Looking ahead

Looking forward 10 to 15 years, the 'typical' local authority legal department of the future is likely to be smaller but much more experienced, employing a number of private sector firms to work for it in clearly defined specialist areas of the law.

There is no real reason why certain types of work, such as simple conveyancing and basic litigation, cannot be contracted out of the local authority into local high street firms.

Local firms have the knowledge and expertise and the authority can take advantage of a competitive market.

In fact, there is no reason why a number of authorities could not act together and work hand-in-hand with a private sector partner to create independent specialist local authority practices.

These practices would be staffed by lawyers drawn from local authorities but managed by private sector partners and would offer competitive advice and services alongside their more established high street cousins.

Such a move would reduce the number of in-house lawyers within local authorities, leaving two tasks for those who remain within the public sector.

The first would be the management of standard 'low-level' work; the second would be the task of handling the more complex and sometimes politically sensitive legal issues that a local authority faces. This requires experienced in-house lawyers with the ability to draw on outside skills as necessary.

The latter is where local authorities will turn to the larger law firms which have an established track record in providing the appropriate high-level strategic advice.

Local authorities already use private law firms on major urban redevelopments, a trend that is continuing through the Private Finance Initiative and the new Single Regeneration Budget.

They have also traditionally used London-based City firms as their High Court agents.

The use of private firms to support higher levels of management within the authority is a continuation of that basic principle.

Carl Hopkins is a partner at Nabarro Nathanson.