Local heroes: 4 reasons to consider an in-house career in local government

Paige Ferris Bedward
Paige Ferris-BedwardMilton Keynes Council

Local government is far more than just bin collections and council tax. Paige Ferris-Bedward, an in-house lawyer at Milton Keynes Council, has four key reasons why you shouldn't overlook the sector for your in-house career.

Throughout my legal training, I had the pleasure of meeting many junior legal professionals, from trainees in large city law firms, to in-house lawyers working for energy companies.

The one thing the majority of them had in common is that they had never heard of local authority legal services. And being honest, I was hardly surprised, given I also had no idea about it before I started working for a local authority. I’m ashamed to admit I thought local government stretched as far as bins and some social care functions…

For those who knew about local government legal services, I was sometimes met with comments such as “I’ve heard that being a local government lawyer can be career-hindering” or “local government is riddled with bureaucracy and one step behind other sectors”.

It was moments like these which really made me appreciate just how little the majority of junior legal professionals understand, not only about local government legal services, but also about all the amazing work done every day at the heart of our local communities. Here are my top four reasons why you shouldn't overlook local government as an in-house career.

1. Being able to “make things happen” and working on the bigger picture

All local authorities will have a set of strategies, plans and policies which together build a picture of that respective authority’s vision and goals for its defined area. These ambitions span wide – from increasing community safety, to the revitalisation of high streets, to the stimulation of housing development.

It can create an environment where working on unique projects becomes commonplace, which, as a junior lawyer, can be invaluable – particularly in their earlier years when many are unsure where they want their legal career to go. As a junior lawyer, it will often lead to excellent exposure – such as working on major regeneration schemes, or the implementation of huge transport initiatives in light of the UK’s growing green ambitions.

Along with working on the legal aspects of major schemes comes the benefit of being able to see projects from start to finish. By contrast, our junior private practice counterparts are often assigned to more transactional work, and therefore may only work on matters in isolation, not having the opportunity to truly build context and a greater understanding of the “why” which underpins legal work.

2. The creation of new career paths

When I first began my journey to becoming a solicitor, I was under the impression that the only route for career progression was something along the lines of trainee solicitor – associate – senior associate – partner. If one chooses to establish and progress within a traditional private practice setting, this probably isn’t far from the reality.

But the truth is – for a number of reasons – many of those who set out to have a legal career change career paths, sometimes moving away from law entirely. From the experience of some close friends who did just this, it was often due to a feeling of ‘not fitting in’ with the profession, or finding the politics and competition attached to any form of career progression never-ending and draining.

A legal career in a local authority setting can offer a different route to progression. Like most legal roles, there’s usually the opportunity to become more senior in your area of expertise, which typically comes with greater managerial responsibilities. If you desire to work your way up the local government ranks, you can then set out to become head of legal, and if you fancy sitting around the corporate leadership table, the next step could be becoming a director (which may also cover the role of a monitoring officer – a position enshrined in statute).

The skill set developed on a local authority legal career path doesn’t have to stop there; a previous head of legal at Milton Keynes Council became head of adjudication services for the General Pharmaceutical Council, which illustrates the scope of transferability across different industries.

3. Exposure to unique areas of work

Local authorities can provide over 800 services that cut across key parts of everyday, localised life, such as children’s services (including schools), housing, culture, environmental services, taxation, elections, and protective services, such as fire and rescue and coroner court services. This offers a breadth of opportunities for legal queries and concerns to arise, most of which will land on Legal’s desk. For example, as a trainee in Litigation, at one stage my caseload included advising and drafting a policy for the use of drones for aerial imagery to map development sites; advising on abandoned holiday homes; prosecuting a fast food takeaway following a cockroach infestation; and investigating complaints against a councillor regarding their social media posts.

Being a local government lawyer means always being conscious that you’re working within an organisation where politics threads through most of what we do as council officers. As each election period comes around, the political landscape can change and corporate priorities are rejigged, so being politically mindful and retaining a diplomatic wider awareness is paramount. This political setting means legal officers will often work on distinct areas such as councillor conduct, standards and local authority governance.

4. Going beyond big business and making a difference with community-led work

Local authorities are not-for-profit organisations. As such, their legal departments can attract those lawyers driven by the desire to make a difference and fulfil a sense of community service.

On any typical day in a local government legal service, you’ll have the commercial lawyers working on the procurement of huge public contracts for the greater good of the community; the social care lawyers working tirelessly for the most vulnerable in society; the litigation lawyers appearing in the Magistrates’ Court, taking prosecutions on the local authority’s behalf; and the planning lawyers ensuring the wider community benefits from effective, well-balanced placemaking.

Fancy exploring a legal career in local government?

  • Keep an eye on the local government legal press – Lawyers in Local Government and Local Government Lawyer
  • Connect with public sector legal recruiters to enquire about vacancies – I recommend Sellick Partnership
  • Check out jobs and career pages on local authority websites
  • Reach out to local government lawyers through LinkedIn to enquire about work experience opportunities