Mark Hynes: Lambeth Borough Council

Lambeth’s reputation might not be blossoming, but its legal department certainly is, with plans for adviser rationalisation and a possible London-wide legal collaboration. By Matt Byrne

For Lambeth director of legal and democratic services Mark Hynes, the bombings were even closer to home. “One of our employment lawyers [Tim Flaherty] was on the train with the Oval bomber,” he says.

Hynes admits there is little he and his team can do in relation to the events, but the council has been working even harder recently with the police and local faith leaders to present a united front.

It is unfortunate for Lambeth, which continues to have one of the poorest images of any local authority, that so much of the recent events took place on its doorstep. In local government circles, Lambeth continues to be seen as the poor relation, a stigma that stems from the days of the Brixton riots and the Marxist council head Edward ‘Red Ted’ Knight. And it has hardly been helped by this year’s early exit of chief executive Faith Boardman, who left office recently after allegedly making racist remarks.

Hynes arrives late for his interview with The Lawyer, fresh from a meeting related to the “early retirement” of Boardman and clearly under pressure. He is unable to comment during the meeting, except to reveal that the contentious financial package for the departing Boardman was due to be finalised that evening (Monday 1 August). Later, in a prepared statement from the council, Boardman’s exit was described as being for ‘personal reasons’.

According to Hynes, it was, to some degree, Lambeth’s undesirable reputation that attracted him to the job, despite the fact that many of his friends said he was mad. “Yes, the reputation of Lambeth is still poor, but I have to say that the reality is so far removed from that perception,” he says. “There are challenges, but Lambeth has a good crop of young and dynamic members across all political divides. There are also many very able managers within the executive directors team. Things have moved forward.”

Unlike at Brixton tube, the first thing you see in Hynes’ Lambeth Town Hall office is a collection of maps. There are five altogether, including a central London tourist guide, a London postcode chart and a ward map of Lambeth. Does Hynes have difficulty remembering where he works?

“They’re because I’m not a Londoner,” he confesses. “I still commute from Peterborough and when I first came down I didn’t really know my way around. It took a while until I finally got the ward map, which has the street names on it.”

But Hynes does not need a map to show the direction of his legal department. Seven months into the job since leaving Peterborough City Council (he has been in the public sector since leaving Eversheds, where he qualified, in 1990), he is considering a significant rationalisation of external legal advisers. Currently, Lambeth regularly instructs around 14 firms. Hynes would like to see that chopped to less than half a dozen.

“Building up our in-house resource in certain areas is definitely an issue for us,” he says. “In Lambeth there is no in-house social services legal team, for example. If we could recruit a team it may be that we could provide those services more efficiently and effectively in-house.”

It is a simple equation. Lambeth is paying some £1.5m to external solicitors, primarily Sternberg Reed Taylor & Gill, to provide social services advice. If Hynes can recruit lawyers to provide an equal service at a reduced cost, he will. “It would be a sensible business decision, providing you’re not compromising on the level of service,” he confirms. Major capital projects such as PFI deals, however, Hynes believes are better handled externally. “I don’t believe there is a trend for local authority in-house teams to handle large capital projects themselves,” he says. “I think that is the exception rather than the rule. There will always be the need to call on specialist financial, legal and technical advice.”

The problem may be attracting the lawyers. Hynes knows there is no way he can compete on salaries. So how can he attract the talent?

“I’m not going to pretend that the public sector can offer better salaries,” he admits. “But the margins are being eroded and there are other benefits that the public sector can offer, such as pensions and flexible working.”

On the latter, Lambeth’s democratic services division is currently piloting a scheme under which staff will be able to work from home 80 per cent of the time. Hynes’ view is that he is only interested in what his staff delivers. “If teleworking is more efficient, we’re happy to pay the cost of the IT,” he says. “Home working can produce definite benefits in morale, because it shows trust, and may lead to a more efficient use of office space and release capital assets.”

Hynes has taken the issue of resources beyond his department and into the wider London context. He recently wrote to all the other London borough legal heads to see if there were ways in which they could work more collaboratively, with a specific aim of driving down costs from external legal suppliers.

Hynes says the response was “good”, with 50 per cent responding. “It’s extremely helpful and illustrates that there’s a consistent wish among my peers to engage in more collaborative working across the piece,” he says.

With his focus on management, does Hynes still see himself as a lawyer? His practising certificate for the current year is on the wall next to his desk, but Hynes admits he is less of a lawyer these days than a manager. “As you climb up the greasy pole you do leave more and more of the law behind,” he says. “I see myself less as a legal practitioner these days. You also need an acute awareness of political sensitivities, both of the administration and the opposition. In Lambeth the biggest party is Labour, but the power is held by a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition. “It makes for a truly interesting political dynamic,” he says.
Mark Hynes
Director of legal and democratic services
Lambeth Borough Council

Statistics
Organisation Lambeth Borough Council
Sector Local government
Turnover £1.2bn
Legal spend £5m
Employees (including school employees): 5,723
Legal capability 20
Director of legal and democratic services Mark Hynes
Reporting to Director of corporate services Eric Bohl
Main external advisers Eversheds, Judge & Priestly, Sharpe Pritchard, Steeles, Sternberg Reed Taylor & Gill, Trivedy & Virdi