Local authority legal departments must radically change the way they work if they are to survive the next five years, a  conference heard at the weekend.

The Weekend School for Local Government Lawyers heard that the austerity regime - which has already cut council budgets by 30% since 2008 - will be in place until at least 2020.

In this climate, council legal services departments will struggle to justify their existence, Hugh Peart, director of local authority joint venturre HB Public Law, told a session entitled 'Sleep walking into oblivion'.

He revealed that HB, set up by the London boroughs of Harrow and Barnet, is set to become the first local authority-owned alternative business structure if it receives its licence from the Solicitors Regulation Authority as expected this month.

Peart urged local government lawyers to take the initiative in changing the way they work, for example adopting 'lean' processes to remove the need for lawyers except where essential. 'It is much better to do it than to have it done to you.'

In an interview with the Gazette, Philip Thomson (pictured), director of Essex Legal Services and incoming president of Lawyers in Local Government, echoed the imperative for reform. 'We've got to change because the way services are delivered is going to change,' Thomson said. 

'If local government lawyers stand still our work could evaporate.’

Thomson revealed that his authority will 'most definitely' be applying for ABS status for part of his team.

As at HB and the London borough of Lambeth, which has also announced ABS ambitions, the aim is first to be able to supply services for outsourcers taking over council services. At the moment, practice rules prevent in-house teams from taking on this work.

However, Thomson said that ABS status would also help council teams sell their services outside their authority, in a model pioneered by Kent County Council. Council legal teams have much to offer to other public services, he said.

'A large part of the public sector that does not have access to legal services – in the NHS for example, on a day-to-day basis many managers struggle.'

Owen Willcox, senior associate at national firm Geldards, said that ABS status was not the only survival option.

Others range from sharing services with neighbouring authorities to full-blown outsourcing, leaving behind only commissioning, compliance and monitoring officer functions. He also raised the possibility of the emergence of 'regional hubs' supporting many councils.

Thomson said that, despite the prospect of radical change, local government lawyers should not be gloomy. 'It's a challenging time but there's a lot of opportunity.'