is likely to bring about changes in the way things are done.

“It will probably mean a period of greater dynamic change.”