With the public sector becoming a political battleground, Kent legal chief Geoff Wild argues that its lawyers should get radical. So why don’t his rivals agree?
On first impressions there is something unassuming about Geoff Wild, director of law and governance at Kent County Council. A well-mannered air, combined with his commercial bent, suggests he would not be out of place punting some prosaic retail product for a living.
But this analogy would be doing a disservice to somebody who, instead of opting for the putative ’easy life’ of the provincial legal chief – clocking out at 5pm, enjoying a generous holiday allowance, perhaps his own parking space at County Hall – has instead employed massive energy and intellect in radically transforming Kent’s legal department, while creating a blueprint for how the public sector can protect services during a time of fiscal austerity.
Thanks to Wild, Kent’s was among the first in-house teams to begin competing against private practice for external work, generating £1.42m last year (which the lawyer is keen to point out has all gone into supporting frontline services). Wild is a tireless traveller – whether that be giving advice to public sector colleagues in the Midlands or the North East of England, or targeting investment opportunities from Washington DC to Mongolia.
Most recently, as revealed by The Lawyer (22 February), Wild formed a joint venture with regional firm Geldards with ambitions to take over other public sector legal departments. Hardly resting on one’s laurels.
That conflict between the common prejudice of the public sector lacking imagination and Wild’s own creativity and commercial sense is something
of which he seems acutely aware.
“[My work] is about dispelling the myth that the public sector lacks drive and innovation,” he tells The Lawyer. “I want it to be creative and diverse, to access all areas.”
With a professional life honed entirely in the public sector (he did his articles at the Greater London Council in the mid-1980s under Ken Livingstone’s tutelage) you might assume that his career choice is ideologically motivated. But the reality is more complicated.
Far from shunning the private sector, Wild has sought consistently to bridge the public-private divide by bringing on best practice from the private sector, while at the same time running a department of 80 lawyers. It gives him a freedom of manoeuvre he would not be able enjoy were he to be one of several hundred partners at, say, a City firm.
Wild claims that such an opportunity presented itself recently when DLA Piper contacted him about the possibility of joining its partnership.
“I spent three months travelling round the offices. If I’d done that I’d be working there now, struggling to hold on to my job and meet income targets. It’s a fantastic firm, but I’d just be a cog in a wheel,” he reflects.
Wild claims that his commitment to the public sector is derived partly from the opportunity to keep learning from his counterparts.
“I’ve learnt most from some of the poorest-performing authorities – Stratford-upon-Avon, Shrewsbury and Durham before it became a unitary authority,” he reveals.
In some cases the feeling is mutual. Durham, for example, briefly adopted the private practice model pioneered by Kent (The Lawyer, 15 December 2008). But he is critical of the inability of others to think outside the box.
“Many local authorities think with blinkers on about what work they can do,” he stresses. “Just because you’re employed in a particular geographical area doesn’t mean you can’t think beyond that.”
Although he claims to have “great respect” for his counterpart at Birmingham City Council, Mirza Ahmad, the issue of practising certificates is one subject on which they have been pitched against each other.
Ahmad has long claimed that public sector lawyers should not have to pay the same amount for the certificates as their private practice colleagues, because it is the latter who tend to be the subject of costly interventions.
This is a view that was backed up by a recent Solicitors Regulatory Authority consultation paper, which labelled the equal sharing of the cost as ”grossly unfair”. But Wild argues that the divergence in opinion reflects their respective use of different models.
“If we’re pitching for work [against the private sector], I don’t want people thinking we’ve got an unfair advantage,” he claims. “Mirza isn’t pitching for that work, he thinks his team should be treated [like] central government lawyers.”
Another apparent difference is their approaches to joint panels. Birmingham recently revamped its £6m legal panel, opening it up to 38 local authorities. But Wild is dismissive of joint panels in general, referring to them as “token gestures”. A bit disingenuous, you might argue, given that Kent has successfully pitched to win work on such panels in Surrey (The Lawyer,
7 December 2009) and elsewhere.
A better approach, Wild argues, would be the joint venture he has set up with Geldards, Law:Public, which will provide local authorities with access to personalised public sector advice and a wide pool of lawyers, all at an average headline cost of £150 per hour.
