Local authorities throughout the United Kingdom employ a significant number of solicitors, usually in legal departments or in administrative departments that contain a legal unit. There are also solicitors employed in local government often in high-ranking, managerial posts, whose job is not primarily to give legal advice. However, for the purposes considered here, we are concerned with those employees who hold practicing certificates and are authorized by their professional body, the Law Societies of the respective jurisdictions, to practice law. The work of a local government solicitor is quite distinct and varied. It encompasses several aspects.
First, all solicitors in local government are employees. This is in contrast to solicitors in private practice who, if they are partners, are self-employed. As a consequence the local government solicitors are on a structured pay scale with well-defined terms and conditions of employment, clear criteria for promotion, generous pension provisions and often flexible working arrangements such as career breaks, job-sharing and part-time hours. While these may seem no more than you might expect from a progressive employer, the employment packages on offer from the small to medium sized law firms is rarely comparable. For those at the start of their career this structured pay scale is especially welcome as it prevents any scope for exploitation and does not function on the principle of deferred gratification, i.e. you are properly remunerated for the work that you do from the outset, and are not kept on an artificially low salary with the carrot of high earnings in later years.
Secondly, unlike their counterparts in private practice, local government solicitors do not have clients. Instead, their function is to act as advisors to the elected Council Members, and in this sense they are akin to civil servants in the implementation of policy decisions made by the Council. They have a duty to guard public funds and to ensure that the politicians do not act in any way that is outside the scope of their legal powers. They will be asked to advise on and execute the legal documentation in relation to all the functions of local government which cover housing, social services, education, planning, licensing, consumer protection, environmental issues and (in Scotland) the district court.
Work in local government is very varied. Depending on the size of the council the solicitors employed may be allocated to specific teams dealing with the various local government functions. While you might be employed specifically to do conveyancing and property related work, it is more likely that you will be expected to take your turn with all solicitors in being able to advise the various client departments and to serve as clerk in the district court. Again, depending on the size of the local authority, the career structure and prospects for promotion will vary. Usually there is scope to progress from an appointment as solicitor to senior or principal solicitor and thereafter to Head of Legal Services. The higher up the scale that you go the more likely it is that you have to perform a more managerial or executive role and become less involved in the daily legal work of the council.
Adverts for local authority solicitors usually state that public sector experience is desirable but not essential, and certainly if you are entering at the lower level then experience gained in private practice should stand you in good stead. If you wish to apply for a promoted post then some background in public sector, and preferably local government work, may be essential.
Scottish Executive-(executive secretariat solicitors)
The office of executive secretariat solicitors provides a full range of legal services
the Scottish Executive but also for most United Kingdom government departments, and for a number of government agencies and statutory bodies. The work of the secretariat, which at present is organized in numerous divisions, is extremely varied and includes legislation (both primary and secondary), administrative law, general advisory work, litigation and conveyancing. Following implementation of the Scotland Act 1998, and the advent of the Scottish Parliament, the secretariat was split in May 1999 into two units; one providing legal services to the new Scottish Executive and the other providing legal advice on reserved matters to the Office of the First Minister for Scotland. Both units form part of the Government Legal Service for Scotland, which also include the legal secretariats to the Lord Advocate and Advocate General.
Those employed within the secretariat
are engaged mainly in a wide range of conveyancing, commercial contract, litigation and advisory work arising out of the demands of the Scottish Executive. Duties include advising clients, negotiating on behalf of clients and carrying out legal research. There is an expectation that you will be able to work on your own initiative.
An appointment at the secretariat is effectively an appointment within the civil service, and as such conditions of salary and employment are equivalent to those enjoyed by civil servants. This includes benefits such as superannuation and a promotion scale which can be progressed subject to annual appraisals. As with local government, there is an expectation that those recruited to the secretariat will be able to demonstrate an interest in public rather than private law. They should also be knowledgeable in, and have a keen understanding of, public and political affairs. If your background has been only in private law then you may be at a disadvantage as against other candidates who have a strong public sector background. You can, though, compensate for this to some extent by ensuring that in your extracurricular activities you involve yourself in activities that have a public or community dimension.
Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service
The Crown Office, and the Procurator Fiscal Service for which it is responsible, occasionally advertise for solicitors experienced in criminal court work to join the service. Although they have a regular recruitment program for trainees, taking approximately six each year, there is also reasonable mobility of solicitors in and out of the service. It is quite common for solicitors in private practice who have experience of acting as defense agents to become prosecutors and vice versa. Although vacant posts will be advertised, if you are interested in pursuing a career with the Crown Office it would be worthwhile writing to them. Terms and conditions of service are those applicable for the civil service.
The Government Legal Service (GLS) is the organizational name for the legal teams of about thirty central government departments, agencies and public bodies, who between them employ about 1,100 lawyers. GLS legal teams employ lawyers of all kinds and the teams vary in size from a single lawyer in some of the small regulatory bodies to more than a hundred lawyers in some of the larger departments and agencies. The size of the GLS can be an advantage with regard to career development and training. GLS refers to the United Kingdom government, and the range of departments varies from the Lord Chancellor's Department, to the Serious Fraud Office, to Companies House and the Inland Revenue.
Within the GLS there are three separate offices that make their own arrangements for the training and recruitment of lawyers. One is the Scottish Executive mentioned above. The other two are the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel.
For the posts within the GLS based in England you do not necessarily have to have an English law degree unless you are seeking to work in the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the government department responsible for the conduct of all criminal proceedings instituted by the police in England and Wales. Apart from some minor offences and those referred to the Serious Fraud Office for prosecution, the CPS prosecutes all cases in the crown courts and magistrates courts. Like many other public service appointments, there is a clear career structure within the CPS. Initially after qualification, appointment would be made at the level of Crown Prosecutor, which would entail sole responsibility for less serious cases such as minor theft, road traffic offences and criminal damage. More serious cases are handled under the guidance of senior colleagues. After a couple of years or so, promotion is possible to Senior Crown Prosecutor and thereafter to Assistant Branch Crown Prosecutor, Branch Crown Prosecutor and ultimately Chief Crown Prosecutor.
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