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BEST PRACTICE - KEEPING THE LAW IN ORDER

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Kent CC's in-house law firm has been released from the constraints of local government. Francesca Robinson reports...
Kent CC's in-house law firm has been released from the constraints of local government. Francesca Robinson reports

Kent CC Legal Services is changing the way public sector lawyers think, work and do business. Over four years the service has transformed itself from a traditional local government legal team into an in-house private practice that combines the efficiencies and dynamism of the private sector with the service ethos of the public sector.

The change has been dramatic with KCC Legal Services now operating as a separate

business. It is self-reliant for funding and provides advice to about 150 external clients while continuing to play a pivotal role in supporting the service delivery of the largest council in the country.

Two years ago 98% of the legal team's work was for the council; now nearly a quarter of its income is derived from external clients.

The team reaps financial rewards for tax payers by generating hundreds of thousands of pounds of surplus income which is ploughed back into the county council.

Change was kick-started by the advent of compulsory competitive tendering, which posed a possible threat to the survival of the service. Another trigger was the introduction of the well-being powers contained in the Local Government Act 2000, which lifted the main legal restriction on the service's client base. This enabled the business to expand even further into the public sector and, significantly, private sector markets.

KCC Legal Services has been able to expand and recruit the specialist legal staff it needs. A team of 50 specialist lawyers has been built up with a range of expertise in employment, child protection, education, planning, building contracts, private finance initiative, pensions, commercial conveyancing, debt recovery, asylum seekers and complex litigation. Locum staff are recruited when needed.

The ethos of the service is now to operate as a high-quality, cost-effective, client-driven business. Lawyers have become business advisers rather than just legal experts. Adopting a commercial approach, they work to identify with clients' needs and not just answer questions or clarify points of law while striving to provide added value and creative solutions.

The main focus of the service is still to serve and make a difference to the lives of the people of Kent. Increasingly, the role of the service has been not just to give advice but to play a part in shaping and delivering some of the most radical and visionary projects in the history of Kent CC.

The service has achieved the Law Society's Practice Management Standard (Lexcel), Investors in People accreditation and won a Charter Mark. It also played a key role in forming a unique national benchmarking group, involving the law firm Eversheds and other county councils.

Staff are prized as an asset and are now primarily recruited for their people skills. The unit enjoys a reputation for employing 'unstuffy', down-to-earth people.

Every team member has to earn their keep by continually meeting high standards. In return they are remunerated with a generous pay package which includes incentives, merit awards and flexible working arrangements.

The changes have been driven by county secretary Geoffrey Wild. His long-term vision is to see local government public sector legal services provided on a regional basis. He says huge economies of scale could be achieved with one large cost-effective legal service providing services to a range of public bodies.

Mr Wild admits the upheaval has caused pain for some staff. 'Doing things incrementally only drew out the agony for some people,' he says.

'If you are going to take on change you have to bring your staff with you and you have to instil in them a desire to change themselves.'

How are fees handled?

The service earns income from its clients - its core corporate client is Kent CC but an increasing proportion of business is now being won from the wider public sector and the unit is even looking to expand further into the private sector. Two years ago 98% of the service's work was for KCC; now nearly 25% of its income is derived from around 150 external clients. The service pays KCC rent for its premises and pays all its own overheads and running costs.

The service produces a surplus, running into hundreds of thousands of pounds, which is invested back into the county council.

Find out more

Kent CC: www.kent.gov.uk

Kent Business Centre: www.kent.gov.uk/working/

kent-business-centre

National Benchmarking Group: e-mail judithbarnes@eversheds.co.uk

Dr Paddi Lund, Building a Happiness Centred Business: www.solutionspress.com.au

Successful projects

>> Helping the Kent CC campaign with Medway Council to stop an airport being built at Cliffe. Through a High Court challenge orchestrated by KCC Legal Services, the campaign successfully judicially reviewed the government and required it to reconsider all the options for airport provision in the south-east.

>> The service helped Kent find a robust legal route to allow pensioners to pay a council tax increase that was in line with inflation. This enabled 134,000 pensioner households in Kent to have their tax increase pegged at just 2.5% in 2003/04.

>> KCC Legal Services played a key part in setting up the Kent Public Service Agreement which enabled the rate of adoptions to be doubled from 58 to 120 a year. Kent now has one of the highest adoption rates in the country.

>> All of the county council's private finance initiative projects use a dedicated team of in-house PFI contract and commercial lawyers established in the last year. Previously KCC Legal Services only played a peripheral role in such projects but the team is now able to handle all but the most complex aspects of such transactions internally.

>> KCC Legal Services resolved several legal challenges to enable the£25m Turner contemporary construction project to go ahead.

More ideas on legal services

Essex CC Legal Services won the Public Sector Team of the Year in the Lawyer Awards 2002 for the way its team of about 60 lawyers works across a wide variety of demanding issues.

>> In addition to establishing partnership arrangements with private sector firm Nabarro Nathanson, ECCLS has pursued partnership arrangements elsewhere in the public sector and was instrumental in creating a joint advocacy service with other councils in Essex.

The Lancashire CC legal team, a runner-up in the public sector category of the Lawyer Awards 2004, won praise for bringing a commercial outlook to the public sector.

>> The team has been involved in a number of PFI projects and public/private partnerships including a major waste management PFI deal worth£75m. It has also advised on a£100m restructuring of the housing market and helped the council set up a joint venture to replace the North West Tourist Board.

Key points

>> KCC Legal Services operates as an in-house private practice.

>> It employs lawyers who are business advisers, not just legal experts. They identify client needs, forge client satisfaction and provide creative solutions.

>> It invests in and motivates staff - if the team is happy it pays dividends. Staff are recruited for their people skills. Technical expertise is a given.

>> Key advice is to avoid drawing out the process of introducing change - it is less painful in the end.

>> Lawyers have become business advisers, rather than just legal experts.

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