Live and learn
1 October 2001
It is unusual to hear clients saying that they learn from law firms, but that is precisely what North Yorkshire Legal Services (NYLS) claims to do. In fact, according to head of legal services Richard Daly, national firm Eversheds taught the local authority so much about PFI when it advised on an education deal that a second PFI project was handled in-house.
NYLS stands out among its public-sector peers. But learning from private practice is not the cause of the leverage, it is more a symptom of the way the organisation is run. The phrase that springs to mind is one that is often associated with local authorities - 'best value'.
The second PFI project that NYLS embarked upon was to set up a new training school for firefighters. It was a complicated deal because the school needed to create realistically dangerous conditions without exposing the firefighters to any real threat. NYLS sought bids from a number of consortia and then negotiated a contract with the winner. "We only use outside solicitors when we don't have the expertise," says Daly. "But we did all of this in-house."
NYLS's biggest client is North Yorkshire County Council, but it also advises North Yorkshire Police and North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Authority, and, to a lesser extent, a number of other local authorities.
The 24 lawyers are divided into three teams. A green team deals with environmental issues and contract law. The services to people team advises on social services, childcare, education and employment, and the litigation team encompasses the contentious element of both civil and criminal matters. The legal team also handles a certain amount of corporate law, including constitutional matters and ethical issues, as well as advising councillors about their duties and their rights.
Daly has always worked for local authorities, but most of the other lawyers in his department come from private practice. "One of the big attractions of local authorities is that the variety of work is phenomenal. I have been involved in so many once in a lifetime cases," he says.
On 18 July, the North Yorkshire County Council adopted a new constitution. Daly, along with two other lawyers, were involved in its composition. "It was thrilling to work with the local politicians and to advise on something for the future of the authority," says Daly.
NYLS did bring in outside help when North Yorkshire County Council set up its IT network and decided to introduce mutually compatible technology throughout the organisation. The work was outsourced to Bristol-based Bevan Ashford.
The firm seems an odd choice for a local authority in the North of England, but Daly explains that the choice was made after a competitive rather than a geographical selection process. "We did an open advert and got 17 replies," he says. "We liked Bevan Ashford's expertise, but we also like its attitude, which was very practical and hands-on and it was positive in teaching our in-house lawyers skills."
So, we come back to best value. Tender processes can often be tedious and laborious, but the impression that NYLS gives of its own tailoring is thorough and precise. "When we do a tender process we devise an evaluation model. It is always split between price and quality, but for each tender we'll commit to a model before we start the tender process.
If, for example, we're putting equal emphasis on price and quality then we'll award 50 points for each and will then judge the entries accordingly," says Daly.
But whereas outsourcing legal services was previously the norm, there is now a move towards bringing specific areas in-house. Child protection litigation is an example of an area which has been brought under the NYLS umbrella. It was calculated that it would cost the same to create a couple of extra positions for child care lawyers than if the local authority outsourced the work. So NYLS quickly brought in the expertise to handle the cases.
Daly stresses that there are no plans to bring everything in-house. "There are always new areas of law and we wouldn't be doing ourselves or anyone else any favours by trying to do it ourselves. It's healthy to use outside counsel for some things," he says.
Advocacy for the higher courts continues to be outsourced because there is no one at NYLS qualified for the role, but the litigation team does take responsibility for some public inquiries and magistrates court work.
But it is not always about money. NYLS has set up a partnering arrangement with London-based firm Masons. The local authority came up with the idea two years ago and it advertised for a firm to link up with. Nine firms responded, but Masons was the most impressive and the partnership has been up and running for 18 months.
As well as sharing expertise and resources, the partnership has set up a secondment programme and the local authority and private practice share in-house training. There is also some tailored training that allows specialist knowledge to be shared between local authority and private practice. Daly says that the last session taught data protection law in relation to highways.
So why is Masons not on NYLS's list of preferred legal advisers? "The public sector is a very funny thing," explains Daly. "If we use outside counsel then we need to do it through a specific process. We don't just give a firm work because we have a good relationship with it. Our process makes sure that we give work to the best firm for the job." So, maybe it does come back to money.
NYLS must have got something right, though. At this year's The Lawyer Awards it won the Public Sector Team of the Year award. In 2000, it dealt with a huge variety of work including the successful defence of a £1m claim against North Yorkshire Police, and a complex High Court child protection case involving evidence of abuse going back 30 years.
So what can its success be put down to? A strong strategy? Good leadership? Perhaps it should be seen mainly as a tribute to its cooperative approach with the private sector.
Head of legal services
North Yorkshire Legal Services
|Organisation||North Yorkshire Legal Services|
|Head of legal services||Richard Daly|
|Reporting to||Chief executive officer Jeremy Walker|
|Main law firms||Park Lane Chambers, Leeds|