A CAREER IN LOCAL GOVERNMENT FOR BARRISTERS

General Introduction

There are numerous County Councils, London Boroughs, Metropolitan District Councils, Non-Metropolitan District Councils and Parish Councils in England and Wales. For an update on the numbers of each, the Municipal Year Book is a good source of reference on local government. Some District Councils have City or Borough status granted by Royal Charter but there is no difference in their respective functions. Metropolitan District Councils and London Boroughs have the combined functions of both County and District Councils. Each Council is an independent employer and there is no common recruitment system. Almost all Councils employ lawyers; the smallest District Council may employ 2 or 3 and the largest - Birmingham City Council Legal Services Department - consists over 200 staff. They also employ Trainee Solicitors, Legal Executives and other unqualified legal support staff.

 

Nature of Work

Local Authorities are the creature of Statute and are very much subject to the doctrine of ultra vires and they are heavily dependent on legal advice and guidance. Work covers many aspects of the law. Some are general such as contract, tort, employment legislation and Industrial Tribunals, landlord and tenant and conveyancing, and others are specialist, e.g. children and young persons, social services, education, consumer protection, highways, strategic planning and road traffic regulation. These areas involve County Councils, London Boroughs and Metropolitan District Councils only. Non-Metropolitan District Councils specialise in housing, town and country planning, environmental health, food legislation, provision of leisure facilities, elections, some highway matters, sewers, and some licensing matters e.g. taxis, places of entertainment and street collections. They also make and enforce various local bye-laws. All Councils are involved in a considerable amount of civil and criminal litigation in the fields in which they specialise as well as in general civil litigation.

 

Proportion of law the work would involve

Generally, a newly qualified lawyer's work would be largely legal, as distinct from administration or management. County Court and Magistrates' Court work as well as Public Inquiries and Tribunal work would figure large amongst a young lawyer's tasks, assuming one is not opting for non-contentious work such as conveyancing and other legal drafting. The rest of a young lawyer's time is likely to be taken up in giving legal and common sense advice, mostly on the spot, and in attending Executive / other committee meetings. It should be mentioned here that a large number of authorities have their meetings in the evenings. To compensate for that they either offer over-time payment, or more likely time off in lieu of over-time payment.

 

Very little of the work is boring or routine. That type of work, e.g. debt recovery and rent possession is normally processed by unqualified staff until the point of appearing in Court when a qualified lawyer takes over. In climbing the promotional ladder, whilst a young lawyer's professional background is necessary, it would be skills of management and administration which would carry him upwards. Opportunities frequently arise for post-entry training by way of day seminars or longer courses. Expenses are normally paid by the employing authority. The traditional career progression for lawyers is in the Legal or Secretary's Department. In some authorities the Chief Executive does not have any departmental responsibilities. In others s/he has a department, usually the Legal and Administration Department. Where the Chief Executive does not have a department there is competition for that post from other professionals, particularly Accountants.

 

Recruitment

 

As has been said before, there is no centralised system for recruitment. Each Authority advertises jobs when they fall vacant in one or more periodicals or newspapers. Frequently used publications are the Local Government Chronicle, Municipal Journal, Opportunities, the Law Society's Gazette, the Law Society's Guardian Gazette, and the quality national daily and Sunday papers. Most of these are available in public libraries. The advertisements usually refer to "Solicitors". This should not deter any barrister from applying. There as no longer any objection by the Bar Council in barristers accepting jobs with the description "Solicitor" in the title and there is no practical distinction in the work of a local government barrister or solicitor. Quite a few top local government lawyers have a barristers qualification, but most are solicitors.

 

Difficulty in getting a post

It used to be very difficult for a newly qualified barrister to get a local government job, and reasonably easy for a solicitor who has served his Training Contract within local government. The reasons are obvious. A solicitor has to serve two years' training contract before he can be qualified. If he serves them with a local government solicitor he would be experienced in the work and be immediately productive as soon as he is appointed. A barrister, on the other hand, does not have any work experience when he qualifies. If he serves a year's pupillage in chambers his experience, whilst useful, may not be totally relevant, unless the job primarily involves advocacy. Furthermore, the person making the appointment is almost certain to be a solicitor as there are about three thousand solicitors in local government and fewer than one hundred barristers. He may have heard about the problems employed barristers have had in relation to rights of audience in the County Court and he may have exaggerated them in his own mind. He may not have heard about the new Code of Conduct which has removed all those problems for those who have completed their pupillage or for those who are currently serving their second six months pupillage in employment.

 

A barrister has no conveyancing experience when he qualifies and even if he has passed the practical conveyancing paper he would be nowhere near as experienced in the day to day conveyancing work as a solicitor or legal executive. Fortunately, this problem is not too serious because there is usually a complete separation in a legal department between those who do conveyancing and those who do all the other types of legal work.

Please refer to the Annex for fuller details about the rules of conduct of employed lawyers.

