Wales national in-house focus

Diana Bentley
Diana BentleyJournalist

Diana Bentley takes an in-depth view of the in-house landscape in Wales, talking to lawyers in the public and private sectors about opportunities and career development in the country.

Welsh dragon statue

Daniela Mahapatra, deputy director of legal & risk services at NWSSP Legal & Risk Services (the legal service for NHS Wales), is unequivocal about the possibilities of working in-house in Wales.

“It’s possible to have a great, specialist career here. You can get fantastic quality work and the opportunity to work in great teams and build good long-term relationships.”

Her experience is mirrored by those in the private sector, but the legal landscape in the public sector is unlike any other in the country and offers a particularly broad array of work.

“Many powers, such as health, education, planning and agriculture, are devolved to the Welsh government, which means there are sizeable and growing in-house counsel departments in the government itself, statutory local authorities and NHS Wales,” says Jonathan Davies, head of Wales at the Law Society. 

The jobs market

Whatever its composition, recruitment consultants report that the market for in-house counsel in Wales is strong and expanding.

“We get many roles in the public sector, but the government has done a lot to attract business to Wales, so there are more roles in the private sector, too,” says Karen Jones of Cardiff-based TSR Legal Recruitment. Wales has the biggest film industry outside London and a growing technology sector. “Many financial services companies, like Target, Barclays and Santander, have bases in Wales too, as business overheads are less than in London.”

Organisations want lawyers with good commercial and contract law, corporate and mergers and acquisitions (M&A) knowledge, Jones says. Speaking Welsh is not a prerequisite, though it may be an advantage in some financial institutions. Since in-house counsel in Wales often work in smaller teams and deal with a wider range of matters than their counterparts elsewhere, they need to be adaptable. TSR attracts candidates from all over the UK.

“Mostly, people are attracted by the prospect of good quality work and lots of people in private practice want to make the transition in-house. Some candidates have family connections here, but many want to attain a different lifestyle. You may earn 60% of what you would in London, but living expenses are much less,” Jones advises. 

Sarah Castle of Yolk Recruitment in Cardiff agrees. “London and Bristol offer attractive prospects for technology and fintech lawyers, given the higher salaries and greater job opportunities available there. But these are both growth areas in Wales, too, so there are more positions in these fields which provide lawyers with the same quality of work and a better work-life balance. We’re seeing an influx of junior lawyers particularly, who want to work in these areas. Public sector positions often provide better pensions, more annual leave and better flexible working arrangements”, Castle remarks, while private organisations may offer a better overall package (salary, bonus, car allowance) and private healthcare cover.  

As is the case elsewhere, Jones and Castle advise that, increasingly, organisations want lawyers who can liaise with stakeholders and senior leadership confidently, and can identify risk and offer solutions.

Rewarding careers

Both the public and private sectors can offer a broad range of challenging work. Welsh-born Helen Lentle, director of legal services at the Welsh government, has had a singular career in the public sector. With 160 staff, Lentle manages the largest in-house legal service in the Welsh public sector.

“It’s been intensely demanding but fascinating to meet the challenge of advising the government through the devolution process, from the creation of the Welsh Assembly in 1999 through to the settlement of 2006.”

The team advises Welsh Government ministers across their portfolios from education to agriculture, drafts legislation, advises on political developments and advises inspectorates. They rarely use external legal services.  

Lentle’s colleague, senior lawyer Neil Buffin, remarks that since the Welsh government is smaller than the UK government, its lawyers enjoy a greater range of work and collaborate more closely with their non-lawyer colleagues and government ministers. “The conditions of work here are highly attractive, too, with flexible working and excellent training available and salaries that compete well with other places of work.”

Lentle’s team has expanded significantly, too. “The work has exploded exponentially and it can’t be done quickly.” 

A recent recruitment round may soon be followed by another, due to the demands caused by coronavirus (COVID-19) and Brexit. Lentle advertises nationally for new recruits. “We get applications from people with different experience in the public and private sector. We like people with experience in public law, but not exclusively. What we want are flexible, committed, bright people who want to learn and can pick things up quickly, as our lawyers often move between teams.”

