Lawyers are being sidelined in local government

The role of the lawyer in local government is under threat. Lawyers are still providing a crucial legal role, but 20 years ago between 70 and 80 per cent of council chief executives came from a legal background. Today that figure languishes somewhere around the 20 per cent mark and is declining.

The marginalisation of the legal professional in the local authority hierarchy – and not just as chief executive – is a cause for real concern. With chief executive or director-level positions now just as likely to be recruited from disciplines other than the law, the local authority solicitor has been sidelined.

This is despite the fact that there has been a raft of legislation that has transformed public service provision at a pace and to an extent never seen before. The quality of some of that legislation is questionable, and when you match this with the march of regulation and the seemingly unstoppable rise of regulatory and reporting authorities, it is vital that lawyers are centre stage.

The main reason we are facing this problem is the lack of vocational and personal development. Of course we need career lawyers, but we urgently need to find a vehicle to take lawyers away from pure specialisation towards thinking outside the box for those who want to pursue wider career paths. Sadly, those individuals are probably less well equipped to seize opportunities than at any time before.

Add to this the fact that many feel the perception of the profession in local government is at its lowest level ever and you have a situation that impacts on all lawyers, whether in public service or private practice. One example is legal advice being sought too late, resulting in time wasted and expensive mistakes, impacting on the integrity of the authority and, ultimately, the lawyer, who is then left to reassemble the pieces.

When all is said and done, the profession in the public sector has not responded to change. Whether this is the profession’s fault or the fault of a culture that demands more with fewer resources is open to question. The upshot is that the issue of career development must be addressed. If it isn’t, local authority lawyers will remain where they have, unfortunately, put themselves – outside the central box. What is needed is a framework for the development of the local authority lawyer. This is about attaining management skills on various levels – that of the individual, in leading teams and people, and in addressing the culture and demands of the political environment. There are skills within this framework that are now sorely lacking from those lawyers who aspire to be at that top table.

The issue of marginalisation has meant that many local authority solicitors have limited experience of dealing with, and having access to, elected members. And as our culture is now more influenced by matters of corporate and ethical governance, where are the legal specialists to take these issues forward?On an operational level, we are limiting public sector lawyers – and they are limiting themselves – by failing to develop skills in leadership, motivation and budgetary and performance management. On a personal level, everyone, regardless of where they are in their careers, needs help with personal organisation and communication skills.

Let’s look at it another way. This is a country governed by a democratic political system and a legal structure created over centuries, which by and large serves us well. The fact that the lawyer appears to no longer be at the centre of decision-making in the delivery of our public services is surely something we ignore to the detriment of both our profession and our long-held values of a just and fair society.