Katrina Robinson MBE’s legal services team at housing association Optivo won the Law Society’s Excellence In-house Award 2017 for their unique and direct approach to working with tenants suffering from anti-social behaviour. In an interview conducted shortly before she left the business, she explains how their personal service for their tenants is reaping rewards.

What does Optivo do?

Optivo is a housing association with 44,00 properties across London, Sussex and the Midlands. We also have commercial stock and student accommodation.

What does your role involve?

Until the end of last month, I was head of legal services, the data protection officer and part of Optivo’s leadership team. The legal team are mainly instructed in litigation and we primarily deal with anti-social behaviour, tenancy fraud, injunctions, defending disrepair claims and such like. We do exactly what an external solicitor would do, but significantly cheaper.

Where does your drive against tenancy fraud come from?

It was driven initially by my own personal zeal, without a doubt. I have always had a huge issue with it when there is such an enormous housing problem in London and other big cities. I get very angry when we discover people who we have housed are subletting their flat for £500 a week when we are letting it to them for significantly less.

My passion has transferred over to the business, and we have now two full-time tenancy fraud investigators. I am also chair of the Tenancy Fraud Forum, which I set up in 2012.

Social landlords are ramping up their tenancy fraud work. However, I still hear of some solicitors who don’t consider subletting to a family member (for no profit) to be tenancy fraud, when it’s quite clearly a breach of contract and a criminal offence. I despair of comments like that!

How have you gone about forging close relationships with tenants?

It is very important, when dealing with vulnerable people who have been subjected to the most serious anti–social behaviour (stabbings, drug dealing, even murder), that they see us as approachable. They rely on us to explain the court system in layman’s terms and to do everything we can to stop the awful behaviour they are experiencing.  Also, if they want, we take them to their local county court for a visit, so they can see how the process works.

We visit tenants in their homes at whatever time suits them. We give them our personal mobile numbers, so they can call us in the evenings and at the weekend if they want to. They know they can rely on us to calm them down in a situation where the police wouldn’t necessarily attend. We form such a close bond with them that when it comes to trial they don’t want to let us down, so they are willing to appear in court and give evidence.

It’s an unusual approach – did you meet any resistance from the business?

It is a very uncommon approach for housing associations, especially for in-house teams in local authorities. Other in-house teams I know would leave that aspect of the work to their anti-social behaviour officer – which isn’t a bad thing, of course –but I think you get a much better result with that direct contact with the tenant. 

There hasn’t been any resistance, because I think it’s quite clear how beneficial our personal approach is to the outcome of the case. And we do really care about the witnesses – we don’t do it just to ensure they come to court for us, we do it because we know how tough it is to put up with neighbours who are threatening and harassing.

Do you need to train your people on the soft skills needed to work with traumatised and/or vulnerable tenants?

It’s all about recruitment and ensuring that new team members are approachable and friendly. I know you are not supposed to recruit in your own image, but I guess that is what I have done! We are all fun, down to earth and easy to engage with. A lot of us have also lived in social housing at some point or other and can better understand some of the issues that our tenants complain about. Our solicitors must be able to bond with people and really understand the problems they are going through.

It is a 24/7 job and we work incredibly hard. It’s unfortunate that some think that moving in-house means a better work-life balance! We choose to put in the extra work as we care what happens to the residents.

The work must be pretty challenging at times. How does everyone stay motivated?

It is a stressful job, but we have huge fun and you couldn’t do the job without a sense of humour. Winning cases is what motivates them. They are not micro-managed – they make their own decisions in terms of where the litigation is going.

We have on-the-spot awards, which can range from £5 to £100. But I think their major reward is making a difference to residents’ lives.

How do you promote the value of your team to the business?

I sing from the rooftops about how brilliant my team is! It’s important to do that. If we succeed with a really interesting case, I’ll make sure the executive team and the board know about it.

We have a system that calculates how much it would have cost Optivo if my team cross-charged client departments, and how much it would have cost if we used external solicitors. So, when we close a file, we tell the business: ‘If you had instructed external solicitors, this would have cost you £12k plus disbursements, but by doing it in-house it cost £1,800.’ Our value for money is enormous, and we promote this around the business.

What did winning the In-house team Excellence Award last year mean to you?

We were delighted to be nominated and recognised for the hard work we do. When we actually won, it was absolutely amazing. I think our USP was our work in breaking down the barrier between the legal team and resident. Our direct connection does make a difference.

Do you have advice for anyone applying for this year’s Awards?

The application is short, so you really have to think about your key skills and focus on those areas where you think you really stand out. Concentrate on what you do well and don’t put things in that aren’t relevant. Show that you have passion for what you do; I think that showed through in our submission.

In terms of climbing the ladder to senior leadership, what do you think is the secret to success?

I have always thought that leadership is an action, not a position. There is no point being in the leadership team and not actually doing anything to show leadership. It comes down to being approachable and personable by everyone across the business. How can you be head of legal services if people are frightened to approach you? Be fun, engaging, caring, and think innovatively.