Recently promoted, Daniela Mahapatra is another who has forged a rewarding career in the public sector. Mahapatra was undertaking NHS employment work in private practice in Cardiff when she was asked to develop an employment law team eight years ago. The 10 lawyers in the Cardiff-based team now handle 95% of the employment law work for NHS Wales. A native of Wales, Mahapatra says that local lawyers enjoy a unique range and depth of experience. “You get to work closely in partnership with your non-lawyer colleagues, see how decisions are made and contribute to them.” 

NWSSP Legal & Risk Services plans to recruit another 30 lawyers over the next few years. “We hope to expand our services and provide more support for primary care providers,” Mahapatra explains. New positions are advertised nationally on NHS Jobs, LinkedIn, Twitter and Law Gazette Jobs. Academic qualifications are not a top priority. “We want people we can trust who can work well as part of a team, take responsibility and be ambassadors for us. It’s also a privilege to work for the NHS and to do our bit to protect and sustain it to serve the people of Wales. Job security is a little better in the private sector, too.”

Victoria Moore, risk and compliance lawyer with Newport-based SPTS Technologies, has worked in Wales since graduating, first in private practice, then in-house for the last six years. She joined SPTS in 2018. “I love it. I’m from the New Forest and once thought England offered better work opportunities, but I haven’t needed to move,” she says. “My role here is very diverse and has grown more so since SPTS was acquired in 2019 by the KLA Corporation, which has a huge global presence and has allowed me to expand my role. I now deal with many cross-jurisdictional issues, which is fascinating.”

Moore reports to the chief compliance officer at KLA, who is based in its head office in California and manages compliance issues for Europe and Israel. “I work directly with the executive team and feel able to influence decisions. It’s a great team with a strong ethical culture and great morale.”  

The lawyers all extol the wider attractions of Wales, with recruiters Castle and Jones reporting that the Welsh lifestyle is a massive draw. “Cardiff is a thriving, vibrant city. You’re never far from somewhere beautiful. It’s well served with theatres and restaurants and the music, sports and art scenes are huge,” Mahapatra comments. Cardiff’s excellent transport links to other parts of the country will improve further when its new train station is opened

Life in Newport is equally enjoyable, says Victoria Moore. “I love living and working in Wales and wouldn’t consider living elsewhere. In Newport, I have no commute, great living standards, mountains on my doorstep and excellent schools nearby.” 

Training and networking

In-house lawyers in Wales manage training in various ways. “The employment team at NWSPP attend training with the Employment Lawyers Association (ELA), and we get external training where it’s needed. Some specialist barristers do some training for us, too,” says Mahapatra. 

Helen Lentle has a group of lawyers which manages training for her department. They recently held a conference with external speakers. “We have ongoing training on statutory instrument drafting, administrative law, judicial reviews and equalities. We may have training from some law firms in Cardiff and we often join in training with local authorities and other government legal departments,” she remarks.

She looks for networking opportunities with Public Law Wales and Mahapatra has found the ELA, for which she has served as the Wales representative, useful.

Currently, though, there are few opportunities for in-house counsel in Wales, although the Law Society is establishing a local in-house group. “In-house counsel need to have a place where they can meet and speak with their peers and share experiences,” says Jonathan Davies. “In the short term, our meetings will be virtual and discussing the issues that are common across all in-house teams in Wales.”

The new activities will benefit what may be a growing community. Victoria Moore believes that despite COVID-19, the ranks of in-house lawyers will increase. “I think there’ll be more opportunities here, particularly for environmental specialists and for lawyers working in compliance, as companies better understand its importance.”

The lifestyle attractions and quality of work are likely to remain compelling. The Welsh Government announced recently its ambition of seeing 30% of Wales’ workforce work from home or near home post-COVID-19 to promote better work-life balance, drive regeneration of local communities and reduce pollution.