The knowledge

Satish Mistry is the new head of legal at the London Borough of Waltham Forest. Eleanor Levenson reports on the man who, after working for six boroughs, knows London inside out

Satish Mistry has worked in six London boroughs. The sixth – and possibly the most challenging – is his current post at the London Borough of Waltham Forest, not a million miles from where he grew up in London’s East End. Mistry started this job only two weeks ago, but he already has a good idea of what needs to be done. “It’s quite a challenging job,” he admits. “My first task has been to see where the gaps are.”

Mistry’s previous post was at the London Borough of Havering, where he was chief legal officer. “Waltham Forest is a much bigger borough so has a raft of bigger issues.
It’s more inner-city based and the nature of the borough is more cosmopolitan,” he says. His job in Havering, he adds, “was always a two-year job”, and he does not know yet how long he intends to stay at Waltham Forest. “But this will be my last legal job in local government,” he says. “There’s nowhere else for me to go.”

At 39, this poses something of a problem for Mistry. Most people in a job of his level are in their mid to late 40s. “At some point I’ll have to decide whether to go into private practice or stay in local government and lose the practical legal role. I haven’t decided yet,” he says.

If he decides to go down the private practice route, Mistry may be in for a shock. He has never worked in private practice before. After a law degree at Aberystwyth and a year at the College of Law in Chester, Mistry did his articles at the London Borough of Redbridge. Upon qualification, he took a job at the London Borough of Newham as an assistant solicitor, where he stayed for two years.

“It was an issue of wanting to do something that was socially valuable and utilising my professional skills to try and do something for the community,” he says.

From Newham, Mistry went to the London Borough of Camden. As senior solicitor, he was heavily involved in preparing Camden for compulsory competitive tendering (CCT). “At the moment Camden’s a model authority, but when I was there in the early 1990s I was trying to help implement a major change.”

Mistry thinks this will stand him in good stead for his new job at Waltham Forest. “Waltham Forest and what it’s going through at the moment is probably more akin to what I’m used to,” he says. He feels that the biggest challenge he faces is doing the best that he can with the limited resources the borough possesses.

After Camden, Mistry moved to the London Borough of Brent, where he stayed for seven years in the role of corporate solicitor. “It was interesting,” he says. “While I was working at Brent they externalised about 50 per cent of their legal work.”

Havering was next. As chief legal officer, Mistry looked after the legal and personnel departments. “It was a much smaller department than Waltham Forest,” he says. As part of his post at Waltham Forest, he sits on the management board of the authority – another factor that makes it a more demanding role.

In Waltham Forest, Mistry is particularly keen to see where partnerships with the private sector can be developed. He is looking at doing this for a range of services.
Similarly, when it comes to legal work, he wants to look more to the private sector. “The view that I have is that the days of local government being able to do all legal work in-house are gone,” he says. “Over a period of time the private sector has to be utilised. There’s now a greater opportunity for private sector firms to be involved in public sector work.”

Currently, Waltham Forest mainly uses Denton Wilde Sapte, Eversheds, Pinsent Curtis Biddle and Sharpe Pritchard. There is, however, no official panel and any work is bid for on a job-by-job basis. “We’re looking to the experience of outside firms for some of our work,” notes Mistry. “I want to see whether we need one firm of solicitors or a number of firms. It’s likely that we’ll continue to use several firms, as different firms have different expertise. Also, it keeps them on their toes.”

Mistry sees his role at Waltham Forest as being in three parts: first, he manages the in-house legal provision and is in charge of procuring external services; second, he must deal with member-related issues, which covers all his dealings with councillors as well as legal mechanisms such as judicial review; and the third part is the role of the facilitator, utilising his legal skills and the skills in his department to assist the authority to meet its corporate and service objectives.

According to Mistry, the nature of local authority work has changed, with the biggest change coming from the Local Government Act 2000. “This radically changes how local government will operate,” he says. The main change is that, in the past, local authorities needed to find a specific power in order to be able to do something, but now there is an enabling power. This changes the whole nature of decision-making. There has also been an extension of local authority powers and new codes of conduct for councillors. But the issues that Mistry thinks will be occupying his mind as soon as the dust has settled and he is used to his new office are PFI, regeneration and outsourcing. “Best value is also a big thing,” he says.

Mistry has definite views about what he wants to achieve. Two of the previous local authorities he worked for have gone on to be praised as model authorities. It is yet to be seen if Waltham Forest can achieve the same. But the role of a local authority lawyer is riddled with challenges and problems. For Mistry, this is the exciting thing. “I like the fact that every day can be totally different and you don’t know where the next problem will come from,” he says.
Satish Mistry
Head of legal and committee services
London Borough of Waltham Forest

Organisation London Borough of Waltham Forest
Sector Public
Employees Approximately 6,000
Legal Capability 20 lawyers plus support staff
Head of legal and committee services Satish Mistry
Reporting to Director of corporate services Chan Badrinath
Location London (Waltham Forest Town Hall)
Main law firms Denton Wilde Sapte, Eversheds, Pinsent Curtis Biddle and Sharpe Pritchard