Gaining authority

Local government lawyers dont earn as much as their private practice counterparts, but its better than being just another cog in the corporate machine, says Jon Parker

If you are reading this then it is safe to assume that you are interested in becoming a lawyer but you may still be hesitant about signing your youth away to a corporate firm.

Although corporate practices are keen to shake off their reputation for sweatshop-style drudgery at associate level, the fact remains that at many firms, particularly those in the City, high associate salaries are often accompanied by backroom due diligence work and a macho, long-hours culture.

Though badly paid in comparison to a top corporate firm, life as a lawyer in local government can offer a better work/life balance, more varied work, and, of course, the chance to play a part in trying to improve peoples lives, homes and businesses.

Public sector law covers almost every area and you arent restricted in the way that you want to develop, says Laura Moses-Copeman, who recently finished her training contract at Birmingham City Council, the countrys largest local authority.

The culture is also different in that its about people, not just money, and its much more diverse.

An East Midlander by birth, Moses-Copeman studied locally, gaining a 2:2 law degree at the nearby University of Wolverhampton in the city where she grew up, before completing her LPC at the University of Central England.

Moses-Copeman says she chose Birmingham City Council because of both its size and its unusually varied training contract, which among other areas includes experience in regulatory, planning and child-protection law.

Although she carried out work experience in private practice at Midlands-based firms such as Browne Jacobson, she chose to enter local government because the quality of work is much better.

As a trainee, even from an early stage youre given responsibility, she explains. On my first day I had the chance to help investigate a complaint against a member, and have since conducted cases at the magistrates court and the county court dealing with everything from taxi licence applications to the closure of restaurants. That kind of thing really prepares you and its not about photocopying or filing, like being a trainee often is in private practice.

Dudley Lewis, the director of training at the 4,000-member Solicitors in Local Government (SLG) association and the former city clerk and director of legal services at Bristol City Council says: Local government cant offer all the money that City private practice can, but its very rich, and its very varied.

You may have a social conscience and want to help a community instead of earning lots of money as a corporate battery hen. And youll also get the chance to build things in your community, which is very satisfying, and get management experience early on.

Most big authorities have at least one or two trainees, Lewis says, but entry requirements for different local authorities vary widely, and it can be terribly competitive to get on.

If you are interested in working in local government, a good start would be to choose modules and electives in local government law or in an area that you might like to practise at a local authority, such as employment or housing law.

As well as good academic qualifications, your CV will also be enhanced by demonstrable knowledge of the sector, so getting unpaid work experience at local authorities is a good way of building your local government knowledge, as well as finding out if it is the sector for you.

Work experience in private practice with firms that specialise in local government law is also valuable, and can help you understand the two sides of the local government client/service-provider divide.

Local government departments in private practice combine many of the advantages of working for a local authority while, at least at the bigger firms, also offering better pay. National firms such as Eversheds, Hammonds and Pinsent Masons all have significant local government teams, as do major regional players such as Bevan Brittan, Mills & Reeve, Trowers & Hamlins and Wragge & Co.

Private practice firms with public sector teams are part of the local government family, but its important to remember that youll have to spend a lot more time selling yourselves to clients, and will usually also have to be more specialist, Lewis says. Local government is like a microcosm of private practice, because there is huge variety and you arent obliged to specialise in the same way.

However, unlike in the past, the worlds of public sector and private practice lawyering are no longer distinct. In the old days the public sector was completely separate, but these days its a lot more interchangeable, Lewis adds. Switching from local government into private practice is easily done with all but the magic circle firms, where thats basically the case for lawyers at all small firms too.

Without a switch to or from private practice, however, a typical career path in local government law begins with a training contract at a local authority before qualifying as an assistant solicitor, then stepping up to senior or principal solicitor level, where you will manage a team of three or four other lawyers.

All things going well, your next step would probably be to become head of legal at a smaller authority, then head of legal at a larger one, where you could be responsible for overseeing large teams of lawyers and spending a multi-million pound legal budget.

Salaries vary hugely depending on what size authority you choose to work for and where, but range between 25,000-40,000 for assistant solicitors, through to 50,000-80,000 for heads of legal.

From there, many authorities also have a legal director post with a seat on the board, while others have directorships that incorporate the legal function into a wider portfolio of responsibilities. Once on the board, the next promotion could be to chief executive.

However, while local government law offers good opportunities and interesting work, Lewis says that getting to board level is no walk in the park. Some authorities will let you work nine to five, he says. But if you want to get ahead youre going to have to work pretty much just as hard [as if you were in private practice].

Tips on getting to the top

Get as much work experience as you can, both at local authorities and at law firms with local government practices. Another way of gaining relevant work experience is by doing pro bono work as law centres typically advise clients on areas such as housing and social security all of which are tied closely to the work that a local authority lawyer handles.

Before applying, call the human resources departments of the local authorities you are considering applying to, as entry requirements can differ greatly.

Unlike City firms, local authorities usually offer a training contract only after completion of the LPC.

Last but not least, look out for The Lawyer magazines interviews with heads of legal in various local authorities across the country to find out more about the work that solicitors in this sector handle.