Caroline Roddis speaks to Anne Davies of Buckinghamshire County Council, the first local authority in the country to be granted a licence to transform its legal team into an independent legal practice
Anne Davies is a popular woman. ‘I have one council a week phoning me and saying “how did you do it, can I send someone to talk to you?”’, she says.
“We’ll have new ways of working that we haven’t had in-house; it’s a really exciting time where we’re taking our future into our own hands, developing it to help the Council and ourselves as well”
The level of interest is unsurprising when one considers that Anne is head of legal at Buckinghamshire County Council, the first local authority in the country to be granted a licence to transform its legal team into an independent legal practice.
Although it was widely reported in it the press, the actual confirmation from the SRA was done with much less fanfare. ‘We just got an email on the Thursday (7 August)’ recounts Davies, ‘saying “you’ll be registered as of 5pm this evening”.’
Buckinghamshire Law Plus launches on 24 November 2014, almost a year after the original application was submitted on 16 December 2013.
Yet the seeds of the new company had been planted much before this. Although the department had always worked on commercial lines, with targets for chargeable hours, effective case management systems and Lexcel accreditation since 2000, it was the local government funding crisis five years ago that prompted them to change their outlook. ‘We’d always done a little bit of commercial trading activity, a bit of work for the odd parish council, because we can under the employed solicitors code and within local government legislation’, explains Davies.
‘When the County Council started looking at what else it could do to make its services more efficient, (setting up charitable trusts, wholly owned companies and other external arrangements) we had to think about what we could do to offer a service to all these people who would cease to be part of the County Council family.’ The team also needed a solution that would allow them to regain their traditional work with schools, which had been curtailed by the academies legislation, particularly as there were significant expansion opportunities in this area. ‘A lot of local authorities were cutting all their ties with academies, so we had legal teams saying ’you can have our academies if you like’’.
Clearly there was work to be gained from a new style of operation, but initial discussions with a private law firm, commenced in 2011, got them no further towards a new business model. ‘Then we put some more thought into the process’ recounts Anne, ‘and thought let’s bite the bullet, we can now register as a company and be recognised by the SRA, we need to go for it.’
The application process
Thanks to her 15 years’ experience in the private sector, including five years as a partner, Davies did not share her colleagues’ concerns about meeting the compliance requirements or the professional indemnity insurance (PII) premium.
Having swayed the County Council with a compelling business case, Davies bought an off-the-shelf company and submitted the application, but being one of the first to do so had its pitfalls. ‘The application process was weird, really, because effectively you fill out some forms, submit them and then there’s black hole of nothing. We kept getting them back to have another try, but with no feedback we were struggling - and the SRA were struggling to understand what sort of beast we were. So we had a meeting with them on 16 March, at which point we managed to reassure them that we could deliver their compliance requirements, and they reassured us they’d put their thinking hats on, and their rules and our compliance could fit together!’
After the meeting it was just a case of ironing out the remaining kinks and securing a PII quote, although the latter took longer than expected because insurance companies were unsure of what exactly they were dealing with.
SRA approval swiftly followed, which did not surprise Davies: ‘I think I always thought that ultimately we could construct an organisation that the SRA could approve, particularly when I looked at others. It was always a question of what they needed and how we could react to what they needed.’ Yet there were some surprises along the way. ’It was interesting how much reassurance they needed around confidentiality.
Obviously as a local government body we take data protection very seriously; if you’re dealing with taking children into care you don’t want anyone having access to your files.’ The team has also put rigorous compliance procedures in place to manage any potential conflict arising from their progress towards being an external-facing organisation, and will focus on seeking business outside the county to prevent conflict occurring.
All this is just one part of the journey, however: the new company, combining the legal expertise of Buckinghamshire County Council and Milton Keynes Fire Service, has a lot to do before its launch, which will take place on 24th November to allow time for an amendment to the Council’s constitution.
‘We’re now working on the marketing plan, branding and launch materials, which is a whole new area for me. The last few months have been quite energising - everyone can get engaged in our brand, even down to whether we have a swan (the Buckinghamshire emblem) on our logo!’ Davies explains that they have also done significant work on their case management system in order to make it ‘flow effortlessly’, including incorporating SRA compliance procedures so that the burden on fee earners is reduced.
The company, which will consist of fee earners, staff and a management board, is also expanding to take on more trainees, and 99% of existing staff are excited about the new opportunities the ABS brings. As Davies observes, the new structure ‘allows people to combine the benefits of the public sector with some of those of the private sector. We are looking at creating bonus opportunities, which you don’t get in the public sector, while retaining the flexibility around working conditions that allows us to get a really good work/life balance.’
There are significant aspirations for the next five years. Focusing on schools and healthcare organisations, Buckinghamshire Law Plus will also offer fixed-fee style packages that allow charities, parish councils and other small businesses access to legal advice without fear of them exceeding their budget. Internal clients are being subjected to an ‘enormous internal schmooze’ to reassure them of the benefits the new approach brings, while local practices will be told that the ABS is not out to steal their clients - and in fact may actually pass them work when the opportunity arises. An impressive £ 1.7 million has been calculated as the shared profit within the first five years, with Davies acknowledging that ‘the ABS exposes us to pressure to succeed.. there’ll be a lot of people wanting to see if we fail’.
Ultimately, however, Davies is confident. ‘We’ll have new ways of working that we haven’t had in-house; it’s a really exciting time where we’re taking our future into our own hands, developing it to help the Council and ourselves as well. Yet it’s also important to keep the public sector ethos: people come here because they care and want to make a difference, we need to keep this and take it out to the wider sector.’