Survey respondents report difficulties with workloads and competing priorities
The sharing and selling of legal services is widely viewed to have benefited councils but regulation governing councils wishing to operate like law firms has led to confusion, LGC research has found.
doreen forrester brown
Just over a quarter of the 283 legal staff responding to LGC’s survey in association with Lawyers in Local Government said their council shared legal services with another.
Of these 87% said that sharing services was beneficial, mainly because of cost savings.
However, Doreen Forrester-Brown, head of legal services at Southwark LBC and president of LLG, told LGC many councils had “preferred to scale back rather than to share their legal services”.
She said: “There is a market for different models of legal delivery and that is important, because there is no one-size-fits-all.”
Around half or respondents said their council sold legal services to other organisations. Almost two-thirds of all respondents (65%) thought selling services was advantageous, generally because of the income it brought the authority.
But neither sharing nor selling services were without its challenges, legal staff said.
Some respondents highlighted problems with workload arising from shared services, in which staff were expected to deliver twice the work with the same resources, as well as clashes between councils sharing a service over differing cultures and competing priorities.
Others said selling legal services could be time-consuming; that staff did not have the capacity to do their jobs and sell services as well; and that they were not rewarded adequately.
One added their staff were not experienced in “marketable” areas of work such as commercial law because their expertise was in legal issues more relevant to councils, such as housing and social care.
Ms Forrester-Brown said it was difficult to strike the right balance between providing legal teams with the resources to deliver services for sale, and spending so much on this that any profits are swallowed up.
Selling legal services is further complicated by Solicitors Regulation Authority rules that restrict the ways in which council legal teams can act for other bodies.
Michael Mousdale, partner and head of local government at law firm DWF, said the SRA’s previous view was that councils could provide legal services to other public sector bodies for a fee because councils are allowed to sell other services in this way.
However, he said recently the SRA had changed its position slightly and planned to issue updated guidance stating that legal services can only be sold through a law firm or an “alternative business structure”.
“If you become an ABS it means you can sell legal services to the public without being a law firm,” said Mr Mousdale.
“You can’t be a part of the authority and an ABS; you have to become an arm’s-length body.”
There are some exceptions to this rule but these are limited to small collaborative arrangements between, for instance, different councils in the same area, Mr Mousdale said.
“Where you have a county and district that have decided to collaborate on provision of legal services, the SRA says it’s not bothered. But if the county said, ‘we want to sell services to any council in the country’, the SRA would say that’s not consistent with the code. This has made a few authorities pull back,” he said.
Several people responding to the survey said clarity on selling services and the need to create an ABS to do so would be the change they would like to see most in the sector.
One respondent called for the removal of “all SRA restrictions on in-house lawyers trading,” adding: “They can no longer be justified, given the steps the SRA is taking to deregulate in other ways.”
Another added: “The SRA [must come] up with sensible conduct rules that apply to how we work in local authorities, which do not require us to set up a pointless ABS to do work for our neighbours.”
Sharing and selling services brings challenges as well as benefits