Laying down the law: working in-house for the police

What's it like to be a lawyer for 'the law'? Baljinder Singh Atwal, solicitor at West Midlands Police, details his move from private practice to in-house and shares what his day-to-day role is like working for one of the largest police forces in the country.
A police car is parked in front of a busy street at night with its siren activated and blue lights shining.

In my early days as a student (or even as a trainee or newly qualified), I would never have imagined working for a police force – and doing a non-criminal role at that.

When I was going through academia, and the usual struggles of trying to break into the profession, the main choices presented to me were going into a big firm or a small firm.

As a student, I became familiar with the mighty international firms with their vast array of free merchandise at careers fairs, and the dynamic high street firms who often gave many aspiring lawyers their first taste of a law firm.

There seemed to be nothing in between and no other obvious options. In-house was not really advertised and marketed the way it is now. In-house lawyers seemed like distant cousins that you knew existed but didn’t know much about.

Now, in 2022, in-house is a massively growing section of the profession, and more and more opportunities are arising. When I properly researched in-house roles for the first time, I was impressed by the quality of the roles available.

Background check

My background is in private practice having trained at Trowers & Hamlins and qualified at DLA Piper as a real estate associate. The pandemic gave me the opportunity to re-evaluate what I wanted from my career and that’s when I started looking into the mysterious world of in-house roles.

The role at West Midlands Police ticked so many boxes for me. In-house was something that I always wanted to do at some point in my career but, I could still practise commercial property having come from a strong real estate background. Additionally, it was based in the centre of Birmingham so I could still pursue all of my networking and business development opportunities. Finally, it was exciting, working for a police force was completely novel to me and it still is an organisation in which I am constantly learning and developing in so many ways.

On the beat

So, what does a lawyer at the police do if they don’t do criminal law?

This is something I am asked constantly at events. West Midlands Police (WMP) has a large geographical remit and hence is the second largest police force in the country. The legal team also acts for Staffordshire Police under a collaboration agreement. So, there is a large property portfolio that requires commercial property work including: leases, licences, wayleaves and more.

Alongside this sits the commercial element of the role. This can constitute any element of contract law and can include confidentiality agreements, collaboration agreements with other police forces / organisations and media agreements for filming at any of our sites.

Some of the larger projects we are working on include the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham – amongst other things, the legal work includes acquiring strategic sites for police briefing and catering hubs across the region, finance agreements to fund the various new elements of operational policing and other emergency services, and consultancy agreements for external specialists.

Having a glimpse of such a large-scale event has shown me how much preparatory work goes on in the background away from the public eye. The event itself is just the tip of the iceberg of what is a huge logistical project. The emergency services and local authorities have to work very hard to ensure events run smoothly and have sufficient contingency plans for all situations.

Pillar of the community

Being an in-house lawyer also brings the variety of many different angles of an organisation which you may not get exposed to working in private practice. It is a real eye opener to have access to so many different layers of an organisation through the lens of a lawyer – whether that is working with corporate communications, estates, project managers, procurement or police officers.

Dealing with different teams, and working in various areas of the law, has enabled me to develop an enhanced professional mindset through which I can see and appreciate the impact of legal decisions from many different ways.

Having the opportunity to work with many different professionals (not just lawyers) has shaped the way I communicate, present information and the way I think. Being able to break down legal concepts and processes for someone not familiar with them has really shown me that understanding the foundations are vital.

Working in a police force and being in the public sector has given me a renewed motivation for my career. I feel part of something that is beyond pure financial targets and goals. The quality of my work and the quality of my relationships with my clients (who are also my colleagues) are paramount.

The public benefit and the greater good – something that I think most lawyers as students feel passionately about – are integral to my day-to-day ethos. When lawyers are chasing chargeable hours and bills, we can often lose sight of the original passion and ambition for the profession.

The amount of work behind the scenes at a police force has given me a much better understanding of the challenges any emergency service faces. Being able to advise and support those on the front line both directly and indirectly gives me great honour and respect for those that help and protect our communities every single day.

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