“We can cover anything that a local authority legal function does,” Wild told The Lawyer on the launch of Law:Public. “We’ve got the capacity to take over a small district council’s legal needs in toto or to cover bespoke projects.”
On this Ahmad cautions that “the legal market is already very competitive” and that “they’ll have to take their chances. If the value for money argument is made,” he continues, “then I don’t see any objection. Local authorities exist to serve the public.”
They do exist to that end, and critics have argued that there are some technical issues to overcome first. They point to the Teckal exception, which was established in the decision of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Teckal Srl v Comune de Viano and Azienda Gas-Acqua Consorziale (AGAC) di Reggio Emilia.
It found that, in order for a local authority to waive the requirement to go through an open tender process on the outsourcing of services, the authority must own wholly the third-party entity providing the service in question. Otherwise it must send it out to open tender in every instance. Legal services do not actually fall under this, but there is an argument that the profession should adopt best practice.
In the case of Law:Public, the presence of the private sector partner, Geldards, could arguably generate a challenge from rival firms to the contracting authority.
Wild, however, says he is satisfied that both local government legislation and Law Society regulations will allow the partnership.
Public procurement lawyer and consultant Jack Hayward runs an email group for his sector and says that, following the news of the joint venture’s launch, he received a number of enquiries questioning the validity of such a tie-up.
“I don’t see where the commercial imperative’s coming from,” he tells The Lawyer. “The private sector’s always got its eye on its professional indemnity insurance policy. The public sector would get more robust advice from its in-house department, because it’s not worried that if it gets it wrong it will get sued. Geldards is down to make a profit – they’re not a charitable organisation. It sounds to me like a publicity stunt. Kent’s into that.”
Turning the air blue
So is Wild’s aggressive commercial posturing little more than an exercise in PR?
“I’ve been accused of being an empire builder and a predator,” Wild admits. “Around the country Kent is a four-letter word. They see us as a threat; it’s not a threat – I’m throwing colleagues a lifeline.”
It is a lifeline that local authorities cannot afford to ignore, Wild would argue.
“We’re expecting 40 per cent cuts over the next few years, the good times have gone,” he adds. “Lawyers are capable of shaping their own destiny, they’re not stupid.”
Part of the reason Wild has been able to alter radically the remit of his legal department is because of the political hue of Kent County Council – it is about as true blue as you can get.
“I’ve always felt unencumbered by red tape,” he admits. He notes a difference in the level of commerciality and ideological support for private sector models between some old Labour-dominated councils in the North of England and those Conservative-led entities in the South East. But Wild notes that many of the more traditional district councils are actually Conservative-led authorities in Kent itself.
One of his beliefs is that Kent’s multiple “unsustainable” legal departments (there are around a dozen in total) should merge into one super-department. “I want to remove the plethora of anaemic, poorly staffed teams,” he contends.
Inevitably this would lead to job cuts, but he thinks they would be “mostly at my level. [But] it’s like turkeys voting for Christmas – there’s great resistance.”
No prizes for guessing who he thinks would be best placed to assume the role of top dog.
With ambitions such as this (even if they are couched in the seductive language of creating savings for the public purse) it would be easy to argue that Wild’s real driving force is vanity. But if there is any element of this, it could also be argued that, through this personal profile-raising, he is also increasing awareness about Kent and what it does.
The benefits from that are twofold: it allows him to attract better lawyers, lured by the carrots of working in a dynamic team, international work, (modest) financial bonuses and clear career structures; and, as a result of the cost efficiencies and increased revenue generation, Wild claims the council was able to approve the lowest council tax increase in its history.
This latter benefit in particular is something his critics would find it hard to argue with.
Name: Geoff Wild
Organisation: Kent County Council
Title: Director of law and governance
Lives: West Malling, Kent
Education: LLB, University of Hull; Solicitors’ Finals, Chester College of Law
1984-86: Articled clerk, Greater London Council
1986-88: Assistant solicitor, Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council
1988-1990: Senior solicitor, London Borough of Wandsworth
1990-present: Director of law and governance, Kent County Council