 

How to get appointed

One way is to serve your second six months of pupillage with a barrister employed in local government, but there is a problem. There are not many local government barristers who take pupils and they rarely have a vacancy for a pupil. Another way is to complete your pupillage, preferably partly in common law chambers and partly in local government chambers, and then apply for any job advertised for an "Assistant Solicitor". This is strongly recommended because unless one completes his pupillage he would be at a disadvantage for ever. The point should be made when applying that the new Code of Conduct permits employed barristers to appear as Counsel. The chances of success are very good, particularly if one is prepared to move anywhere in the country.

 

Alternatively one might be prepared to start at a lower level than that of an Assistant Solicitor. If so, it is worth considering responding to advertisements for "Legal Assistants" who normally do routine work with little instruction, or for "Trainee Solicitors" who have trainee status with plenty of instruction and a reasonable salary. In either case any application from a barrister would probably be treated with some suspicion, but if invited for interview there should be ample opportunity to dispel any prejudice. If, for any reason, one is unable to serve all or part of his pupillage, he should still not be deterred from applying for Legal Assistant or Trainee Solicitor posts but it has to be remembered that problems with appearing in the County Court might be experienced.

 

Having said that it had been difficult in the past for barristers to get a first job in local government, it is now very much easier. It is true to say that it is much more difficult for local authorities to get the right sort of applicant, or any applicant at all, and quite frequently they have to re-advertise, or modify their requirements because there has been a severe shortage of solicitors for the last few years. Some local authorities give up advertising in desperation and give the work out to private solicitors. It may be a worthwhile exercise to contact a particular local authority to find out whether it has vacancies, because the chances are that it is desperate for lawyers.

 

There are no accurate statistics available as to how many lawyers are recruited every year by local authorities. As a rough guide one could count the number of advertisements - perhaps five to twenty per week. It is quite clear that a large number of local authorities cannot get as many lawyers as they need. On average there may be about one to five applicants for each job, although sometimes there is no response at all. The competition for Trainee Solicitor vacancies are more severe, with over 200 applicants, for example, chasing two posts! Usually no more than six applicants are short-listed. The successful applicant is usually notified within 24 hours and if he turns down the offer the job is offered to the second choice, if suitable. It is unusual for there to be more than 2 or 3 really suitable applicants for any particular appointment. As respects sex, race and other forms of discrimination, local authorities are obliged by statute to promote good relations and not to discriminate. Almost all of them will have equal opportunity policies; although, there will be a few that will still pay lip service to equality issues!

 

What an interviewing panel will be looking for

 

The panel is likely to consist of the Chief Legal Officer (by whatever title), his number two and/or an elected member and a personnel officer. There may also be present an Equal Opportunities Officer to ensure that no sex or racial discrimination is operated.

Primarily they would be looking for a well motivated individual inclined towards a career in the public sector - based upon the job description and personnel specification requirements - and who can ideally be immediately productive, and whose personality would "fit in" with existing staff and who has a practical approach to solving problems. Some intelligence is presumed! Most authorities would not be interested in anyone who is likely to leave in less than about two years. If the appointment is for a Trainee Solicitor one would not be expected to be fully productive immediately.

 

Normally there is a set of questions for each candidate which follow a standard pattern, the purpose of which is to find out more about his personality and temperament and about his knowledge of a particular legal topic. If you don't know the answer to any question say so. It doesn't pay to pretend that you do. It is important for any employee to know his own limitations and to know when he should seek guidance rather than take unwarranted chances. You should be able to project your personality and be able to display some degree of confidence without appearing to be over-confident.

 

Conditions of Service

Most Local Authority appointments are subject to the National Conditions of Service, unless otherwise agreed. The Conditions invariably provide for a 36 or 37 hour, 5 day week and about 20 -25 days paid holidays a year, plus 8 bank holidays. Most authorities now operate "flexitime" and 'family friendly' policies which broadly speaking means that you choose your own working hours so long as you are in during the core hours which, for example, may be 10 to 12 and 2 to 4 and you work your 36/37 hours a week over a 4 or 8 week period. You can have half or one day's "flexi-leave" during the 4 week period if you have worked the additional hours. 6% is deducted for superannuation which is inflation-proof, or you can make your own pension arrangements.

 

Where you have to use your own car to perform your duties, a mileage allowance is paid and in certain instances a lump sum is paid as well as a fixed amount per mile. These allowances depend on the engine capacity. A car loan at competitive rates may also be offered. Some authorities offer a free or heavily subsidised "Company" car and a range of other fringe benefits such as life assurance and private health care. Most authorities outside London usually offer either temporary or permanent unfurnished housing accommodation and would pay removal and relocation expenses but these schemes do differ and it is as well to ask for details of each authority's scheme. Some authorities also offer a mortgage subsidy as part of the relocation package, if you are buying your own house.

