Local government legal teams have been at the forefront of change in authorities across the country, re-focussing and re-inventing themselves to drive down costs and share legal services, according to the Improvement and Efficiency Social Enterprise, iESE.
It comes after a survey by the Local Government Lawyer (LGL) found that one in five local authority lawyers felt they are viewed as a ‘roadblock to change and innovation’ by their colleagues.
iESE, the not-for-profit public-sector service improvement body, has worked with authorities on a series of frameworks and joint working arrangements, from which best-practice is modelled and shared.
These include the launch of the ‘3C’ shared legal service, comprised of Cambridge City Council, Huntingdonshire District Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council.
Other local authorities have been addressing the challenges presented by the tough economic climate by developing shared legal services and alternative business structures (ABS) to boost solicitors’ entrepreneurial spirits and cater for the demands of local communities.
Shared legal services benefit constituent authorities by reducing overheads, driving down costs, promoting integration with neighbouring local authorities and, potentially, generating income.
Dr Andrew Larner, Chief Executive, iESE, said: "In our opinion, in all organisations it’s easy to put the blame on legal services for holding up decisions and being adverse to risk. However, our experience has shown that, at worst, this is caused by a systemic culture of risk aversion across the whole organisation and, at best, a set of behaviours that are mutually re-enforcing between the internal client and their legal support.
"Councils are staffed by numerous highly experienced and well qualified professionals who, we have frequently found, use their legal colleagues as a second opinion or even a third party to attribute unpopular decisions. To deliver change and innovation, those professional officers need to have the courage of their convictions to make their own decisions, only consulting their legal team when the circumstances are exceptional. For this to truly have an impact, a new attitude towards risk tolerance needs to be adopted across the whole organisation.
"It's noteworthy that the recent Local Government Lawyer survey went on to say more than a quarter of departments are already part of a shared service and a further quarter are ‘actively considering’ joining or forming one.
"At iESE we have supported a number of projects considering the formation of shared legal services. We know that to make these partnerships work there needs to be a shared expectation of the future requirements of the service and for the councils to truly want their legal departments to operate in a more business-like, innovative way. Failure to give this due consideration will lead to failure of the project."
iESE has helped councils deliver more than £600 million of savings and improvements by sharing innovation and resources across a range of services during the past decade.