Generating income was not the motivation behind a council’s decision to set up an alternative business structure, one of the early town hall pioneers has told solicitors.
HB Public Law’s head of legal practice, Jessica Farmer (pictured), told the Lawyers in Local Government Weekend School at the University of Warwick that the driver ‘was the fact our clients all around us were outsourcing’.
HB Public Law, comprising the merged legal teams of Harrow and Barnet councils in London, was granted an ABS licence by the Solicitors Regulation Authority in 2014. It subsequently took over the legal services of the London Borough of Hounslow and entered into a shared services agreement with Aylesbury Vale District Council.
A report prepared for Harrow council’s cabinet in February detailed plans for Buckinghamshire County Council to delegate its legal function to HB Public Law for three years. Farmer said: ‘In Barnet, Capita run all the back-office… Our driver was to follow our work so we were not giving up work and the ability to do it.’
Although the organisation, which employs around 100 fee-earners, ‘would like to make extra money’, Farmer said there was no ‘income target’.
‘With the ABS [we have] taken the view [we] only use it where absolutely necessary. We have not transferred staff into it. We have amended staff terms and conditions but they will not be employed by the ABS. That’s the way we decided to run things. Other ABSs run in slightly different ways’.
Farmer added that HB Public Law was not seeking to compete with private practice. ‘We want to be in-house and seen as in-house for all of our clients,’ though she acknowledged that this ‘gets a bit tricky when working across all the main organisations. We try to have lawyers that sit on strategic or management boards of the different councils. [We] have strong links with the monitoring officers of those councils’.
Clients buy a ‘set’ number of hours per year with the option of buying more. ‘We’re not trying to maximise the number of hours we produce,’ Farmer said. ‘We’re trying to work with clients to keep their legal spend as small as possible; helping them become less reliant on lawyers as much as possible.’
She added: ‘In December, we will help them look at what their “business as usual” was over the last year. Have they got any special projects coming up?’
Fee-earners are expected to bill around 1,300 hours a year, with ‘discounts’ for management. ‘We might expect some people to have low chargeable hours because they have a special project or they’re on holiday or sick leave,’ Farmer said. ‘We monitor this every month to see how we’re doing on utlilisation.’
Over the past year, property and housing have ‘overtaken’ children law ‘because of large regeneration projects that the councils we work for have got at the moment’.
Being part of a shared service like HB Public Law had meant a ‘culture change’ for fee-earners, Farmer said. ‘[We have] key performance indicators for our clients. Fee-earners have a bit more paperwork to fill out’.
KPIs include whether emails have been acknowledged within 24 hours.