Making the best use of in-house legal teams

I want to talk today about valuing your legal team, and how legal teams can adapt their ways of working to be more valuable. Because in private practice, lawyers are working in an open market. If they don’t attract clients, and deliver high quality services, then their income dries up. In-house lawyers don’t have to do that, and that can make us, dare I say, a little complacent from time to time.

What can also happen, when you’re not being billed for your lawyer’s time, is that you can stop appreciating the value of that advice. There are no convenient price tags on in-house lawyers’ time. And these 2 can feed off each other in a fairly destructive cycle.

Factor in the traditional local authority reluctance to change, and the environment can quickly become unhelpful, sometimes bordering on toxic.

The world is full statistics on how employees who feel valued are more productive. But that’s not something we’re particularly good at in local authorities. There’s no bonuses for meeting targets, no money towards towards the christmas party and salaries don’t tend to rise commensurate with experience. My authority do have annual ‘excellence awards’ but legal never win. We’re a hard sell next to adoption teams, fire and rescue services and rural librarians, after all.

I say all of this, as one of those naive people who try to change those cultures. I’m sure you can guess how well that’s been going.

A colleague summed it up very succinctly for me, one day, when he said “you’re right, but that’s the kind of advice that local authorities want to hear from expensive consultants, not an in-house lawyer”. And whilst my brain went “so then surely I’m saving some public money” I was young, and my cynicism hadn’t kicked in then.

But as part of the restructure that gave me management responsibility (which I have mixed feelings about) and a pay rise (which I’d be really happy about if I could spend it on something other than food and paint by numbers kits to stave off cabin fever), we have implemented a new working model for the legal department. Now it comes with a fancy sounding title, and there’s even a tracker spreadsheet that I have the joy of managing, but it comes down to 2 core principles:

1) just because client departments can’t go elsewhere for advice doesn’t mean customer service doesn’t matter. Because client departments can just do what they want to do without getting legal advice and they will if the legal team aren’t helpful. Believe me.

2) prevention is better than cure. Solving a problem and defending a legal challenge is generally a lot more expensive than just getting it right the first time, after all.

So much of what local authorities do is tied up in legal principles, that I always find it surprising when there isn’t a legal presence on project groups. With key adult social care policy changes there’s always a need to check that the Care Act 2014 and any other specific legislation is followed. There’s also usually a need to consider issues such as public consultation, proper mechanisms for decision making within the authority’s constitution, contract and procurement implications and often employment law issues too. None of these are things an authority wants to be considering at the eleventh hour. But it happens, and then the legal team say ‘no’ and get seen as obstructive.

This goes both ways though. Because lawyers can ask to be cited on all key projects, but if no one sees the value of that, then it isn’t going to happen.

From what I’ve seen, a lot of this comes from the attitude of some lawyers. Every department has the ‘that’s not my job’ brigade who resist change and whose tunnel vision and narrow view of every issue doesn’t lend itself to a freer, more proactive way of working.

Then there’s the person who couldn’t answer a phone or reply to an email if their life depended on it. And the one who never explains their advice and just says “I advise against this” and frustrates senior management no end.

If a legal department has too many of these people, then it’s understandable why client teams would be less interested in seeking their involvement.

But with a slight change in approach, in-house lawyers can become a real asset to a local authority. We do, after all, tend to have fairly niche experience that would be difficult to find on the open market. When lawyers are seen, and see themselves, as part of the same team as the client departments, then positive change can be achieved.

I’ve spent the best part of 7 years working alongside practitioners and managers in adult social care. When I started, I was pretty much just dealing with the cases that landed on my desk. Then I started to spot patterns and trends so I began creating guidance notes and cheat sheets to help get my advice spread more widely across the organisation. Now I deliver training on legal frameworks, and help design programmes of training for practitioners. My team and I tend to know what projects are ongoing and policy reviews being undertaken, so we can advise in the early stages and, particularly when working remotely, I feel far more connected to my ‘clients’ than I do to my colleagues in the wider legal team.

Feedback is good too, and I now get specific requests for guidance notes and support with training. I meet with our Principal Social Worker on almost a weekly basis and field as many calls from senior managers as I do from frontline practitioners. In truth, my job is barely recognisable from what it was when I started.

On the days when I am not kicking myself for agreeing to take on additional work when I already don’t have enough hours in the day, I’m excited about our new working model. It truly feels like I have the opportunity to change things for the better on a really wide scale. The more smoothly and efficiently local authorities run, the better able they are to support the public they are meant to support, whether in social care, highways, planning, whatever.

For now, we are talking about simple things, like making sure that clients know how to access legal advice and working towards faster response times with clear, thorough and concise advice. These sound like simple things, and most departments think they are providing the best service with the resources available to them. But there are always ways to improve, working smarter and with the right priorities.

So if you are reading this, thinking that there is a real disconnect between practitioners and lawyers in your authority, then it might be time to start thinking about why that is.

In case it isn’t obvious from the fact I still haven’t identified the authority I work for, the views expressed on this blog are my own opinion and not the opinion of that local authority

Leave a Reply