Keeping your options open

Alan McLaughlin looks at the career development possibilities in a local government legal department

The experiences and development that can be offered in local government are second to none and individuals are encouraged to gain additional qualifications pre and post admission through various routes before considering management.

Most local authority legal departments offer schemes to develop careers through: career progression programmes for legal executives; developing legal assistants or legal executives to qualify as solicitors; trainee solicitor posts; post-qualification training; diplomas in local government law and administration; specialist Law Society panels such as childcare and planning; and MBAs or other internal management training schemes within a local authority. A few have university links to obtain management or equivalent diplomas.

The scheme for legal executives is attractive as it allows them to carry on working while achieving a qualification, either through correspondence or day release and often supported by the local authority funding the course. In addition, there may be time off for revision and attending examinations. The real benefit of such a scheme is that, on achieving qualifications, such as member or fellow of the Institute of Legal Executives, these schemes dictate pay scales linked to the day-to-day experiences in the work that they are expected to deal with. There is also the potential to go on and qualify as a solicitor, as many, if not most, local authorities realise that the future lawyers needed to serve local government can be found within their own departments.

Within councils there is usually at least one trainee post with the opportunity of gaining experience by carrying your own caseload, enabling tham to attend court and advise the council on its responsibilities, either through advice or attendance at council meetings under the guidance of an experienced solicitor. Some trainees may also have the opportunity to work with partners of the local authority, such as private practice partners or other public sector bodies with which the authority may have an arrangement.

Post-qualification, the training offered is usually through the Local Government Group (LGG), which provides specialist courses to fit most training budgets of local authorities. In addition, joint arrangements made between authorities for joint training on topics of mutual interest is often useful for networking with colleagues.

There is a specialist course that the LGG and the Law Society provide leading to the diploma in local government and administrative law – a must for lawyers who wish to progress within the public sector. This qualification is recognised by all local authorities as it shows expertise in this area of law. Very often your local authority will meet the costs.

As part of continuous development, most local authorities are keen for members of their teams to gain admission to the specialist panels run by the Law Society and there are equivalents in most areas of work undertaken by local authorities. Admission to such panels can enhance both the level of expertise in the area of law and that of the legal team, especially with client departments. Admission is either through essay, exam or questionnaire, together with compulsory attendance at courses linked to that area of law.

Local authorities can provide management qualifications such as an MBA or an alternative internal management training scheme. With MBAs there is usually a university link, while the internal schemes might lead to a diploma or no qualification at all, and there is a mixed view across local authorities of their value so the funding of these is not guaranteed.

There is a wide range of training and support available in local government. It is always advisable to ask what training is available if considering a taking up a post.

Alan McLaughlin is deputy head of legal services for social care, education and general litigation at Buckinghamshire County Council