Local authorities face a legal recruitment squeeze as levels of legal work continue to grow exponentially, research published this week by Local Government Lawyer has found.
The Legal Department of the Future survey, in association with LexisNexis, canvassed almost 500 local authority lawyers for their experience of a range of management, morale and career aspiration issues. Of these, 76 were heads of legal at local authority legal departments and 420 were lawyers at other grades.
Legal department management reported that they were struggling to cope with increases in levels of work and to recruit enough new lawyers to meet the demands on their service. Work volumes have been increasing for the past few years, yet half of the heads of legal that took part in the research still expect to see a further “substantial” increase in work while a further 37% expect a more modest rise. Almost nobody expects their workload to fall in the foreseeable future.
The factors behind this growth are many and varied, but respondents were mostly likely to point to increasing commercial activity by councils, regeneration and child protection. More generally, the loss of experience in client departments has increased the burden on legal teams as less experienced clients do not have the confidence to take decisions without relying on legal.
In response, more than half (57%) of heads of legal said they intended to increase the size of their departments, compared with just 8% who expect to see them shrink. In past versions of the survey, heads of legal expected to increase the proportion of junior and non-qualified lawyers but this year’s research found that, as the nature of work handled by legal departments gets more complex, the demand for legal staff is at all levels of seniority.
However, expanding internally is an increasingly difficult task as the recruitment market gets tighter. Since the Comprehensive Spending Review in 2010, local authority staff have had an effective pay freeze which has left average local authority lawyers’ pay well behind their peers in private practice and other parts of the public sector. Lawyers in areas of high demand such as procurement or planning can earn £80-£100K in a commercial law firm, compared with £35-50K in local government and can also earn considerably more by working on a locum basis. There has also been a relative lack of training contracts provided by local authorities for many years, averaging 80-90 per year for a qualified workforce around 4500 in England and Wales.
As result, 87% of heads of legal said that hiring qualified staff is difficult and 39% described it as “very difficult”. (Only four years ago, just 15% of respondents to this survey said that they found recruitment to be very difficult.) Half of heads of legal (44%) also expect the recruitment of qualified staff to get harder still in the foreseeable future while none of the respondents to the survey expect it to become easier.
The increase in work has also meant that more innovative initiatives have been put on the backburner. Although generally considered a success by those that are in them, the growth of legal shared legal services has stalled, while interest in Alternative Business Structures has evaporated since the last version of the survey. Spending growth on legal technology is weak.
The positive effect of legal departments getting busier has been to improve the morale of local government lawyers. Across the board, average satisfaction levels have gone up by an average of 0.5 out of 10 since the last survey was published in 2016 - and the biggest jump is in terms of job security. Other areas where satisfaction has noticeably improved are career prospects, up by 0.7 (albeit from a low base), work/life balance (up to 7.2 from 6.7), the ‘ability to influence how I do my job’, and quality of work up (up 0.4 to 7.5). The only factor that has not really improved at all is pay.
Moreover, the proportion of local government lawyers who would recommend local government law as a career has jumped to 85% (from 70% in 2015) and the number that would recommend their own department as a place to work is only a little way behind at 83%, compared with 72% last time. These figures are well in excess of those found for many other professional occupations.
When asked what the local government lawyers liked best about their jobs, two things stood out – work-life balance/flexibility and quality of work, with strong showings also for the public service aspect of the role and the culture and collegiality of legal teams. Local government lawyers’ pet hates, meanwhile, include a lack of support facilities for their work and rates of pay.
For further results and analysis, the report can be accessed and downloaded from www.localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/ldotf. The earlier version published in 2016 and other research projects conducted by Local Government Lawyer can be found at www.localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/research.