General counsel at the University of York, Helen Shay, provides a personal account of her leadership experience in the public sector

Career development

Like most solicitors of my generation, I started my career in private practice, training with a firm in Huddersfield and moving on to work in larger firms around Leeds, Bradford and Leicester, mainly dealing with commercial property (which, surprising as it may seem, I have always relished). An opportunity to move in-house came from the head office legal department of Next plc, which was then undergoing massive expansion under the inspirational CEO, George Davies.

There, I learnt the importance of being part of a team, and dealt with varied and unpredictable work, which ranged from shop-fitters reporting that they had unexpectedly found asbestos, to keeping on the right side of Trading Standards. I then moved to London, working for what is now Financial Ombudsman Service, whilst also tutoring and lecturing in law part-time and authoring legal books and articles. Then, after an enjoyable stint with the legal division of Skipton Building Society pre-financial crash, I moved to the University of York over seven years ago, and entered the public sector.

Leading a team in the public sector

Moving to the public sector was, if not exactly a culture shock, then certainly a surprise to some extent. My employer had no previous experience of having any in-house legal resource, so I was responsible for setting up the legal function from scratch and it has been important to manage expectations. Any legal team as such here remains small due to budget considerations, but I have been instrumental in joining the dots in respect of related functions and relevant expertise, such as data protection / freedom of information / data management and procurement (which in recent years has been subject to a great deal of legal change and regulatory overhaul, giving rise to greatly increased risk for public sector organisations in all areas of activity), where staff have expertise in particular areas but may not be legally qualified. Overseeing them and assisting with their training, sometimes arranging seminars and special inductions by external legal firms, has been part of my remit, together with directing on major legislation and complex legal issues.

I have tried to encourage a less hands-on approach to managing external legal firms

I have found it necessary to implement more practical procedures and streamline several processes, delegating many that do not need specialist legal input. Sometimes this has meant revising departmental codes of practice, to ensure they are more legally robust, and to save time and resource.

I have tried to encourage a less hands-on approach to managing external legal firms instructed on behalf of the university while ensuring they maintain standards of service and keep within framework agreements and so on in respect of fees. To this end, I hold regular meetings with the managing partner of our main external provider.

Leadership development

As regards leadership styles, I have always preferred to take an ‘under-bearing’ (albeit forthright) approach and have found an amicable relationship with colleagues is key. It is fair to say that I disagree with Machiavelli’s dictum that it is better to be feared than loved (and after all didn’t some of the princes he served come to quite sticky ends?). With that in mind, I place a lot of emphasis on soft skills. I have been lucky to have had employers who have encouraged my personal development in this regard.

I place a lot of emphasis on soft skills

With my present employer, I have been selected for a tailored in-house ‘leadership in action’ course, which lasted a year and involved intensive sessions on all aspects of leadership including gems like ‘holding awkward conversations’. Even though I completed the certification part of this some time ago, the programme provides continued leadership support, with the opportunity to hear interesting speakers (such as an Olympic gold medal-winning rower) and attend sessions on relevant topics such as ‘wellness and the performance agenda’ and ‘adaptive leadership’. These are usually linked with informal networking opportunities with peers from across the organisation, which can be very helpful.

I have also been able to benefit from mentoring, and I encourage those who work with me to join such schemes. I was also lucky enough to participate in a staff exchange to a university in New Zealand, shadowing their in-house legal counsel and learning from how they ran their legal department. In particular, I learnt some innovative approaches to staff and student mediation, which have stood me in good stead.

Learning from others

Before accepting my present role, I was fortunate enough to receive some very useful advice from a long-serving local authority solicitor I knew, which has informed my approach to leadership in the public sector. She told me that earning trust from colleagues without a legal background was essential, but warned that this would inevitably be a gradual process. I have since found such trust to be key in getting involved in real decision-making. I have also learnt the importance of having the courage always to ‘speak truth to power’. The public sector has different duties to commercial enterprises and certain forms of reputational risk weigh more heavily than perhaps they would in the private arena. Financial constraints and squeezed budgets in this time of austerity only add to the challenges that any in-house lawyer faces in their management role.

I have learnt the importance of having the courage always to ‘speak truth to power’

I have found that networking with counterparts within the same sector can reap benefits for general leadership approaches. Through the Association of Legal Practitioners (on whose management board I now serve, in addition to heading up their northern universities group), I have been able to see how comparable institutions manage their legal teams and learn from their practices. Some contacts through this have offered me the benefit of their longer experience and helped me gain confidence to advocate certain changes, whilst learning that getting these accepted can go beyond presenting a credible business case, with much dependent on the way such changes are explained as justified.

Trying to sum up what may be key to leadership as a lawyer in the public sector is not easy as the sector is so varied, but perhaps it comes down essentially to effective communication. As the Law Society’s new CEO has recently stressed (herself having an in-house background) ‘constant, meaningful engagement’ is paramount.