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Funny thing

19 March 07

Experience of working with the in-house legal team at Scottish Borders Council, which recently retained its Investors in People Status

by Nuala McKinlay

It’s been a busy week. Swimming in Kelso, painting ceramics in Galashiels, off-road cycling in Glentress and we even had time to take in the Historic Castle Jail in Jedburgh and the magnificent Paxton House, with its excellent Adventure Playpark.

It’s a funny thing, but as the week has gone on, I have been impressed again and again by the realisation that everywhere I go around the Scottish Borders, I see and am reminded of work in which I am currently engaged, or the results of work I have completed – pieces of land I have conveyed, housing developments subject to planning agreements, sites the subject of public inquiries, roads with traffic regulation orders… the list could go on. Seeing these results everywhere feels terrific and gives me a real sense of achievement.

Why is it a funny thing? Well, two years ago as I write I was standing at a crossroads and took two decisions which have led me to this point and place. Two years ago I returned to Scotland with my family, having emigrated to New Zealand eight years previously. Life in New Zealand had been good, but it was time to come home. As my family disembarked at Edinburgh Airport, we had not yet decided where we would live, and I had little idea of what I would like to do professionally.

First thing to decide was where to stay. Having loved the relaxed, outside lifestyle we experienced in New Zealand, we already knew that we did not want to live in the city, but it was imperative that we live somewhere within easy commuting distance of Edinburgh where David, my husband, would be working. Of course that left a wide variety of places to choose from. The decision as it transpired, however, was an easy one to make. The Borders is an area of Scotland which really reminds us of New Zealand, combining natural beauty with a massive range of outdoor activities but also strong, close communities with a good quality of life.

Multi-tasking

Once we were settled, it was time for me to think about returning to work. I had previously practised as a criminal court lawyer but, and it’s another funny thing, felt very strongly that it was time to do something different. Just as I was coming to this conclusion, I spotted an advertisement: Scottish Borders Council were seeking a temporary solicitor. I was a little tentative, but decided this was a great opportunity to test new waters. I applied and was successful, and so began a new and exciting stage of my professional life.

That first post was to last for nine months and have as its core tasks conveyancing and debt recovery. However, it soon became apparent that there would be many opportunities to take part in wider legal work. I represented the council in appeals against licensing board decisions, ASBO hearings, guardianship matters and more. From the outset it was also obvious that my colleagues would prove to be supportive, informative and friendly. Training opportunities abound, with substantial in-house training and innovative Green training (which even the Hearts supporters willingly attend). I could quickly see, then, why SBC Legal Services has been awarded and retained its Investors In People status.

Investment strategy

Legal Services first gained IIP status in 2002. To retain it, a further inspection of its work practices took place in 2006. The inspector was particularly impressed by the fact that within the team there was a clear understanding of our role, both as individuals and as a team, within the Scottish Borders Council as a whole. The Legal Services business plan echoes the aims and objectives of the council’s corporate plan. These aims in turn are filtered down to each individual team member through our performance and personal development planning process. This is an individualised training programme devised for each team member in consultation with their line manager. The programme is regularly reviewed.

The IIP inspector was also extremely impressed by the monthly team briefings and the in-house training offered both to solicitors and to support staff. He reported very positively on the vital paralegal role being played by our support staff.

Three teams in one

Having previously practised in a specialist role within a small firm, it was very different to find myself as part of a huge organisation with very diverse legal needs. A system has to be in place to create some rationale in work allocation. In effect, Legal Services is split into three sub-teams: area offices, planning and technical services, and education, social work and human resources. The area office team is currently responsible for clerking the district court, clerking and advising the local area committees and licensing boards, administering the common good funds, conveyancing, and generally undertaking legal work, particularly connected to their immediate locality.

The division of labour between the other two teams is determined by the work generated by their principal client departments. Within each team in turn, solicitors are allowed to focus on areas of law for which they have a particular affinity. For example, one solicitor has an expertise in employment law, which he has been encouraged to pursue; another is an expert in compulsory purchase orders. This does allow for specialist knowledge to be developed.

Conversely, however, the sheer diversity and volume of work increasingly calls for fluidity between the teams. As we are one legal services team, there has to be a sharing of the load when one sub-team or another is particularly pressured. This in turn widens the experience we each gain.

Of course, being a legal team of 12 solicitors, two trainees and support staff, our resources are not limitless. Some matters arise that we are simply not resourced to resolve, and particular projects or defined spheres of work may be outsourced to private practice.

Opening doors

As that first contract drew to an end I applied for a second position, again within Legal Services. Again I was successful. Now, two years from touchdown at Edinburgh Airport, I am an established member of the Legal Services planning and technical services team. It’s a funny thing, but I am having a ball! It can be a busy life, but it’s stimulating and rewarding and the knowledge and depth of experience I am gaining is exceptional. Day-to-day activities include preparation of commercial leases, drafting planning agreements, involvement in wind farm applications, advising officers on planning law and building control matters, trips to the new Justice Centre in Peebles (another successful project where Legal Services had substantial input), clerking committees, preparing for and representing the council in public local inquiries… Each of those activities has a direct and tangible effect on the community in which I live.

There is always the opportunity to be involved in fresh and varied matters, from one-off matters such as alleged health and safety breaches to the opportunity to play a part in some of the major projects in which Legal Services is currently engaged. The return of the Waverley Line to the Scottish Borders, for example, is a huge multi-disciplinary project involving a partnership between Scottish Borders Council, Edinburgh City Council and Midlothian Council. SBC has taken the lead in the project and the legal work arising creates an opportunity for each member of the Legal Services team to have input. For sure, if and when the project comes to fruition, it will have a dramatic impact in the life of the Scottish Borders community.

Driving home, I pass through Galashiels. This fine old town is currently the subject of a major regeneration. I pause to feel proud of the involvement of our team in this project. Then, I think again about those two decisions made two years ago – where to live and where to work.

I’ll maybe try diving at St Abbs next week.

Nuala McKinlay is a solicitor with Scottish Borders Council Legal Services