Public sector loses its safety-net status
4 January 2010 | By Luke McLeod-Roberts
At the start of 2009 the public sector was seen by many firms as a cushion against the stagnation riddling their private sector clients.
The theory was that certain frontline services, such as elements of the NHS and education, were inviolate from spending cuts and that the Government would seek to stimulate economic growth through investment in major projects.
This was best seen in the case of Beachcroft. A firm that was already strong in the public sector field got a further shot in the arm when it took Eversheds’ entire clinical negligence team and with it clients such as the NHS and the NHS Litigation Authority. As a result it was one of the few mid-market firms to actually see turnover increase in 2008-09.
But speak to in-house counsel at the UK’s leading public sector bodies and they might take a different view of the challenges they faced in 2009.
Popular anger at privilege and excess has led to structural reorganisation and some creative solutions to managing limited resources. Many local authorities have been operating with understaffed in-house capacity.
London Borough of Hackney general counsel and corporate director, legal and democratic services Gifty Edila dealt with this by using locums. At the same time she provided her 60-strong department with clearly defined career paths to enhance retention, while creating larger teams to provide economies of scale.
Creating economies of scale has been one of the primary drivers behind the flood of joint procurement initiatives hitting the market over the past year.
Local authorities too small to launch independent formal tender processes have joined forces in their dozens to access some of the better public sector experts. The London Boroughs Legal Alliance went down this route in the autumn, when it instructed 16 firms including Ashfords, Browne Jacobson, Sharpe Pritchard, TLT and Weightmans as ‘key providers’ in a bid to save £1.5m a year (TheLawyer.com, 13 October 2009).
In a similar move, places are up for grabs on united panels in the North West, North East and Sussex, while 11 local authorities across Surrey recently announced the results of their own joint tender process (The Lawyer, 7 December 2009). Neighbouring South East authority Kent County Council (KCC) was one of the appointees, the latest evidence of this local authority’s successful foray into work not normally undertaken by a council.
KCC’s private practice model generated £1.42m for the authority during 2008-09. Not satisfied with the Home Counties as a source of new work, KCC also opened a Brussels office (The Lawyer, 11 May 2009) to advise new EU entrants and has plans to send a delegation to Inner Mongolia to grab work on investment opportunities into Kent.
Sadly not all elements of the public sector are blessed with such worldliness, as revealed by the backlash against comments made by prominent Shoosmiths social housing partner Andy Ballard. Speaking about expanding his social housing team, Ballard joked: “Anyone who’s under 50 and reads The Guardian gets brought on.”
This led to an anonymous phonecall from someone claiming to be an instructing solicitor at a client claiming offence, along with a flurry of comments from readers lambasting the putative discrimination. This was matched by an equal number of comments in defence of Ballard’s sense of irony (The Lawyer, 26 October 2009).
As 2010 - an election year - begins, talk of slashing public sector spending should shatter any illusion that it is some kind of safety net for the downwardly mobile. Now more than ever a sense of humour will go a long way.
Public sector panel reviews 2009-10
Central government and regulatory
- Department for Work and Pensions
- Legal Services Board
- Nuclear Decommissioning Authority
- Birmingham City Council
- North West consortium
- Tyne & Wear
- Nottingham University
- University of Sussex
- Advantage West Midlands
- Circle Anglia
- Homes and Communities Agency