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Progression through investment - setting the local government standard

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Connection iStock 000002499687XSmall 146x219A larger team, enhanced expertise and greatly increased income – Rachel Howe of the legal services team at North West Leicestershire District Council explains how they have developed a more commercial operation.

The last 12 months have seen a significant shift in the way local authorities operate. The once 'recession proof career' has had to fall in line with its commercial partners reviewing corporate savings and devising potential income streams.

North West Leicestershire District Council (NWLDC) has faced this challenge head on and is now developing into a more commercial operation with its Legal Services Team leading the way.

In a climate where many local government legal services have taken the route of reducing their size, scope or reach, NWLDC did the opposite and increased its team, developing knowledge areas and investing in its solicitors. This approach has achieved financial quality and efficiency benefits which in turn are making a significant contribution to the Authority’s Value for Money programme.

With ever decreasing grant settlements and budgets from central government, NWLDC has worked hard to minimise the impact on front line services by maximising the income generating potential of all services and reducing costs through increased efficiency.

The Legal Services team was the trailblazer service to demonstrate what could be achieved under the Authority’s Service Transformation Program with the challenge to the team to review the legal service, make it leaner and achieve a £35,000 savings target through efficiencies and/or income generation.

Since 2008 the team have far exceeded that target, achieving £284,994 in income generation with a 255% increase in income, and all without streamlining staff or making cuts. Instead consideration was given to ‘wasted time’ and administrative inefficiencies and in applying efforts to reduce these the Council worked hard to maintain its Lexcel accreditation which was continued with the acknowledgement that “Despite the difficulties of the economy and the scale of the Legal Services Team... [they were] all the more outstanding when compared with that of comparable projects in external firms where size and resources were of a different order [and] is a trend to be envied by other practices”.

The results have had an impact way beyond budgetary savings and have produced a model for professional legal services that is setting new standards for local government.

In acknowledging the lack of appeal a local government career might have to newly qualified solicitors, NWLDC faced this challenge head on developing an innovative approach to recruitment, training and professional development through partnership with Browne Jacobson LLP and the provision of a joint recruitment and mentoring scheme for a newly qualified solicitor.

Through this process NWLDC were able to formulate an individual development training programme specifically catered to create a solicitor to fill the gaps in the team and meet the needs of the clients. The support from Browne Jacobson enabled the solicitor to progress much faster than they would otherwise have done, securing sponsorship to undertake the Local Government Diploma resulting in a highly competent “home grown solicitor” who was recently awarded the Leicestershire Law Society’s Young Solicitor of the Year Award.

This partnership has enabled a newly qualified solicitor to receive valuable mentoring and support from a leading national firm gaining invaluable experience both in the local government field and in the private sector which has resulted in them being able to take on more complex matters which would otherwise have required external commissions.

This initiative has worked so well that the team is using the model in their latest recruitment for a planning solicitor through partnership working with Marrons Shakespeares.

As a result of this investment in professional development through recognising the skill and potential of team members (which has seen a newly qualified solicitor progress to the role of Team Manager, Deputy Monitoring Officer within five years and a subsequent newly qualified solicitor progress to the role of Principal in 18 months), the Team has reduced its external spend on outsourcing legal advice by 58%.

Not content with developing the legal service, the team also provide in-house training to clients assisting with their professional development and CPD requirements. This is an initiative that is developing further through the partnership with Browne Jacobson as NWLDC look to deliver joint training programs on a national level. The team are also part of the Lawyers in Schools initiative and regularly provide work experience placements to the local College. They have also been able to offer an Intern position to a postgraduate student undertaking their LPC at De Montfort University.

It would be a foolish authority to not realise the need for local government to become more commercial and NWLDC has taken this principle on board with the development of a long term business plan and success in securing a number of external clients from partner local authorities to academic institutions.

The team is delivering its vision to provide “an excellent local government legal practice with public sector commitment and expertise” and are now looking forward to the next challenge which it will meet head on.