Susan Betteridge: Kirklees Council

Susan Betteridge only joined Kirklees Metropolitan Council, West Yorkshire last September, but is already making waves. Scarcely seven months into her role as head of legal services, she has set the wheels in motion to create the UK’s first national benchmarking group for local authority legal teams and later this month will become one of a handful of council legal heads to have appointed a barristers’ panel.

Betteridge hopes such innovations will help remould the tarnished image of the solicitor in local government.”[Local government] lawyers are out of fashion at the moment,” she says. “But it’s a shame, because we’re learning skills we never traditionally had and we get to talk to every department and see what they’re doing in a pretty unique way.

“We want to raise our profile, and the reason that we’re out of fashion is because we were the ones that used to tell councils they can’t do things – we were the public obstruction unit. But we’re a different breed of lawyer now and people need to wake up and realise that.”

Different indeed. Betteridge is unlawyerly frank in admitting that the legal services team at Kirklees “doesn’t have the best reputation in the world”, and that she was “brought in to sort it all out”.

Unlike most other local authorities, which have shed lawyers in recent years, Kirklees’ legal team has recruited hard in an attempt to save on external legal spend, but as Betteridge explains, it “grew too quickly without a proper management structure in place”.

As such, establishing stability is a central objective for Betteridge, while simultaneously maintaining the emphasis on cost. As part of the latter, the barristers’ panel she began creating last November (The Lawyer, 15 January) is expected to bring down spend on counsel from its present £350,000 to south of £300,000 within 12 months.

The panel will consist of four sub-panels covering childcare, adult social services, employment and housing. Seventeen chambers have pitched for the places, with the decision set to be announced later this month.

In June Kirklees will also begin a review of its arrangements for solicitors. Options discussed include creating a panel of firms or creating a partnership with a single firm.

“The firm would get to know us and we’d get to know them, so that when a job needs doing we don’t need to explain our situation every time,” Betteridge says.

“For bigger jobs the firm would still have to pitch,” she adds. “But our partnership firm would have the incomparable advantage of the inside track.”

To improve the performance of the council’s legal function Betteridge and her team also began work setting up the first national benchmarking group for city council legal departments.

“I’m very keen to know that our costs are as small as possible,” she says. “If someone else is doing something for £50 and it’s costing us £100, I want to know why.”

The project is being led by Tony Walsh, Betteridge’s legal services manager, who contacted the legal heads of all 31 city councils in England and Wales in January 2001. Walsh expects to establish the group within 12 months.

Kirklees is already a member of a benchmarking group for South and West Yorkshire, which has eight metropolitan borough members, and Walsh is examining a benchmarking scheme for county councils set up by Eversheds to see what he can learn.

However, the county council scheme is less comprehensive than that proposed by Kirklees and has only 20 members. Kirklees plans to include all 31 city councils and to perform a comprehensive cost analysis detailing the price of a single Section 106 agreement or a sole sale-and-leaseback.

Betteridge joined Kirklees from Bradford City Council, where she worked for 11 years. Although a larger authority than Kirklees, Bradford had latterly been through a “huge change programme”, Betteridge explains. “And after working with three chief executives in four years, I thought it was time for a change.”

Ethnically and economically diverse, the Kirklees constituency encompasses what Betteridge describes as the “last of the Summer Wine country” through to depressed former mill towns such as Dewsbury, from where the London bombers set off on 7 July 2005.

Although she trained at Hammonds (then Hammond Suddards), Betteridge has spent her entire qualified career in local government and is as passionate about the role of the public sector lawyer as she is about her adopted home county of Yorkshire, having chaired the Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors in 2003-04 and been secretary of the Solicitors in Local Government group in the 1990s.

“In local government people are happy to share because we’re all in it for the same purpose,” she says. “Unlike being in a firm, where even your colleagues can be your rivals.”

Susan Betteridge
Head of Legal
Kirklees Metropolitan Council

Organisation: Kirklees Metropolitan Council
Sector: Local government
Number of employees: 17,000 (including teachers)
Head of legal services: Susan Betteridge
Reporting to: Corporate services manager Dave Harris
Legal capability: 30 solicitors, 30 paralegals
Main law firms: Eversheds, Irwin Mitchell, Pinsent Masons
Susan Betteridge’s CV

1985-88 – Trent Polytechnic (now Nottingham Trent University);
1988-89 – Chester Law College
Work History:
1989-91 – Trainee, Hammond Suddards (now Hammonds);
1991-1995 – assistant, Barnsely Council;
1995-96 – assistant, Bradford City Council;
1996-98 – team leader, commercial, Bradford;
2001-06 – head of legal, Bradford;
2006-present – head of legal, Kirklees Metropolitan Council