Using the ABS structure to deliver council legal services? Creative thinking indeed, but Lambeth director of governance Mark Hynes is pondering it
The legal team at Lambeth London Borough Council is on the cusp of implementing a big idea that could change the way public sector legal departments are run.
Against a backdrop of scathing government spending cuts the council’s director of governance and democracy, Mark Hynes, is attempting to figure out how his department can benefit from the advent of ABSs.
Keeping it in-house
The idea, the brainchild of Lambeth along with neighbouring London authority Southwark, is to launch a joint ABS spin-off that would keep in-house the “more meaty legal issues” that would traditionally be sent to external counsel. By keeping this work in-house each authority could save some £3m.
“We’re chewing over a number of potential options [in reaction] to how legal services may look in future,” Hynes said when the idea was first mooted in March. “We hope to get these plans fully fleshed-out in the next three to six months.”
While nothing is set in stone it is an innovative thought and, if everything goes to plan, one that could form a blueprint for other local authorities looking to cut legal spend.
The two authorities – which, back in 2010 agreed to share the cost of instructed counsel for at least four years – are united in their aim to reduce unnecessary costs. The devil, as always, is in the detail.
“We are devising an appraisal to look at what vehicle legal services should be using,” Hynes explains. “The success of the Co-operative’s ABS model for legal services is attractive.”
Hearing a public sector lawyer praise retailer Co-op, the first ABS to be approved by the SRA, is surely a sign of the times. Instead of greeting spending cuts through gritted teeth Hynes and his team are looking at ways to benefit from wider changes in the legal market.
“Lambeth has recognised that there are significant opportunities for legal services to play a central role by providing services to a wide range of third sector groups,” Hynes explains.
He continues that the decision by the SRA to allow in-house departments to charge third parties a fee to use their services is a bonus.
“The strategy supports the council’s wider co-operative aspirations in supporting community groups and opens up a revenue stream for legal services,” Hynes comments.
He adds that the in-house team must not lose sight of its goal to be competitive and add value.
“Pooled resources, shared services and potential staff spin-offs all require constant review to ensure that, when opportunities knock, they are taken,” he enthuses.
With all this crystal ball-gazing going on it is easy to forget the troubled past of Lambeth. In local government circles the authority was for a long time seen as the poor relation. Mention Brixton, the beating heart of Lambeth, and many will think of riots in the 1980s or in 2011.
But Hynes says the council has come a long way.
“The 1980s riots are a distant memory, as are the militant left-wing politics of ‘Red’ Ted Knight,” he says.
With the Americans choosing the borough as the home of their new embassy and the Chinese also expected to move in, Lambeth is shaking off its bad-boy image. Nevertheless, like many inner-city boroughs Lambeth continues to struggle with high unemployment and poor social mobility.
Commitment to youth
Take note, lawyers – those pitching for a Lambeth panel place will need to pay attention to the council’s wider challenges.
“We have reassessed the requirements of our panels that will be re-let?? from July,” says Hynes. “I expect firms to be putting in bids with an unequivocal commitment to offer training and secondment opportunities for some of our looked-after children who are thinking of a legal career, as well as law students in the borough or at Southbank University.”
It is clear that helping graduates break into the profession is an area Hynes is passionate about.
“It is absurd that talented young lawyers are having to do other jobs while they wait for a break,” he adds. “In my authority there are a number of colleagues working in housing, audit or FOI who are significantly overqualified for their roles, given that they are barristers or solicitors. I’m fortunate to have entered law at the right time.”
While Hynes concedes that it is a tough, competitive market, he points out that working for a local authority brings the unique challenges of working for a political organisation. Along with those new embassies (the Dutch may also follow) Lambeth will benefit from the extension of London Underground, the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station and a huge cash injection into Vauxhall Cross.
WIth his background in planing law Hynes is practically salivating at the changes his borough faces.
Rather more pressing, however, is his inaugural presidency of Lawyers in Local Government, the organisation set up to give a voice to the 4,000 lawyers who work in councils across the country.
“My key priorities are to ensure the new governance arrangements are working properly, that we have the right national leads for the Special Areas of Activity and that we are sustainable financially,” he says.
With lofty ambitions to drive change not only in Lambeth but across local authorities in every county Hynes’ to-do list is practically never-ending, but it is that public sector spirit that will deliver the savings being squeezed out of every corner of the budget without hitting the most disadvantaged hardest.
London Borough of Lambeth
Position: director of governance and democracy
Organisation: London Borough of Lambeth
Industry: Local government
Annual legal spend: £5m
Number of employees (inc schools): 5,000
Legal capability: 85 (inc support staff)
Geoff Wild, director of governance and law, Kent County Council
The landscape for public sector lawyers has changed in recent years. The impact of budget cuts and restructuring means the image and reality of life as a public sector lawyer is not as it was once perceived.
The demands have become more complex, diverse and contentious. At the same time, resources are under extreme pressure. Attitudes to risk, decision-making and litigation in public sector organisations are now heavily influenced by the broader economy, and the lawyer’s role is in the front line.
Kent has used this environment as an opportunity to find innovative ways of influencing and leading the public sector legal market. Through its Evolution Project and changing its way of working it has delivered savings of more than £1m to the council in the first year alone.
It has designed a model of excellence for in-house legal services built around outcomes, client expectations, optimum use of resources and generation of external income, while suppressing internal demand.
Many public sector organisations are now keen to trade with external bodies and legislation empowers organisations such as Kent to provide services to an array of clients.
But professional regulation is struggling to keep pace and the entrenched interests and protectionist attitudes of the Law Society are impeding the progress being made by the SRA in its Red Tape Initiative. Fortunately, with the help of the excellent new Legal Services Board, tradition is giving way to enlightenment and a level playing field is developing.