In-house interview: the President of SOLAR, the Society of Local Authority Lawyers and Administrators, tells how SOLAR has developed, and of his senior role at West Dunbartonshire Council

What was your career path to your current position?

I began as a trainee at Renfrew District Council in 1993 and have worked in local government since. Through promotion I have undertaken a number of roles within legal services, ultimately leading to my current position as Strategic Lead for Regulatory Services at West Dunbartonshire Council. In the main, I have been employed as a litigator, particularly helpful preparation for senior management as it gave me a sound knowledge of other council services and the challenges colleagues face. In addition to legal, licensing and democratic services, I am responsible for planning and building control, trading standards and environmental services, all of which I gained knowledge of while working in litigation.

What is SOLAR about?

SOLAR was initially set up in 1975 as the Society of Directors of Administration. Over the years the membership has morphed to comprise most lawyers and administrators in local government, and some associated disciplines. Our primary focus is to promote best practice, our principal aim being to promote sound administrative and legal practice within local authorities and to these ends develop the professional knowledge and talents of our members. 

How did you become involved?

I had participated in a number of SOLAR working groups over the years. Currently SOLAR has 16 working groups aligned with different areas of law and administration. When I moved to my current post I began attending the SOLAR executive, which considers the larger strategic issues of interest to members. The executive is a fantastic network of senior lawyers and administrators, all willing to use their experience to assist their peers. In due course I was approached about becoming an office bearer. I was happy to agree as I thought I could put something back into my profession. I became Vice President in 2015 and President in 2017.

What input do you have to strategy and governance in your organisations?

As the council’s senior lawyer I am a member of the corporate management team, so very little of note happens without the significant involvement of myself or the services I lead. I am responsible for corporate governance, for ensuring decisions are taken in accordance with the law, with appropriate political scrutiny and in full compliance with the council’s internal procedure.

Within SOLAR, the executive agrees the strategy. Our focus over the last couple of years has been to embrace new technology to improve communication with our members, increase the profile of local authority solicitors and work with the Scottish Government to ensure that legislation is workable in areas of interest, recent examples including election rules and health and social care integration. 

What is a typical working day? What motivates you on a Monday morning?

There isn’t really a typical day, which is one of the things I like about local government. My plans are often altered by whatever strategic or legal issue comes to the fore on a particular day. This could be through discussions at senior managers’ meetings or with one of the teams I am responsible for. Given the breadth of these services it can be challenging to remain on top of all the main issues. I spend a lot of my time on governance issues, and provide legal advice to full council and various committees. I no longer appear in court, but still give legal advice across the range of council functions, particularly in my areas of interest such as employment and licensing.

Separately I am a convener with the Additional Support Needs Tribunals for Scotland which, while challenging, is enormously satisfying and enables me to retain a good knowledge of education and discrimination law.

What keeps me motivated on a Monday is the same as it has always been, to try to continually improve and challenge myself. I love the variety in the job and feel very privileged to be in a role where I and my teams are able to make positive contributions to the area we serve. 

Has your organisation experienced any major change recently? What are the current hot topics?

The requirement for ongoing budgetary savings for most local authority services is presenting a challenge to ensure we continue to deliver services to the standard residents have come to expect. The department I work within is called Transformation & Public Service Reform, emphasising the focus on changing the way the council operates to meet this challenge. For example, in regulatory areas there has been a shift from speculative inspections of businesses to intelligence and risk-based inspections. The council has invested significant capital in new offices and information technology, which allows greater flexibility in working, and reduced spend on office accommodation, particularly on inefficient historic buildings. 

What is your most unusual/amusing work experience? 

As a litigator I have had my fair share of unusual cases. A breach of a trading standards enforcement notice that resulted in a rogue builder being given civil imprisonment stands out, though I didn’t get a call to appear when he featured on television’s Cowboy Builders. I have also had a private tour of Dumfries House near Cumnock with the Bute family archivist to consider what furniture was part of the listed building, as well as site visits to fragile dams and a quarry that had an unfortunate flying rock incident. I am also the only person I know to have raised an action for sequestration for rent arrears and the landlord’s hypothec: I recall being told at university that no one ever used that process. 

