Swapping the City for Whitehall

Last month David McCahon told The Lawyer why he quit Westminster for Cameron McKenna. This month, Clare Sylvester explains why she left Clifford Chance for the 'raw law' of the Government Legal Service

Why on earth should anyone leave the comparative luxury of the City for the “Corridors of Power”? A little over a year ago with friends thinking I must be mad, and that I would soon be poor, I did just that. I joined the Litigation Division of the Treasury Solicitor's Department after 10 years in the City. Do I miss it? Yes, a little. Do I regret my decision? Not at all.

The Government Legal Service (GLS) offers the chance to deal with law in the raw. This is the real thing: nothing like the repetitive transactional chores of City commercial and banking work. And it is law with the added dimensions of government policy and politics thrown in for good measure.

European and, increasingly, human rights law is all-pervasive. For government departments, litigation is often about establishing important questions of law to clarify citizens' rights and ministers' duties.

As a result, far more cases get to court (and to the appellate courts) than is normal for private litigants. Settlement is not an option if the prime objective is to obtain a definitive ruling on the law. This is perhaps why so many cases in which GLS lawyers are involved are reported – 10 times as many as for any law firm.

Variety adds spice to life in the GLS. The sheer scope of government activity is exciting and, after 10 years specialising in insolvency and banking litigation, the prospect of moving between litigation and advisory jobs is exciting. If you are interested in the political process it can be fascinating to be involved in making new law, formulating policy and seeing something of the reality behind the headlines. The buzz of being in the House of Commons passing notes to ministers debating a Bill is something you could never experience in the City.

The range of cases I am responsible for in my current job is far broader than any lawyer could expect in the City and far exceeds my original expectations. I work in a team which is 11-strong. Most of our instructions come from the DTI and the OFT.

In the past 12 months I have handled cases as diverse as directors' disqualifications, petitions to wind companies up in the public interest, challenges to the DTI's action under Community law, defamation and an action to prevent threatened illegal trade in rhino horn.

The culture and work environment of the GLS is very different to that of the City. I was struck by my colleagues' enthusiasm for their work and for their role as public lawyers. After the individualistic, competitive and profit-oriented culture of the City, the attitude in the GLS is wonderfully refreshing.

GLS lawyers come from diverse backgrounds. In the team in which I work there are six men and five women. Several joined the GLS soon after qualifying as solicitors in private practice or as barristers. Others previously handled cases as administrators before qualifying, sponsored by the department.

One member of the team is an administrator handling legal work, another works part time. Some have worked in other parts of the Litigation Division or in advisory jobs. One recently spent a period on secondment as the lawyer to a public inquiry.

In contrast, of the team of 10 lawyers in which I worked in private practice, seven had spent their entire careers with the firm and had worked exclusively since qualification specialising in commercial and insolvency litigation.

To an outsider, the GLS may seem a bit out of touch with commercial reality or to be a “soft option” for those who want an easy life. But although government lawyers do not have to worry about profit margins, they cannot afford not to be commercial. The GLS has to meet its running costs by charging client departments for time spent on their work.

For many types of work it must compete with the private sector. But there are strict rules on spending taxpayers' money which mean that the GLS cannot operate in the same way as private firms. We have to cover our costs but must not make a profit – try that in the City.

The GLS has neither a long hours nor a “nine to five” culture. We work long hours when the work demands it but working long hours as a matter of course is discouraged. Working at weekends is unusual. In my experience eyebrows are seldom raised if you leave on time, provided you are doing your job properly.

The GLS is sometimes portrayed as a safe haven for lawyers who wish to combine interesting work with family responsibilities and its culture and career structure do make this double act possible.

For most City lawyers their one and only career goal is to reach partnership. The criteria for success may be far from clear. By contrast, all GLS posts are graded and the career path and criteria for promotion are clearly stated. But progression takes time. Typically, a lawyer will spend three to five years in each post and may have two or three posts at one grade.

There are, of course, disadvantages. The level of support facilities cannot compare with City firms. Government lawyers cannot rely upon round the clock secretarial support as a matter of course. Many do their own word processing. And, although the Treasury Solicitors' Department has an excellent library, it does not employ specialist information officers. On the other hand, training provision is good (including management training for lawyers with managerial responsibilities).

So what do I miss about the City? Three things spring to mind: the opportunity to litigate abroad and to work with clients of different nationalities; the opportunity to travel which this presented; and my former firm's excellent sports facilities.

And what, you may ask, about pay? No lawyer in the GLS can expect to earn the same salary as his counterpart in the City. After all, we are paid from taxpayers' money. That said, we are not badly paid compared to the vast majority of lawyers working in London, still less in comparison to lawyers elsewhere.

Government lawyers may not be the fattest cats in town, but we are definitely among the happiest.