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There are around 4,000 solicitors working in 400 local authorities in England and Wales. The size of the authority determines whether there is a legal department, and if so how many lawyers are employed. The legal services section is expected to provide a broad range of legal advice including housing, planning, environment and welfare. In addition, the drafting of agreements with outside contractors will be the responsibility of the in-house legal team - work which has been on the increase since the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering. Despite years of cuts in funding and increased pressure from central government, even relatively small councils still employ thousands of individuals and have huge budgets. As a result, there is plenty of legal work created by a council's everyday activities.
What is the role?
The workload of the local government lawyer is really not too different from that of many of their counterparts in private practice. There is a wide range of work to be done and many lawyers will increasingly specialise as their careers develop. However, one major difference is that like their counterparts in industry, the local government legal team will be far more proactive in the formulation of proposed policies than those in private practice law firms. The opportunities for management, both legal and general, are well established. Indeed, the role of the senior solicitor (or county secretary) within local government is similar to that performed by a company secretary.
Training in local government
There are approximately 130 training contracts available in local government, but competition is strong and the application process is rigorous. The SRA carries a list of those authorities that are authorised to take on trainees.
Why be a local government lawyer?
The opportunity of working in a political environment with a sense of community service and clear management potential appeals to many people, not just lawyers. The vast range of legal work that the local government legal section will undertake makes for a stimulating and lively workplace. Many lawyers decide to follow this path early on, and do their training within a local authority legal section, going on to full careers within councils. Others may come after training at a law firm, having decided on a public sector career over those offered by private practice. Working in this sector also offers a flexibility that few other areas of the law can offer, with (for instance) much easier access to part-time positions throughout the career.
Training within a local government legal department does not limit your career choices. A move into private practice is not uncommon, nor is a switch into industry. Those with managerial skills may move easily into senior positions in councils, whilst the opportunities to specialise in many different areas of law are good.
How to apply