What makes a good in-house lawyer? What is your advice for young lawyers on a career in local government?

A good in-house lawyer must understand what the client wants, can’t sit on the fence, should be a problem solver, and be able to assess risk. Our clients need a straightforward and clear legal assessment of the problem and a recommendation of how to proceed. You should be flexible and imaginative: if the council can’t do something in a particular way, a good lawyer should be able to suggest an alternative. 

My advice on seeking a career in local government would be “Go for it!” When we recruit lawyers from private practice they are always surprised at the variety of the work. It can set you up for a fantastic career, whether in the law or, given the unique oversight we have of all council business, including the politics, as a future leader within local government. 

Does Scottish legal education and training provide the necessary skills for working in-house in your organisation?

The newly qualified solicitors, trainees and students we encounter are of a very high standard, but obviously studying the law and practising are entirely different. The culture in-house can differ markedly from private practice. Particularly in a smaller local authority, with greater exposure to elected members, becoming astute at working in a highly political environment takes time. There are courses of action in litigation in particular that might be acceptable for a private client but are not politically acceptable for a public body. SOLAR has recently created a working group specifically for trainees to network and develop their in-house legal and local government skills. 

What are the key challenges for you in 2018? How does the future look for your council and team?

A top priority for West Dunbartonshire Council at the moment is regeneration, with the aim of improving the area’s socio-economic prospects. Accordingly it is investing significant sums across the area; approximately £200 million. Projects include a massive site at the former John Brown’s shipyard in Clydebank, and a City Deal site near Bowling. These have the capacity to transform the area and the legal team is involved at all stages from negotiations to conveyancing. While major capital projects have always been a part of its workload, the scale of the work at present has required the team to become more flexible to support these initiatives while continuing to deliver for our other clients. Other priorities include implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation in May.

Notwithstanding the financial challenges, the future for in-house legal services is a bright one. The financial climate gives the in-house lawyer a real opportunity to shine, demonstrating the flexibility and value for money that our clients require. There is no doubt that we are regarded at both senior officer and political level as essential to support front-line services.

How do you see the in-house/external legal relationship changing?

When we need to instruct external solicitors for specialised work, I think there is better partnership working than in the past, with the external work normally being supervised and contributed to by a senior member of the legal team. Through SOLAR I am also aware that the firms who undertake significant local authority work have an excellent understanding of the issues authorities face and how they differ from private clients, which I am not sure was generally the case when I first practised. 

Is there anything you think the in-house sector does differently in the area of equality
and diversity? 

Local authority lawyers have always been a fairly diverse bunch. While we cannot compete on salaries, we have had a lot of success in recruiting accomplished solicitors from private practice through our ability to allow more flexible working arrangements to accommodate family or other commitments. Part of being a professional is the willingness to put in the hours, and working for a council is no exception, but we are flexible in managing when the work is done. West Dunbartonshire was recently named Best Public Sector Employer in the UK at the Top Employers for Working Families Awards, due to its flexible and family-friendly working policies. 

What keeps you busy outside the office?

My children! I spend most of my spare time either entertaining them or ferrying them to various activities. We particularly enjoy days out, visiting new places as well as old favourites that I went to as a child. Other than that I enjoy music, live sport and (like most people) good nights out whether for a meal, going to a concert or the theatre. 

What would you take with you to a desert island? What would you put in Room 101?

A satellite phone so that I could call someone to rescue me! However, if I was going to be stuck there for a while and could take some luxury I would want my entire music collection, ideally on vinyl, but could live with a fully stocked mp3 player if the rules don’t allow so many items. 

In Room 101 I would put all the people who are unnecessarily difficult or rude. No transaction was ever made any easier by discourteous behaviour towards other parties.


The Author
Peter Hessett, West Dunbartonshire Council and President, SOLAR, was interviewed by Sharon Wares, solicitor, The Highland Council, and In-house Lawyers’ Committee member
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