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For many years the Local Government Group was the runt of the Law Society litter, but these days things are looking...
For many years the Local Government Group was the runt of the Law Society litter, but these days things are looking up, says Nick Triggle

In July 1999 the Local Government Group lost one of its two seats on the Law Society's ruling council.

It was the final confirmation - if any was needed - of the decline in importance of the local government solicitor over the past few decades.

The standing of lawyers within councils has been diminishing ever since Derrik Hender became the first non-solicitor to be appointed a chief executive in the 1960s. These days a minority of chief executives are solicitors.

The standing of the LGG, an arm of the society which represents 3,500 local government solicitors, has also been falling.

The Law Society's first elected president, Martin Mears, won in 1996 on a ticket of defending the interest of high-street lawyers.

The situation got so bad over the following years that at the end of the 1990s the LGG even discussed pulling out of the Law Society altogether. But now there are signs the tide is changing.

The group was awarded a second position on the society's council last year when the number of seats was increased from 75 to 105.

The LGG now claims to be playing a key role in the modernisation of the society. The group's new chairman, Stephen Rickitt, has been a major partner in the development of a draft 'memorandum of understanding'.

The document, due to be published later this summer, will set out the role and system of funding for all the different groups within the society.

It is hoped the memorandum will help make the society more transparent and accountable, following the damaging row over bullying and sex and race discrimination involving ousted society vice-president Kamlesh Bahl.

Mr Rickitt, principal solicitor for environment, regeneration and property at Northumberland CC, was elected chairman of the group for 12 months in April.

While his role at the group is part-time - it will take up about 12 days over the coming year - he has made modernisation of the society a top priority and hopes his successor will find the group in a stronger position.

The 45-year-old solicitor, who praised the support Northumberland CC has given him, says: 'The formalising of the relationship between the different groups within the Law Society is important. In the past the funding and way of working has been rather ad hoc. We are trying to emphasise that we are part of the legal profession. We are also campaigning hard on funding.'

At the moment the society gives the group one grant a year - currently set at£26,000 - to cover its administration costs. But Mr Rickitt wants to see a second grant for specialist projects introduced. He believes the money could be used for a variety of schemes including promoting the benefits of being a local government lawyer at a time when many solicitors are attracted to the glamour of the City.

But Mr Rickitt, who has worked for Northumberland CC since 1984, has a number of other goals.

The group is split into nine regional branches across England and Wales. Representatives from these form the national executive which meets four times a year.

Within each of the regional branches are specialist interest groups, comprising solicitors working in similar fields such as regeneration and planning.

Mr Rickitt says: 'There is a limit to what the national executive can achieve on its own. The regional branches and, in particular, the specialist interest groups can share ideas and methods. I want to encourage them.'

He believes the group has something to offer even the newest recruits. In January, the LGG and the Association of Council Secretaries & Solicitors organised a training day to brief solicitors on the new council structures introduced under the Local Government Act 2000 and the general requirement for lawyers working within councils.

The event, held in Leeds, attracted more than 40 delegates and Mr Rickitt says this is something he would like other branches to trial if it is 'right for them'.

Mr Rickitt reserved special attention for solicitors working for Welsh councils. Two of the group's branches are in Wales and Mr Rickitt has found they are operating under very different circumstances.

'One of the things I want to look at is how we assist our colleagues in Wales. I am becoming increasingly aware of differences in local government law. The planning system, code of conduct and best value are all different. I have arranged a meeting in October to discuss this.'

Looking further afield, Mr Rickitt argues this is an exciting time for local government solicitors.

'There has been a feeling in the past that we have been treated as second-class lawyers. I am not sure. There is a great deal of respect for council solicitors. I have always had a good relationship with the members and officers at Northumberland CC and the role of council lawyers is becoming more and more important.'

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