 

Salary is fixed usually by reference to about 4 points on a spinal column which has 49 points. This means that if you are appointed at the bottom of a particular grade you will get annual increments on the 1st April each year until you reach the top of the grade in three years' time. In addition there is an annual, nationally agreed pay award every July. This tends to be based on the rate of inflation. Sick pay is equivalent to full salary for an initial period of up to six months, depending on the length of service, and thereafter is equivalent to half salary for a further period of up to six months. All first appointments in local government are initially for a six months' probationary period. All conditions of service and salaries are agreed nationally between the local government trade unions, and the local authorities jointly, but there is no obligation to join any union. Opportunities are equal for men and women and for minority ethnic communities.

Salaries vary to some extent from authority to authority but are generally confined to four points on the spinal column. Authorities with a severe recruitment and retention problem sometimes move completely away from nationally agreed salary scales and adopt salaries and conditions of service which are comparable with those in the open market, including performance related pay. The following would give a rough idea of the sort of salary one would expect for a particular type of post:

 

Salaries of Chief Officers and above are in accordance with a formula based on population, but some authorities fix them arbitrarily to attract the sort of applicant they want. Salaries of Assistant Chief Officers are sometimes fixed as a percentage of the Chief Officer's salary, normally between two thirds and three quarters.

 

Prospects for promotion

Once inside local government and after 2-3 years experience new appointees are often able to achieve a better position either by internal promotion if a vacancy arises, or by moving from one authority to another. The more senior posts require an increased amount of managerial and administrative responsibility.

 

It has to be borne in mind that after a number of years it will become increasingly difficult to move from a senior County Council post to a senior District Council post or vice versa because the expertise gained in one type of authority is not very relevant to the other. Furthermore, as there are fewer jobs at the top there is much more competition for them. More than 100 applications for a Chief Officer appointment are not uncommon. One may reach the peak of his or her career by the age of about 40. It is always possible for a barrister who has completed his pupillage to return to independent practice, where his local government experience would stand him in good stead, particularly if he joins local government chambers.

 

Conclusion

If you are seriously interested in a whorthwhile and public service oriented career in local government job it is recommended that you try to find out for yourself how local government works. A good starting point would be to attend a set of meetings of the nearest local authority. Find out from the authority's offices the time and place of Council and Committee meetings and go along and listen; almost all meetings are open to the public and spare Agendas are always available. After the meeting you may be able to have a brief chat with the Solicitor who attends and ask relevant questions about the authority and the way it operates.

 

Don't rely on the impressions you may form at a meeting, because that would not be the sort of atmosphere in which you would work as a new recruit and it may be quite some time before you have direct involvement with elected Members. If, when you are being interviewed, you can say that you have attended meetings, you should have an immediate advantage over your competitors. You would also find it useful to study, or at least examine thoroughly, one of the standard text-books on local government law before attending for an interview and preferably before you complete your application form.

 

There is another booklet called "Barristers in Local Government and the Public Service - Your Questions Answered" which is available on this website and a more general one called "A Career as a Practising Barrister" which has been published recently by the Bar Council. You can get a copy of the latter either from the Bar Council or from the Council of Legal Education or from your Inn. If you need any further information or advice don't hesitate to get in touch with the Association either by letter or by telephone. Once you obtain a full-time job in Local Government or any other Public Sector job you will become eligible for membership of the

Association. You can contact the Chairman for further information and an application form:

 


ANNEX

Employed Lawyers

 

Different rules govern the conduct of employed solicitors and employed barristers. An employed solicitor is permitted by the Solicitors' Rules of Conduct to do for his employer everything which a solicitor in private practice can do for his client. The current Code of Conduct for the Bar has gone a long way towards eliminating the restrictions which earlier editions had imposed on employed barristers.

 

Under the current Code, barristers employed in legal posts are regarded as practising barristers and they are permitted to appear on behalf of their employer as Counsel, without the intervention of a solicitor, in all courts, tribunals and inquiries, where barristers in independent practice have no exclusive right of audience However, they are only able to appear as Counsel if they have completed their pupillage, or if they are serving a second six months pupillage with an employed barrister, or if they have obtained the consent of the Bar Council. Those who don't fall into these categories would not be able to appear, except by leave of the court, or if permitted by Statute to appear as officers or agents of their employer.

 

The main remaining disadvantages for employed barristers are that they cannot commence High Court proceedings or sign a Defence and other Pleadings in their own name; this is a restriction imposed by Section 20 of the Solicitors Act 1974, which reserves to solicitors these and other activities. These disadvantages will disappear if the Bar Council approves your application to be an authorised litigatory under the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990.

 

Employed barristers are now able to give instructions to barristers in independent practice without the intervention of a solicitor in any matter unless Rules of Court require the intervention of a solicitor. An employed barrister may not carry out conveyancing work for his employer in his own name, unless he has passed the paper in Practical Conveyancing in the Bar Examination, or in another approved examination, and has also had at least two years' adequate experience of practical conveyancing. His name has to appear on the Register kept by the Bar Council. From an employer's point of view it is still a little more convenient to give preference to appointing a solicitor, but as there is such a severe shortage of lawyers no difficulty is likely to be encountered by a barrister with the right attributes in finding a local government or other Public Sector job.

 

Revised November 2003

 


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