August 18 2020
An alternative to the bottom line: why law graduates should consider a career in local government
Legal Career Tips
Connor Smith, Clifford Chance Lift Intern at F-LEX sat down with Nick O’Neill, Governance and Legal Practice Manager at Wirral Council to learn more about his legal career in local government:
Tell me a little about yourself and your career to date
I was in a working class area, and the school wasn’t too good. I left school half way through sixth form and got a job at a law firm at 17, working as a paralegal around Liverpool for 5 years at Hill Dickinson. I then went to University full time, and went onto Chester to do my finals. I came back to Liverpool as a trainee solicitor doing housing law. I was later recruited by a litigation law firm in the Wirral. I qualified here and worked for 14 years as an associate and salaried partner. During that time, I was managing quite a few teams. I enjoyed this, and did an MBA in Practice Management. I resided in my partnership 10 years ago, and now work in full time management. 5 years ago, I moved to work in local Government as a Governance and Practice Manager for change of scenery. This was very different culturally from private practice.
Alongside this, I have been a LawCare volunteer for 10 years and a LawCare champion. I give lectures on mental health to secondary education, law schools, law firms and law societies. Finally, I am coaching, currently completing the ILM Level 5.
What does your role in Local Government entail now?
Predominantly practice management of a team of 40 lawyers across a wide range of practice areas from corporate to children's services. It’s a very interesting job: very team oriented and a collegiate approach. There are 4 major areas: safeguarding, litigation, land, commercial contracts. We focus on these particular areas but do lots of data governance, freedom of information act requests. The public send a lot of requests for us to look at. We do a lot of constitutional work as well, which is a completely different area of law. Overall, we advise and support the local authority members and councillors. We also advise our client departments which contain 3,500 staff. We are very much a sort of in-house multi-disciplinary firm.
What are the biggest differences between practising law in the private and public sector?
Private practice is very much focused on the bottom line. On the whole, it is aimed at making money for the partners and owners of the firm. Local Government is about statutory duties. We have numerous statutory duties we must provide. The legal team features quite heavily there. Essentially, we have three clients: constituents, members (councillors) and client departments across the authority.
In the private sector, you tend to focus on niche areas of specialty. You also have targets and bonus structures to meet. The more hours you do, you can advance up the corporate ladder. You’re very focused around career and money. If you look at the public sector, especially local government, there is a far gentler approach. You find that sometimes you do longer hours, but you view yourself through the lens of a public servant. Because you’re doing such a myriad of different things, you get swept up in a sort of 50% reactionary, 50% operational proactive management of work. Someone may ring me at 4:55pm and say “A tree has blown down and killed someone”, that’s my weekend gone since your advising councillors. However, it doesn’t feel like it’s infringing upon my work/life balance since there is something tangible to work with.
Mental health wise, you’ll find local Government lawyers are much healthier because you’ve got lots of trade unions. You’ve got human resources departments that are ahead compared to the private sector because they’ve been doing it from inception. The policies and procedures we follow are very much based around individuals. You find that the private sector is catching up, but despite this their employees may be apprehensive to go to their own firms to seek that help, since it may reflect badly on you. In the public sector there is much more understanding.
How does internal company politics compare to party politics you may experience in Local Government?
You’ve got to learn on the job and be very aware that you are a public servant to the constituent. You are the front facing individuals who represent the constituents of the borough. You must have a very unbiased approach to everything you do, and advise on the black and white of the law.
What are your favourite aspects about working in the public sector?
I have a young family, so having an excellent work/life balance to see my children grow up is great. I also have flexible working hours so I can work around my kids schooling and bedtime. Additionally, the variety of work I’m exposed to on a daily basis is vastly different to the normal specialism/niche practice in the private sector.
What advice do you have for students and graduates wanting to pursue a career in the public sector?
In the public sector you have the opportunity to be exposed to a wide range of law, and therefore you’re more likely to have a better grounding straight away. You’re not photocopying or making cups of tea, my trainees arrive and are given rights of audience before the magistrates straight away as officers of the council, so they’re advocates immediately. One trainee has done litigation, childcare, data governance and special educational needs. His seat will finish in January and he’s moving into corporate where he will be involved in the “Local plan” which involves multi million pound commercial deals. When he finishes his training contract, he can sit back and make an informed decision on the wide variety of work he has done.
How do you think the Coronavirus has changed the way lawyers work? Do you think this is permanent?
I think it is semi-permanent. A lot of firms will physically close offices and have ‘hubs’ instead. Working from home for women especially in the legal sector has changed dramatically for the better. Flexible working is great, because as long as you have your work done and charge your billable hours whether that be in public or private practice then ultimately you’re still doing your job.
Overheads will reduce dramatically if you take all your staff off of site and have them working from home. For a lot of firms it is practically a no brainer. Some of the larger organisations are going to look at a balance between the two, with employees being able to work some days at home. The NHS legal team did this a few years ago. I’ve always worked from home on and off for the last 20 years. If I have quite challenging projects or cases I will spend one or two days a month at home working on those projects simply because it is quiet. If this happened about 3 years ago without any technology, it just wouldn’t be successful. The level of interaction between the staff would’ve been basically non-existent. I’m on Teams 50% of the day every day managing our people. We’re lucky to a degree with the timing of the technology, but has led to a realisation that remote working is possible now with it.
I’ve seen over the last 20 years the systems develop to date.
Is there anything else you’d like to add for students wanting a career in the public sector?
Another piece of advice I have is to engage with organisations and lawyers in local Government and get into the habit of having an updated LinkedIn profile. Understanding LinkedIn as a tool is absolutely essential, I manage a lot of my networks there. I was at the Legal Cheek education conference and we had a “speed dating” type networking session where I engaged with a lot of students, which I think is valuable to gain exposure to this type of work too.
To learn more about Law Care: https://www.lawcare.org.uk/