REUTERS | Jason Lee

All the way to the top: The future of the local authority lawyer

For many years the route to Chief Executive of a local authority tended to be via the legal department. However, the last decade or so has seen a decline in the number of solicitors reaching the top jobs. Why is that?

A number of answers have been put forward over the years: lawyers are too narrow- they don’t think outside the box; lawyers don’t have the skills a complex organisation needs. But the burden of technical rather than managerial expertise hasn’t held the finance gurus back, so why does it count against the lawyers?

Mark Hynes, Director of Corporate Affairs at the London Borough of Lambeth and a lawyer, blames the outsourcing of legal advice. “If an in-house lawyer instructs external advisers whenever they get a major project or major litigation to deal with, then invariably when the Chief Executive looks to his lawyer for advice it’s the external adviser who’s sitting there. The in-house lawyer is often seen as a resource that can only deal with the routine.” Small wonder the in-house lawyer is often over-looked.

But it’s easy to see why the local authority lawyer outsources so much. Legal teams are under pressure to deal with the daily round of issues, often on-going matters reliant on existing relationships which are harder to outsource. When a large, complex piece of work comes along, it is easier to outsource it as a discrete matter than retain it and outsource the day to day pipeline. Lawyers dealing with projects, procurement and contracts are particularly stretched. There is a real shortage of skilled lawyers in this field and many leave local government for the private sector. Another reason is that the sheer versatility of the local authority lawyer can in fact work against them; when a matter is high value and high profile, it’s riskier to keep in-house rather than outsource it to an external lawyer who has worked on 10 similar matters in the past.

But the same issues could be said to arise in the context of financial expertise. So why haven’t our finance colleagues suffered the same impact? Here, Mark Hynes cites the excellent work of CIPFA (the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy) with their focus on career development and their expertise in promoting the role of the local authority finance officer beyond that of a mere “bean counter” but as a professional with the requisite gravitas and leadership skills to take on the most senior managerial roles in local government. As a consequence the suitability of chief finance officers to make good chief executives has not been questioned in the way it has for chief legal officers. Furthermore securing a seat at the top table within a local authority has never been in doubt for the chief finance officer, which is in stark contrast to the plight of the most senior legal officer, many of whom occupy second or third tier managerial positions within the council.

Another issue is the traditional charge of lawyers demarcating themselves around their profession- wedding themselves to their idea of what a lawyer does, rather than shaping their role to their clients’ needs. But, as certain trailblazing authorities are proving, that view of the local authority lawyer is up for challenge.

Opportunity knocks

It may be difficult to see a silver lining to the austerity cloud raining on local government at the moment. Lawyers are under increasing pressure to help colleagues squeeze value out of contracts and minimise expensive pay outs at the same time as their teams are reducing and the pressure on local authority services increases. At the same time, they can feel marginalised, or even forgotten (as happened in Barnet earlier this year).

But change is afoot for the local authority lawyer and with that change comes opportunity. Local authority lawyers have many skills that are sought after both within local government and externally; their knowledge of the law is often wide and forged through dealing with very complex circumstances; they have to understand the budgetary and political context to every case; they go further than advise on risk, they analyse it and advise on a way forward. These are all skills required of leaders.

Now added to that list are the business skills required to run their department as a self-sustaining unit or even, in some cases, as an entirely separate company. The advent of the local authority ABS (alternative business structure) brings risks but could also free local authority lawyers from restrictive grade and pay structures, enabling these lawyers to present an entirely new offering to the market and, with it, decent career progression to their employees.

In addition, they have a new representative body, Lawyers in Local Government (LLG), formed in April 2013 by the merger of the Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors (ACSeS) and Solicitors in Local Government (SLG) to represent, promote and support the interests of all legal and governance officers in local government. One of its successes is building on the SLG’s Special Interest Group networks to establish its Special Activity Areas across the country bringing lawyers from key practice areas together to learn and share best practice. Its members will look to LLG to provide leadership to help navigate through the threats and opportunities to come. At least LLG has recognised the problem of the plight of the most senior local authority lawyers in securing the top managerial positions and can start to redress the balance in the way that CIPFA have done so successfully over the years.

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