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Sleepwalking into oblivion

Time for Change iStock 000011038062XSmall 146x219Is time running out for local government lawyers? Hugh Peart, Director of HB Public Law, looks at the responses available.

I want to begin by taking you back to 1987. On 18 November I was returning home after a conference with Counsel about a complex adoption case. It was about 7pm, and I was on the Northern line heading for Euston, but as we approached Kings Cross, the train driver said we wouldn’t be stopping there due to an incident. We went slowly through the station and it was clear that something was very wrong. We eventually reached Euston, very late and I missed my train home.

There were no mobile phones at that time, so it was only when I got home that I heard what had happened. There had been a terrible fire at Kings Cross which claimed many lives. Of everything that happened, one image stuck with me, and that was of smoke pouring out of the escalators, fire engines, flashing blue lights, and commuters getting onto the escalators and descending into the station.

In particular, it was later reported that many commuters followed their routines despite the smoke and the fire. They marched right into the disaster, almost oblivious of the crush of people, some actually engulfed in flames, who were trying to escape. One traveller approached a manager and asked “does this mean my train is cancelled?”

Indeed, it is a curious quirk of human psychology that when faced with such a serious threat, many of us will display total denial of the situation. Experts describe this as the incredulity response, where people fail to fully believe what they are seeing. As Dr John Leach, professor at Lancaster University observes, “denial and inactivity prepare people well for the role of victim and corpse”.

Whilst wishing to avoid appearing as a prophet of doom, I see a mirroring of this attitude when surveying the threats facing local authority departments. Across the country, council lawyers are likely to be caught in the further rounds of multi-million pound cuts looming on the horizon. In Harrow’s case, we face anything up to £75m over the next four years. Yet I fear that some colleagues are sleepwalking their way to the Job Centre, resolute in the belief that legal routine will magically protect them from the impending disaster. This is not to suggest putting the Samaritans on speed dial rather my plea is simple; do not be a victim through denial and inactivity.

My theme is that doing something is better than doing nothing, as you are then involved in shaping your own destiny. There are many things that can be considered and no one size fits all. It has to be what is right for your organization. In this article I will give you some suggestions and ideas to prepare yourselves and your services for the future.

Shared services

This can take many forms. You can have a loose mutual understanding that you will help another council. This often happens between neighboring councils and can provide resilience for one council and income for the other. Overall there is a bigger resource for both organisations to draw on. In addition, posts can be shared, which is often done at head of service levels, but there is no reason why this can’t be done when other vacancies arise. This provides savings to both councils and can be particularly useful if there is a threat that posts will be frozen, as it retains at least some proportion of the resource.  

Councils can consider jointly procuring barristers, solicitors and other legal resources. We have done this as part of the London Boroughs’ Legal Alliance, where it gives access to a range of Chambers and legal firms at more competitive prices, with the valuable by product of free training. 

Sharing can be more radical, for example by creating centres of excellence. In these cases, play to your strengths. One authority may wish to concentrate on building up its planning practice, whilst another concentrates on childcare. Each can then use the other’s resource. However, it is important to ensure that the financial arrangements bring benefits to all parties.

Again taking this a step further, there could be a transfer of staff to a host authority. We did this to build HB Public Law. We have around 70 lawyers in Harrow looking after Harrow and Barnet councils. It has already proven to provide better services at reduced costs to both organisations. This can be further developed so that a physically separate legal practice is established, which is still part of the local authority but it services a number of local authorities. An example of this is the South London Partnership which includes Merton, Richmond, Sutton and Kingston. Alternatively, agreement could be reached to share a number of back office functions including legal. This is how LGSS is set up, incorporating Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire councils.

So there are a whole host of options for sharing which can deliver real benefits, and if you start something like this you become part of the solution.

Lean

Lean is a methodology which looks at a process from beginning to end and tries to simplify, streamline, and reduce costs. For example we mapped the process for housing possessions as follows; instruction memo prepared, sent to legal, looked at by manager, assigned to lawyer, acknowledgement sent, queries raised, delay before getting some answers, draft pleadings, reviewed by client/manager, raise cheque, issue and so on.

When this is mapped out, it is apparent that there is a great deal of waste and duplication. If you started afresh and mapped out the shortest way from housing trigger to possession, you could take out a number of these steps. Moreover, it is important to reflect upon when you need qualified lawyers, and when competent paralegals would be more appropriate and cost effective. Currently, in many authorities the default position is lawyers do almost everything, which is a very expensive resource.

External relationships     

Start with a SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunities, threats) analysis of your practice, and then think who could help you address any weaknesses, and build on strengths. When we did this for our practice last year we concluded that we could increase our chances of being sustainable by inviting a private sector firm to be our partner. We are delighted that we are now in a partnership with Bevan Brittan, who bring experience of running a business, bidding for work, marketing and such like that we simply didn’t have. In turn, we can provide expertise and support to their business so that they are able to bring a wider offering and be more competitive within the sector.

Ask yourself whether there any organisations that it would make sense for you to have a closer relationship with? Again there are various models of relationships with private law firms across the country, involving firms such as Geldards and Ashfords. So if this is something you are interested in you can learn from the experience of others.     

ABSs

There is lots of press coverage at present on this. An ABS (alternative business structure) is an organisation regulated by the SRA which provides legal services and has some form of non-lawyer involvement. 

We have applied for an ABS in response to the fact that local authority services are being outsourced to private sector providers. It is unlikely we could provide legal advice and support to such organisations under the employed solicitor rules. We have therefore set up a wholly owned company and we have applied for it to be licensed by the SRA so that it can work for outsourced service providers.

If you want to be able to work for such organisations or anyone not covered by the employed solicitor’s rules, then consider applying to the SRA for an ABS. However, I must stress that an ABS isn’t for everyone and careful consideration should be given to whether the benefit in being an ABS outweighs the cost and effort required in order to obtain one.

I hope that this short piece has given you plenty to think about. Innovation and adaptation are a lawyer’s best tools for survival, therefore grasp the opportunity to shape your own future, and be the master of your own destiny rather than the victim of others’.

Hugh Peart is Director of Legal & Governance Services at Harrow Council and Director of HB Public Law, the shared service between Harrow and Barnet councils.