The traditional mode of working if you are a lawyer is face-to-face with clients in meetings and working from hard copy documentation. These approaches are now looking distinctly outdated. So how do in-house legal departments drag themselves into the 21st century?
The first answer is in the people they recruit and employ. Councils need to look afresh at recruiting good, flexible, adaptive, lawyers to work in house (LGC, 25 February).
So far as the work is concerned, future local government lawyers need to be less precious about some work currently undertaken by lawyers but which inevitably will not be in future.
It is imperative that we do not consider these issues from a traditional, professionalist standpoint. All other sectors are rising to the challenge of technology. Council lawyers also need to use technology more effectively.
The following are some examples of how smarter working can be achieved:
Greater use of e-mail, internally and externally, to free up communications and overcome resource difficulties
Greater distribution of advice via an internal network or the Internet
Greater use of an intranet to store important documents
Development of technologically driven 'knowledge management' systems to enable council lawyers to share experience and expertise
Video conferencing/web-cams to reduce travelling and inconvenience
Online training and updating services to keep lawyers better in touch with their markets
Website based user groups to share experiences in different areas of local government law with other councils.
If all lawyers had good enough PCs on their desks they would be able to do almost everything directly on screen. This would allow them to demonstrate they are working more effectively and efficiently in terms of best value.
Resource issues should be addressed, but all councils will be looking at technological change due to the government's more general requirements. If sufficient internal expertise on newer ways of working is unavailable, it should be secured.
Local government has faced a difficulty in recruiting lawyers. Technology allows the movement to virtual offices at home with more flexible employment arrangements. Quality control would, of course, need to be addressed. The future will see lifestyle choices being made, and may mean the ability to recruit and retain local government lawyers over the longer term.
Another issue is the potential sharing of resources and procurement of new systems and software. Best value is encouraging councils to think more globally in terms of the community. Why shouldn't they share resources, and direct them to where they are needed most? This maybe particularly relevant to smaller district councils.
Local authority lawyers need to shape the future rather than be driven by it and must embrace the inevitable imminent changes. But we can drive the changes from the front if we debate now and show ourselves capable of flexibility. The changes will affect not only the people, but the way we work and the work that is undertaken.