Casting your network

We are all told we should network more. But can networking be productive? Sustainable? Fun? Helen Holmes from the NDPB Lawyers’ Group shares her experiences of a network that has unexpectedly proved to be sustainable and enduring, and gives some tips on setting up a network in your specialist area of in-house legal.

The NDPB Lawyers’ Group has been running for seven years and continues to grow and thrive. With no cheque book, no formal constitution and no zingy YouTube channel, how and why have we proved to be a sustainable network?

First, some background on us.

What is a non-departmental public body (NDPB)?

NDPBs are quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations (quangos). There are over 460 NDPBs employing over 260,000 staff and with a total net resource spend of £183.4 billion. There is no central data on which of these bodies employ in-house lawyers. 

NDPB lawyers are employed in public sector in-house legal teams. They can be specialist lawyers (working in, for example, environment law or human rights) or provide generalist legal advice across the whole range of the NDPB business (commercial, governance, employment, litigation etc).

One key characteristic is that the NDPB lawyer provides legal services to the single organisation which employs them. Some NDPB lawyers lead a team; others may be sole counsel. Some NDPB lawyers have large budgets for external legal advice; others are expected to provide a full service in-house. We have not seen a ‘one size fits all’ model over our years of existence.

What does our network do? Why did we begin?

We started the Network as we recognised that being in-house could be an isolating position, and there was no other group of lawyers working in NDPBs with whom we could share our experiences. Other network groups did exist, such as Lawyers in Local Government, but they did not fully meet the particular needs and circumstances of NDPB lawyers.

We started in April 2010 with just a handful of lawyers. We began by arranging short get-togethers hosted by private practice firms, relying on word of mouth to spread awareness of our existence.

How have we grown?

Once we were confident that our network was going to continue, we wrote to the chief executive of each NDPB asking for our details to be passed to their in-house lawyers – our numbers increased from approximately 30 to over 100 in the space of two months. We now have more than 250 lawyers from over 150 NDPBs.

We still rely on word of mouth, but now have the additional advantage of social media through LinkedIn .

Following those early informal meetings, we found that as our numbers grew, we needed a more structured approach to our meetings.

We asked our members what they wanted from the Network (informal drinks, formal paid training, formal unpaid training, secondments etc). We trialled half-day, breakfast and full-day training sessions. The strongest support was for free, structured training for a whole day, twice a year.

What training do we offer?

We run two full-day training and networking days, one in London in January and one in Birmingham or Manchester in June. Content is driven by feedback from the Network. At the moment, that includes technical matters (eg the GDPR or procurement), and soft skills (eg crisis management and conflict resolution).

A key success has been our collaboration with those private practice firms which have generously provided venues for our training days, and sometimes their staff as speakers. The feedback from attendees enables us to tailor the content for future training sessions.

The organisation and administration of each event is run by our volunteer executive committee, with invaluable secretariat support from Thomson Reuters and the law firm we team up with.

What is our structure?

We have an informal structure: there is no constitution and no ‘ownership’. A volunteer executive committee meets by phone every six weeks for half an hour to review and plan our training courses. A key success has been securing the ongoing and valued support of a secretariat by Practical Law (part of Thomson Reuters). This ensures continuity when volunteer members move on to other roles.

Our lack of constitution enables us to be flexible in terms of membership, which includes solicitors, barristers, paralegals and trainees. Our general rule is that if you are working in-house for a public sector body that has no immediate ‘fit’ with any existing lawyer support group, you are welcome to join us.

What tips can we offer new networks?

We have found that raising awareness, sharing information and listening to each other are key components of creating a sustainable network. On an informal basis, we are able to share details of job vacancies, reach out for help on individual matters, and ensure members find value from the Network between training days. We use the Network to learn from others about ‘what works’. This helps active participation and engagement with other public sector lawyers.

Our growth and activity has been decided by our membership at all times. We did not start out with the aim of being a training provider, but have developed in this way at the request of members. So, it’s crucial to listen to what your members tell you.

We deliberately build in lots of time at each training day for informal sharing of experiences. The feedback is that this interaction is just as valuable as training itself. There is always a warm and friendly atmosphere and yes, we have lots of fun!  

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