Head of legal practice, HB Public Law, Harrow
I worked in the probation service for seven years after taking a degree in social sciences and social work at Keele University. But I decided that I wanted to move into a different career and law appealed, having seen plenty of lawyers in action in the courtrooms during my probation work. So I did a conversion course at the University of Westminster and obtained my LPC through the College of Law in London. I then did my training contract at Birmingham City Council, qualifying as a lawyer in 1999.
My legal training at Birmingham gave me a great grounding. Birmingham is one of the biggest councils in Europe and has a huge legal team. I got experience in a wide range of different seats – criminal litigation, civil litigation, property, planning, public law. When I started at Birmingham, I had intended to specialise in childcare on qualification but I actually found planning the most interesting area, so decided to specialise in that.
The hardest challenges I have faced are ongoing in local authorities all over the country. The budget cuts that councils are having to make mean that they need to steer a path through some difficult choices. In rationalising services, they need to ensure that they will not be vulnerable to legal challenge and that they are still able to offer services to those in need. This applies to all sorts of services – libraries, parks, street cleaning, services to vulnerable adults and children. Changes have to be made without a negative impact on equality.
At HB Public Law, we have recently expanded to provide in-house legal services for Buckinghamshire, which means we now have a separate office in Aylesbury. This new location involves managing change: ensuring that we keep our culture as we grow, while maintaining consistency of processes, as well as communicating well internally.
The highlight of my career has to be setting up the shared service at HB Public Law and seeing it grow and flourish to cover the legal work of five councils.
My least favourite law has been the changes to the General Permitted Development Order 2015 to continue to allow conversions of offices to residential via a prior approval route. This had led to councils missing out on opportunities to require affordable housing.
I am also concerned about changes to CPD. While the move to an outcomes-based process is great in many ways as it is more flexible, there is a danger that people will attend fewer training courses, which could have a detrimental effect on quality.
The growth in shared service arrangements has been a real positive. It is good for local authorities as they receive comprehensive legal services at lower cost. And it is good for lawyers as they get earlier responsibility.