A role as an in-house solicitor within local government presents a varied working life comprising not just case work, but policy and governance which goes to the heart of democracy and the public provision of services and support.
A broad spectrum
When you stop and consider the work of your local council, you begin to realise the sheer scope of activities undertaken and the wide and varied range of legal disciplines covered by legal staff within such organisations. Child care; planning; contracts; civil and criminal litigation; licensing; adult care; education; employment; property; housing; procurement; administrational law…the list goes on. There is a discipline to suit every skill within local government and, unlike private practice, your clients are in fact the other employees of the council. Working in such a multi dimensional environment requires attention always to the bigger picture, it is impossible to work in isolation and hugely important to be a team player.
The notion of work in a local government context being less demanding has long since ceased. Whilst it offers a supportive and flexible working environment with robust equal opportunity policies, the reality of the current economic climate and direct impact on local government means that those in the legal department are working increasingly longer hours and juggling competing demands. It is a fast paced, highly demanding environment which provides great learning opportunities and excellent networking with camaraderie amongst practitioners in the field.
The changes that have taken place over the last few years have seen local government legal departments diversifying and evolving to undertake work outside the remit of the traditional local government office. Solicitors employed in local government can now act for any other organisation or person to whom the council is statutorily empowered to provide services.
This has seen a number of legal departments grow expeditiously, rivaling services traditionally offered by the private sector. However, Rule 4 of the Practice Framework Rules in the SRA Handbook still precludes employed solicitors from providing legal services to other organisations. The Law Society is playing an important role in bringing about and shaping discussions with the SRA over the limitations currently in place. Continued support from the Law Society is paramount.
Amendments to the Local Government Public Involvement Health Act, Election of Police Commissions and changes brought in by the Access to Information Regulations are areas of recent concern and interest to Local Authority Lawyers whilst the impact of the Localism Act, and in particular the general power of competency remains to be seen.
One of the most significant areas of concern on the immediate horizon is the advent of ABSs and the threat they might pose to the small legal team operating in a local authority. It will be necessary for in-house teams to adapt and respond to the competition.
Embracing the challenge
Whilst there are very real challenges ahead for the local government lawyer, it nevertheless remains an exciting time for resilient, adaptive and forward thinking solicitors to embrace the changes and meet those challenges head on. The message needs to be clear that local government solicitors are expert professional practitioners in their field and with the active support of the Law Society, that message should resonant loud and clear.