22 June 2009 | By Kit Chellel
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With a raft of issues in her own back yard, Southwark’s legal chief Deborah Collins keeps her team’s focus local.
At the London Borough of Southwark three women are transforming what is probably the largest council legal team in the capital. They are led by Deborah Collins, who was hired from what was then the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and who bears the rather cumbersome title of strategic director of communities, law and governance.
Since arriving in 2007 Collins has brought in Doreen Forester-Brown to head the contentious side and Stephanie Fleck to lead the projects team.
The trio has a daunting job. Southwark is the largest social landlord in London, with some 45,000 tenants. The borough is also in the midst of massive regeneration, with some £4.5bn being spent on projects.
Given the demand for legal services, it is no surprise that Collins’ approach is different to those of many council lawyers.
While some local authorities are following the Kent model, generating revenue for the council by selling legal services to external clients, Collins’ only clients are Southwark Council departments.
“We’re going pretty much in completely the opposite way to Kent,” reveals Collins. “We have so much demand that we’re using all our capacity to provide what the local authority wants.”
Collins argues that being focused on making money for the council misses the point. She wants her 80 lawyers to concentrate instead on providing legal services in the most efficient way possible. If a job can be done in less time for less money, why not do so?
“When you’re a trading fund, that’s fine, because you can become a profit centre,” she says. “But you have to make clear that your lawyers understand they have to provide value for money.”
Despite a contrasting ethos to Kent’s, Southwark is modernising in its own way.
One the Collins’ first tasks as head of legal was to review the number of support staff employed by the council. After a benchmarking survey of other local authorities, she decided that major change was needed.
“Our support staff ratio was very high and our lawyers weren’t getting the service that they wanted,” she reveals. “We changed the whole focus of the team so that we were providing support in areas that the lawyers needed it.”
The end result was that the number of support staff was almost halved, from 35 to 18. Clearly the public sector has not entirely escaped the flood of redundancies engulfing private firms.
Southwark has also introduced an up-to-date case management system.
“One of the things that’s really important it to show our clients the progress of our cases,” insists Collins.
Seeing through these projects has meant that Collins has had to put a review of external legal advisers on hold. Southwark has a six sub-panels, two for property and one each for contracts, employment, litigation and planning, which were last sent out to tender in 2006.
The council is also planning to set up its first barristers panel.
Collins accepts that the review needs to be done - Southwark spends up to £6m every year on external firms and barristers - but she wants to complete the internal restructuring first.
“The priority for us is to sort out the workflows,” she states.
The panel review process will begin at some point over the 18 months. In the meantime Collins, Fleck and Forester-Brown have plenty to keep them busy.
In the past year alone the in-house team has worked on a number of challenging projects, but the pace of change in the borough is now showing now signs of abating.
Earlier this year Southwark closed the first phase of its £200m Building Schools for the Future programme, selecting Balfour Beatty for the building work.
It marked the end of an intensive 20-month procurement process, which Southwark was one of the first boroughs to complete.
The in-house team worked closely with Trowers & Hamlins. “We had a good partnership with Trowers & Hamlins, in a way that kept our costs down. It was one of the reasons it got through on time,” reveals Fleck.
Meanwhile, Forester-Brown had to deal with the potentially thorny issue of how the council cares for the most vulnerable members of the community.
Southwark had been one of the few London boroughs to provide care for those assessed as having ‘moderate’ needs, but following a review the council will now only care for those with medium to critical needs.
The move was prompted by the need to shave between £2.5m and £3m from the adult care budget over the next three years.
“It’s a very sensitive area when you talk about removing a service from a vulnerable group of people,” says Forester-Brown. “The challenge you have is that you always leave yourself open to judicial challenge.
“We haven’t had one,” she adds. “That’s a success.”
Department: London Borough of Southwark
Industry: Public Sector
Strategic director of communities, law and governance: Deborah Collins
Reporting to: Chief executive Annie Shepperd
Number of employees: 7,000
Legal capability: 80
Main external law firms: DMH Stallard, Eversheds, Mills & Reeve, Nabarro, Trowers & Hamlins, Wragge & Co
Legal spend: £3m-£6m
Deborah Collins’ CV
1981-84: Law, Oxford University
1985-87: The City Law School, London
1987-88: Articles, Clifford Chance
1988-91: Investment banker, J Henry Schroder & Co
1991-2007: Various positions, Government Legal Service
2007-present: Strategic director of communities, law and governance, London Borough of Southwark