The unsung local heroes

Lynne Curry finds that despite the impact of CCT and structural changes, local government lawyers still have a part to play

Twenty years ago a lawyer who opted for a career in local government knew the score. The starting salary would be respectable, the security impeccable, the pension handsome. Even if high office was not rewarded with the bounty accorded to successful private sector lawyers, there was always the carrot of the chief executive's chair.

Ten years ago the carrot started to disappear as chief executives began to arrive from diverse backgrounds. Now, with compulsory competitive tendering (CCT) and local government reorganisation on the horizon, the security aspect is seriously aquiver, and the pension with it.

Yet lawyers in local government are a rare breed: they would still tell their children to enter their profession. Moreover, years of working in local authorities has not blunted their belief in public service, even if it has given them a jaundiced view of politicians.

Confident that they have already become lean and efficient departments, and anticipating a nasty shock for the Government if it expects private firms to do their work more cheaply, they do not expect to fade away under either reorganisation or CCT. Some are agitating for the chance of a more vigorous role, tendering for outside work against private firms.

“The one thing we ask for is a level playing field,” says Patrick Dempsey, the legal executive in charge of Braintree's eight-strong legal section, which is currently without a solicitor. “We cannot offer our services to the public, whereas solicitors can tender for councils' legal work.”

Dempsey is among those with experience of both public and private work and he prefers the former. “In a big firm of solicitors there's a tendency to be pigeon-holed in a certain area. Here, we deal with anything from planning to car parking prosecutions. It's an excellent area for training young lawyers because they get a wide breadth of experience. I also believe in public service,” he says.

Braintree is retaining its status quo as a district council in Essex county (which will lose Southend) and its legal department is unscathed by reorganisation. In Cleveland, David Ashton, acting county secretary of Cleveland County Council, is less assured of the future as the county faces abolition. The four unitary authorities in the county are based on district councils which already have legal departments.

“I think there are bound to be few jobs for pure lawyers with five authorities effectively going into four, and because of preparations for CCT you'd perhaps expect more authorities to think about having lean machines,” he says.

Yet Ashton has no regrets about entering the profession. “As an articled clerk I was able to appear in court and since then the breadth of experience I've had is much greater than I would have had in private practice, from several high court actions to pressing for and opposing bills in Parliament. If you believe that local government is important it's an important job,” he says.

Ivor Davies, whose county solicitor's post with Humberside is also doomed, shares this view after 33 years in local government. He says: “It remains interesting to be near the centre of decision-making, to be involved in things that affect the community. One becomes involved much more deeply than in private practice; recent recruits from private practice have been impressed by the extent to which they can get their teeth into things and do a good professional job. But it's now likely to be much less secure as a profession.”

Whoever ends up doing the job, there is a consensus that the amount of legal work involved in providing services to the public is unlikely to decrease however the country is divided up. Public sector lawyers differ only in their degree of bullishness about keeping the work in- house. Unlike refuse collectors and cleaners, whose already low wages have been undercut by private firms which have won contracts, private sector solicitors are unlikely to take drastic rate cuts, although some firms could put in loss-leading tenders for work.

Graham Gordon, former county secretary and solicitor to Cheshire County Council, and now clerk and solicitor to the county's police authority and vice-chairman of the Society of County Secretaries, says in-house teams are easily capable of competing if the Government does not insist that a proportion of work is put out.

He says: “The amount of legal work is increasing as legislation is increasing. Overall, costs will rise. The only issue is that the Government would say that private practice can be more efficient. I think that's an insult to those of us who have worked in the private sector, and I also think it's nonsense.

“CCT is not proven to save money and the Government has not realised how modern and efficient the public sector has become. We have had to make cuts and do more work with fewer people.”

Mark Heath, head of legal, finance and personnel services in Southampton, expects devolution from Hampshire, which will continue to exist. He also expects to have to recruit more lawyers to deal with the extra responsibilities. Despite being a gainer rather than loser, however, he says many lawyers will be considering their future under the dual onslaught from CCT and reorganisation.

Heath says: “I'm in local government because I believe in public service, not for the money. But we're moving away from that into a world of contacts and clients and it's losing the element that attracted me to it.

“The next five years will be difficult. There are fewer job opportunities – you don't see so many lawyers in senior positions now and there is a less obvious career path. CCT represents insecurity and there is an environment in local government where you're seemingly at war with central government.”

Avon's 200-strong legal department, destined to disappear, currently provides support for 80 per cent of the services in the county and is collectively worried about the future. Two of the four replacement unitary authorities already exist.

“These authorities already have staff and county staff could end up as second-rate citizens,” says Ray Wager, assistant county solicitor. “Clearly they will be short of specialist legal advice on education, strategic planning etc. Various authorities have been working closely together to prepare for this and to minimise problems, but some can't be avoided because of employment law.”

On the Isle of Wight Felix Hetherington, director of law and administration in the old county council (and new unitary authority), expects reorganisation to create a vast amount of work for lawyers.

He says: “Of more concern is the level of funding from central government. If it continues to decrease there will be more pressure on the provision of a central service. There could be a temptation to cut corners, but the resulting mess could be worse in the long run.”

In untouched West Sussex, assistant county secretary Gillian Phillips, who is chair of the Law Society local government group, sees a continuing future for in-house lawyers, although some could be attached to quangos rather than democratic bodies.

She says: “Where the functions are, there the law is. CCT will have more impact than reorganisation… but it will be difficult for the private sector to meet response times and have the knowledge of how local authorities work. There is a difference of attitude in that we have a proprietary role in setting the aims and carrying these into our authorities. That role isn't natural to the private sector, which is reactive.”

Lynne Curry is a freelance journalist.