Variety in squeezed times
It’s the diversity in the job that makes the difference, says this month’s in-house interviewee, describing local government life in the Highlands in an age of spending cuts
Where do you come from and what was your career path to your current position?
I’m from Belfast, although I haven’t lived in Ireland for 25 years. I have very recently left Moray Council to work with Highland Council. It’s an exciting opportunity in a very busy team of experienced solicitors in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, with beautiful buildings such as the council’s Town House, Inverness.
It would be fair to say that my career path has been pretty circuitous and largely unplanned. I qualified as a psychiatric nurse in 1991 and worked in “locked wards”, as they were then called. My exposure to the sharp end of mental health legislation sparked an interest in the legal profession. In the late 1990s I studied law at Southbank University and the College of Law in London while continuing to work as a nurse.
I moved from London to rural Aberdeenshire in 2004, and in 2005 Moray Council gave me a wonderful opportunity. I undertook pre-diploma training and independent study as an alternative to the LLB. I worked with the property and contract team in Elgin until October of this year.
How is your in-house legal team structured? Do you take on trainee solicitors/secondees?
The lawyers at Moray and Highland Councils have similar arrangements based on discrete legal teams specialising in property, litigation or licensing and regulatory services.
It is a sad truth that recent years have seen a reduction in the number of local authorities offering traineeships, and Moray and Highland Councils are among that number. However, learners still get vital legal experience in both organisations via summer placements and similar arrangements.
What is a typical working day? What motivates you on a Monday morning?
At the risk of sounding trite, there is no such thing as a typical day when you’re a local authority lawyer. Managing a varied caseload in collaboration with other in-house professionals from multiple disciplines, all in terms of strategic directions from local and national politicians, keeps us on our toes!
What do you really enjoy about working in-house?
It is definitely the variety. My employer is a planning authority, education authority, roads authority, social work authority, harbour authority and housing authority to name but a few. It provides public services from cradle to grave. Its assets range from lands held on ancient charters granted in the 12th century, through to Cold War bunkers and onto futuristic renewal energy infrastructure. I really can’t see a private firm ever tempting me!
Has your council experienced any major change recently? What are the current hot legal topics for your organisation?
Austerity has meant a real terms decrease in public sector funding against a backdrop of increasing demand, caused in no small part by our aging population. Public sector pay has fallen further behind that of the private sector and employees who leave or retire are often not replaced.
The welcome and increasing requirements of transparency, scrutiny and community empowerment have led to a huge focus on governance at all levels of local government. Localism has enabled the service user to influence the direction of travel of many public services more than ever.
What is your most unusual/amusing work experience?
Discovering that among its assets, a common good fund included a chamber pot from the Napoleonic wars. With a picture of Mr Bonaparte himself on the inside, the user was encouraged to do what they had to do!
What is your career advice for young lawyers who want to start an in-house career? Does Scottish legal education and training provide the necessary skills for working in-house in your organisation?
If it is available, I would recommend the public sector module on the PEAT 1 course. For those already qualified, I would encourage them to keep an open mind and apply for a wide variety of posts. Education gives us the theory, but any of the skills come from experience on the job.
What are your team’s key challenges in the coming year? How does the future look for in-house lawyers?
Community empowerment in the form of community asset transfers at an unprecedented volume is likely to keep us pretty busy. Provided in-house lawyers can continue to innovate and make efficiency savings comparable to our colleagues in the private firms, I think we’re looking good.
What do you look for when you seek external legal advice from solicitors or counsel? How do you see the in-house/external legal relationship changing?
Due to the broad range covered by in-house solicitors, there is a certain inevitability that we become generalists rather than specialists in certain areas. Seeking external advice or representation affords us the opportunity of being guided by those with in-depth knowledge, for example when we petition the Court of Session for variation of trusts.
I’ll leave it to others more qualified than me to predict the future.
Is there anything you think the in-house sector/your sector does differently in the area of equality and diversity?
With no wish to offend colleagues in independent firms, my belief is that public sector employers have more readily embraced and implemented flexible working patterns and terms and conditions that further the equalities agenda.
How does your team use technology solutions to help with its work? What has your team done that is innovative?
In Highland Council Legal Services we have recently introduced Microsoft SharePoint to move us towards a more carbon neutral working environment, facilitate better collaboration across council departments and assist with the more stringent data protection rules that came with General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
What keeps you busy outside the office?
I play a lot of golf very badly, but am always hopeful it will be better tomorrow. I do a bit of running, more to keep the heart going rather than for the love of pain and suffering. I’m having a crack at the Edinburgh Marathon in 2019. I also climb the occasional hill, so my move to Highland Council is the perfect opportunity to increase my Munro tally (other types of hill are, of course, available).
I’m involved with LawCare who are fantastic organisation, promoting and supporting good mental health and wellbeing in the legal community.
What would you take with you to a desert island? What would you put in Room 101?
I’d love to say something like the complete works of Charles Dickens, but the reality would probably be the back episodes of Dr Who, particularly with Matt Smith as the Doctor.
Room 101 – carrots – they’re just wrong.
Paul Nevin, legal manager, Conveyancing & Commercial, The Highland Council
Questions put by David Bryson, In-house Lawyers’ Committee member