Going public

Debating whether public or private legal work is superior is a redundant exercise. Geoff Wild dispels some in-house myths

Going public“It’s not like that in the private ­sector.” It is a phrase often made by private practitioners when asked to comment on the world of the local government lawyer. No, it is not. And nor should it be.

But does that mean the public sector ­cannot compete for top legal talent?
Despite scepticism from some members of the private sector, very senior public ­sector lawyers work as hard as their private counterparts.

So what, then, is the draw of the public sector for lawyers with successful, well-paid careers in private practice law firms?

The decision to make the switch might come down to the type of work offered, where variety, responsibility and breadth of experience can be far greater in the public sector than in the private sector, ­particularly at junior levels.

Although not a cushy nine-to-five ­existence, a public sector lawyer rarely works on weekends and generally leaves by 6pm every day. Although the workload is at times more relaxed than at a top-tier law firm, it is certainly not a laid-back culture. The hours required to fulfil the task are the hours that have to be worked.

The lifestyle can be better, though, ­including generous holidays, flexible working patterns, plus a wide range of staff benefits. These include a work-life balance that is not possible in private practice. It is much more flexible in the public sector without the internal corporate pressure that exists within law firms for billing hours, which means the workplace is much more relaxed.

One ;of ;the ;biggest ­misconceptions ;about ­public sector lawyers, ­however, concerns the quality of the talent taking up these positions. The public sector does sometimes get a bad reputation in terms of the calibre of people. This, however, flies counter to the highly complex and demanding work that local government lawyers typically have to deal with, plus the regular and seamless traffic of lawyers passing from one sector to another. The fact is that local ­government can boast some of the most highly professional and proficient solicitors in the profession, notwithstanding that they work in the public sector and choose to have a life in addition to their work.

For the most part, the culture of a modern local government legal practice is surprisingly similar to that of a private practice law firm’s. As with private sector law firms, many have to return a profit (or hit savings ­targets) each year and work is often won on a ­competitive basis. If clients do not like what is delivered, then they can discontinue the relationship, all of which is fundamentally not so very different from private practice.

One difference is that the public sector places a greater emphasis on following set procedures, something the private sector has traditionally seen as bureaucratic. ­However, with the expansion of Lexcel and other procedure-based quality hallmarks, they are rapidly beginning to follow suit.

There is a cultural difference for a lawyer who acts only for local government, because the business of a local authority is different to that of a commercial enterprise. There is a greater emphasis on making sure that the right thing is done – and always done.

One of the biggest surprises for many private practitioners is the calibre of specialist legal talent within local government. Even after practising for many years and acting for public sector clients in private practice, many still do not have a good appreciation of how much knowledge there is in specialist ­government work, believing that all the interesting work is handled by the private sector. That is not always the case, and more people are now realising the quality and sophistication of the work that gets done in-house.

In terms of salary, the public sector is also looking pretty good, especially for junior to mid-level lawyers. The public sector terms and conditions are by and large more ­competitive that the private sector’s. At the junior level, for quite some time now a lawyer has been ahead in local government compared with a private sector counterpart (although it is probably starting to equal out now). At the mid-level, apart from the major firms, a lawyer is definitely better off in the public sector.

However, at the senior level the prospect of gaining equity in private law firms puts lawyers in front salary-wise, as there is an absolute ceiling they can reach in the public sector (although this can rise to six-figure levels).
The work of public sector lawyers when compared with colleagues’ work in other sectors ;is ;often ;not ­perceived as favourable. It seems that the public ­versus private debate still rages, which is not only often misguided, but also damages the reputation of the profession generally.

We can – and should – look for a cross-sector comparison from which we can all mutually learn for the benefit of the profession as a whole.

Geoff Wild is director of law and ­governance at Kent County Council