A fair division of labour

Women lawyers are making their mark in local government, reaching top posts in authorities across the country.

For many, local government offers varied work, good career prospects, a commitment to equal opportunities, flexible working arrangements and a respite from the old boys' network of private practice.

While the number of women at the most senior levels in the 450 local authorities in England and Wales is still relatively small, an increasing number are being promoted to the top positions.

A 1992 Local Government Management Board survey found there were 9,500 jobs in legal departments, including 2,400 solicitors, 190 trainee solicitors and 80 barristers. The proportion of women lawyers rose from 32 per cent in 1989 to 42 per cent in 1992. Seven out of 10 of the 1991/92 intake of trainee solicitors were women.

According to the board, heads of legal services earn between £35,000 and £60,000 depending on the type of authority and where it is based.

Solicitor Leonie Cowen, former director of law and administration and deputy chief executive of the London Borough of Camden, says: “If you look at local authority legal departments, women are highly represented and accorded high status compared to private practice, so it is becoming easier for women to reach the top posts.

“One of the perceived advantages of a local government career is easier access to good maternity benefits and there is a new breed of young women who have been promoted to senior posts which they combine successfully with very young families,” she says.

The following Who's Who of women responsible for local authority legal services is not exhaustive. Job titles and areas of responsibility also vary considerably.

Solicitor Sheila Bull has been director of legal and administrative services at Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council since 1990. She heard in July that her job is being made redundant from 25 October, along with other posts, as the council devolves services to neighbourhood provision.

“When I entered local government in 1976, it certainly offered a great deal for women, plus there is the concept of public service,” she says.

Solicitor Jackie Clark has been director of legal services at the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames for five years and in that time has been involved in major cases on school admission policies and special needs provision.

She considers the numbers of women reaching the top are “not that high”, given the number of authorities.

She says she enjoys working as part of a multi-disciplinary team. She is described as “very caring about staff, with a very good reputation”.

Jacqui Dixon is a solicitor and head of resources at Portsmouth City Council. She is described as “very lively and go-ahead, energetic”.

She did her articles at Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council. “When I started, the private sector was still very anti-women. Local authority work is a good career for women as it offers opportunities to work in many areas, such as planning, housing and environment, which you wouldn't get in private practice. My attitude is if it doesn't say you can't do something, then let's try it – and most of the time we get away with it.”

Barrister Gifty Edila has been head of legal services at the London Borough of Newham since 1993.

She comments: “A lot of women need the security that local government offers, particularly if they have family commitments, rather than being self-employed.

“For me, there is far more job satisfaction than just sitting in chambers which can be very artificial, only meeting the client on the day and with no involvement in the wider social issues.”

Solicitor Sue Free is assistant chief executive (corporate services) at Dartford Borough Council. She is the council's chief lawyer with responsibilities for overseeing the day-to-day running of the chief executive department. She has been described as “very straight, up-front, very, very experienced”.

She says there is “less of the old boys' network than you find in private practice. People are willing to train you, listen to you and promote you if you are doing well, regardless of your gender. However, while we know we have got to be better than others to succeed, we are not always very good at selling ourselves or at networking.”

Solicitor Vivienne Horton has been assistant chief executive for legal and civic services at St Helen's Metropolitan Borough Council since 1989. She has been described as “very approachable and pragmatic”.

She says: “When I was looking for articles, local government offered opportunities much earlier to take responsibility and the work was much more varied.”

Linda Ingram is solicitor to Fareham Borough Council. She joined the council eight years ago. She was previously head of the legal department but now works as corporate solicitor, advising on the constitutional running of the council.

“I think women find it a more comfortable environment than private practice because of the nature of the work and contact with people,” she says.

Amanda Kelly has been borough solicitor at the London Borough of Camden since 1993. Prior to this she was a salaried partner in private practice after dividing her articles between Camden and private practice. She is described as “ambitious and bright, and a chief executive in the making”.

She says the job is not a soft option – long hours and “endless” evening meetings.

“I came back into local government as I couldn't see myself spending 20 years dealing with the same sort of things – and I earn more money.”

Solicitor Helen Mercer has been head of legal and administration for Merseyside Police Authority since 1986.

At the end of September, her job is being split between authority and police work and she will become solicitor for the force. “The public sector has traditionally been at the forefront in developing good employment practices,” she says.

Solicitor Janet Orchard has been assistant chief executive (borough solicitor) at Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council since 1993. Her specialisms include CCT legislation, planning and development.

She believes that women are reaching the higher echelons because of a more general increase in the numbers of good quality female lawyers working in local government.

She says: “[They are] probably attracted by equal opportunities and career development.”

Susan Orrell is city solicitor to Manchester City Council and is described as “very hard working and competent”.

Solicitor Marie Rosenthal has been head of law at the London Borough of Islington for the past four years. She was articled at the council and worked her way to top.

Colleagues describe her as “competent, effective and approachable. Good fun”.

Solicitor Susan Smith is director of administrative and legal services at Cardiff City Council since 1992. She is the first woman president of the Association of District Secretaries and is described as a “lawyers' lawyer. A leading light in the legal intricacies of contracting out services”.

Susan Tovey has been solicitor to Salisbury District Council since 1992. During her time there she has helped to set up the local housing forum.

Like her peers she says that local government work offers good opportunities with a definite career path. In the past it has been seen as a soft option, she says, but its status is far higher now. She adds: “I'm not sure whether there is a glass ceiling but women's careers can be set back by taking time out to have families.”

Solicitor Sara Whitmarsh has been head of legal services at Waverley Borough Council since 1992. Colleagues describe her as “very helpful, smart and articulate. She offers concise advice and gets things sorted quickly”.

Solicitor Janet Worth is corporate legal adviser at the London Borough of Sutton. Much of her work is taken up by advising on bids for legal services. One particular area of interest is the measurement of the quality of legal services.

She is described as “assertive but approachable, well informed and highly regarded”.

Grania Langdon-Down is a freelance journalist.