The law of the land

As many do, Simon Mallinson chose the law to make a difference, not to make money. He is still making a difference. And he is still not making any money. As head of legal at Worcestershire County Council, he earns the same as a newly-qualified assistant in a City firm. Is this a problem for him? Only when people assume it makes him less of a lawyer.

“The only reason the public sector pays less is because public sector lawyers have to demonstrate true value for money,” he says. “There are no high wages, leather sofas or smoked glass offices here, so we don’t pass unnecessary costs onto our customers. And the work we do is always worth doing.”

Mallinson, though, is not really well placed to compare the two worlds. He has never even looked into commercial law for a minute, he says, let alone worked in private practice. But he uses the comparison to stick up for his side of the legal profession. He claims that lawyers go into the public sector not because they would not stand a chance of making it in the City, but because they see the public sector as a better place to work, full stop. He will never be a rich man in a rich firm, he says, but he survives. And the emotional fulfilment and personal rewards he gains from his job are priceless.

Mallinson’s job is worth doing, even for “that wage”, because he gets to protect the people and the land of Worcestershire, all within the relatively safe world of the law. Child protection cases make up the bulk of his work. The legal department is also responsible for maintaining the right of way networks for Worcestershire’s walkers and monitoring companies that dump waste materials in landfill sites.

You can tell Mallinson’s commitment to the public sector by the fact that he has never once flirted with working in the business community. Not even casually. Even as a law student he worked as a caretaker for Dorset County Council in his summer holidays to fund him through law school.

After reading law at university, Mallinson did his articles at Suffolk County Council. Then he went around the world, trekking in Nepal among other adventures. He was at the top of the Annapurna Mountain in Nepal when he qualified.
Shortly after, he returned to the UK and got down to work as a solicitor at Essex County Council. He then worked as a social services solicitor for Leicestershire Council and Buckinghamshire County Council before becoming head of legal at Worcestershire in 1999.

This solid rural council career path has given Mallinson considerable expertise in dealing with country matters, which proved invaluable when the Worcestershire area was hit by the Foot-and-Mouth epidemic earlier this year. “We had to respond quickly to emergency Government legislation on Foot-and-Mouth, which was not by any means easy,” he says. The first case of Foot-and-Mouth in the country came at the end of February. The day after, the Government issued emergency legislation. Mallinson feels that it was unclear and in parts unhelpful as a result of being so rushed.

“I suspect these regulations were bashed out by confused Government officials in one afternoon,” he explains. “The directive contained paragraph headings followed by sub-regulations that did not seem to match up logically. Basically, it didn’t really make any sense, least of all to the farmers.”

However, he managed to translate the legislation into a digestible format for the farmers by 1 March this year. He oversaw the closing of all the rights of way in rural areas and instructed the Worcestershire farmers to put up closed path signs around their land. His main problem, he says, was that the Government and the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Foods (Maff) kept adding amendments to the Foot-and-Mouth legislation. “Not only were amendments issued quickly,” he says, “but we only found out about them over the internet. Maff certainly didn’t call any rural county council heads of legal to conference about any of the legislation. Luckily, many of the farmers had internet access.”

Although he thinks the emergency Foot-and-Mouth legislation could have gone through more channels, Mallinson believes that the internet will become a valuable tool for Government. He is enthusiastic about using Worcestershire’s website to make county residents aware of local legal developments. For example, the council website could provide updates of local land registrations. This would stop people buying registered land illegally and creating work for his department.

However, he says that all this is a long way off. Worcestershire is a young authority – it formally split from Hereford and Worcester in 1998, and when Mallinson came in there was a lot of work to be done. “We’re working fast, but we’re on a lot of things that other council law departments may have achieved already,” he says. “Over the last two years, we’ve really just been setting up how the department’s going to work.”

For example, the team has just started to work out what it will do to create best value in the use of its budget. Best value is a principle that all local authorities now have to operate by, and each department within the council is accountable for how it uses its budget. Mallinson’s legal team has recently started examining the value of using external legal advisers. The team has already decided to replace external child protection advice with a full-time in-house solicitor. “We discovered this was cheaper than paying for ad hoc external advice,” says Mallinson.

But private firms looking at Worcestershire for, say, public finance initiative (PFI) work should not see this as the start of a worrying trend. Child protection and social services work is different. As most public sector solicitors can do it. When it comes to complex PFIs, Mallinson freely admits he cannot do without the expertise of large private firms. In the past, Eversheds in Birmingham has been Mallinson’s firm of choice for PFI work. Last year, the firm advised on an externalisation of Worcestershire County Council’s old people’s homes. It also helped create a complex waste management contract between the council and a private company.

Mallinson has also used Pinsent Curtis Biddle in Birmingham for help with financial systems procurement and DLA in Birmingham for company commercial advice. He turns mostly to Eversheds, but local authority rules require him to put all external work out to tender. The tendering process is not like a beauty parade, Mallinson says. He invites likely firms to bid for the work on the basis of their known expertise. When going on to choose the winning bid, he has a common sense approach.

“When we invite private firms to bid for PFI work, we don’t want them to dance around giving multimedia presentations,” he says. “We’re more concerned with the practical aspects of the bid, such as cost.”

Mallinson’s advice to any private firm bidding for public sector work is to keep value for money at the forefront of their minds. However much a council’s head of legal may want to use a particular firm, if it cannot demonstrate that it provides best value, the firm will not get the work. He also advises private firms to provide what he calls “after-sale service”. “We’re increasingly going to be using external advice on an ad hoc basis,” he says. “If a firm can demonstrate that it wants to keep Worcestershire County Council as a client by helping us out with queries after a deal has finished, we will use that firm again.”

Mallinson says that he cannot speak for Worcestershire County Council on its plans for the future, or how he will be involved. For the moment, he is thinking small. He would like to demonstrate continuous improvement in providing efficiency and value for his employer, the council. He is also aiming for Lexcel and Investors in People accreditation for his department. The size of the plans may seem disappointing, he says, but it is the truth.

“If I was paid £200,000 a year, I suppose I’d have to mouth off a bit more about my brilliance and talk of grand plans for the future,” he says. “But I’m a modest man, just trying to improve efficiency while keeping the ethos of public service.” Some would say that it is a big enough job in itself.
Simon Mallison
Head of legal
Worcestershire County Council

Organisation Worcestershire County Council
Sector Local government
Employees 950
Legal capability Twelve solicitors
Head of legal Simon Mallinson
Reporting to Council chief executive Rob Sykes
Main location for lawyers Worcester
Main law firms Eversheds