Flying the nest: Lincolnshire Shared Legal Services

A groundbreaking scheme to set their legal teams free looks set to save six Lincolnshire local authorities more than £1m this year alone. Jon Parker meets interim project director Sarah McCombie

Flying the nest: Lincolnshire Shared Legal Services In-house lawyers often wish for greater independence, but not so some 80 local government lawyers in the county of Lincolnshire. So free from ties are these solicitors, in fact, that in three years’ time their paymasters will withdraw both direct control and funding alike – freeing them to work for any client they wish, but also to live or die in the open market.

“We’re going to be competing against anybody providing legal ­services to the public sector,” explains Sarah McCombie, the project’s ­interim director. “Where the public sector is using private practice firms, we’ll seek to take that work too. We don’t think this has ever been done before.”

Despite its ho-hum working title, the Lincolnshire Shared Legal ­Services initiative is a genuinely groundbreaking one, designed to turn a public sector legal function from a cost into a revenue raiser.

Simultaneously, it is aimed at ­solving the region’s legal recruitment problem – as bad or worse as that faced by the local government sector as a whole – while offering superior salaries and better career paths for lawyers.

The initiative began by combining six separate councils’ legal teams – Lincolnshire County Council, Boston Borough Council, and the district councils of East Lindsey, North Kesteven, South Holland and West Lindsey – which then have three years in which to set up a commercially viable legal practice before direct council funding is withdrawn.

Beyond that point, the new team must survive on fees alone and is later expected to become an active revenue raiser for its council stakeholders.
McCombie, who is on secondment from Boston Borough Council, was aided in setting up the initiative by Geoff Wilde (pictured left with McCombie), the maverick legal chief at Kent County Council, who acted as a consultant and whose own legal service, KCC Legal, also works for other clients.

“Kent generates a million a year from its external clients and we would be pleased to compete at that level,” says McCombie.

As well as saving tax pounds, the service reduces recruitment difficulties by offering lawyers bigger salaries through the increased revenue that the service is able to provide, and offers better career paths in the form of more internal vacancies and far more scope to specialise.

“Each of the authorities had experienced issues with recruiting staff, and we were competing with each other for good lawyers, particularly at a district level,” McCombie explains. “Two districts struggled to recruit at all and ended up paying more than they should for legal services because they were sourcing them externally.”

The project is to be developed in three year-long stages. As reported in The Lawyer (26 May) stage one, which is already underway, saw the authorities pool their total of 80 full-time equivalent lawyers – including 55 from the county and 20 from the districts – plus legal support staff and budgets.
Between them, the six councils spent a total of £1.5m on external legal services annually, which they plan to slash to just £350,000 this year as a result of the new arrangements.

The partnership is in the final stages of recruiting a practice director and two assistant practice directors, for which it has gone outside the county’s usual pay structure. In the meantime, it is also inviting six companies to tender to provide case- and time-management software to enable mobile working for all staff.

Phase two, which begins in April, is about income generation. Stakeholders will contribute identical sums as in stage one, despite a planned rise in lawyer salaries and other costs, which will be self-funded by the ­service’s fee income.

The second stage will also include a ‘reconciliation’ in which authorities will contribute extra funds or be refunded for greater or lesser service use than other users in the first year – although McCombie explains that extra funds will be prioritised for service development above refunds.

The third and final stage will see upfront funding withdrawn ­completely, after which the service must fund itself.

The team’s six-member management board, comprising one member from each authority, is debating whether to make it a ­limited-liability partnership at that point.

However, the new scheme will not offer its lawyers or staff one of the major distinctions between senior public sector lawyers and private practice ;equity ;partners ;– ­performance-related pay – as this is not ­currently permitted under ­Lincolnshire’s pay regulations.

McCombie says this may be reviewed in future, but dismisses the concern that the partnership stands to have its best-performing lawyers poached by private practice.

“It would be a lovely dilemma to have,” she adds. “I would love to be in a position where the partnership was earning as much as a private practice firm of the same size.”

Name: Sarah McCombie
Position: Interim project director
Organisation: Lincolnshire Shared Legal Services
Sector: Local government
Employees: 80
Legal capability: 80

1993-99: Force information unit manager, Lincolnshire Police
1999-2003: Corporate research and support unit manager, Boston
Borough Council
2003-05: Head of organisational development, Boston Borough
2005-07: Assistant chief executive, Boston Borough Council
2007-08: Assistant director, human and corporate resources, Boston
Borough Council
2008-present: Interim project director, Lincolnshire Shared Legal Services