Get a varied experience at the start and develop your skills, and you never know where that may take you, says this senior local authority lawyer who has moved into tribunal work
Tell us about your career to date.

I have been lucky to have enjoyed a diverse and interesting career. I started in Yuill & Kyle in Glasgow, where I went from trainee to associate in a few years. As a small firm you had to do a bit of everything, and I didn’t realise how much responsibility I had until I left when I had a six-month-old baby and was looking for a part time position. I found a job share position with Strathclyde Regional Council in its conveyancing team.

I found that I loved working in the public sector. I met some great people and learned one of the key lessons of working in-house – that everyone is a team player. Another lesson was that in local government nothing stays still for long. After three years I moved to South Lanarkshire Council in 1996 following reorganisation, and then got the post of principal solicitor community care, which was when I discovered a real passion for all aspects of the law related to social work. I have enjoyed 24 years at the council, and have been involved in many new areas of law as they developed, such as adults with incapacity and the Mental Health Act 2003. This led to me applying to and joining the Mental Health Tribunal as a legal convener in 2005, and later to joining the Housing & Property Tribunal, both positions which complemented my in-house work and developed my knowledge and skills.

You’ve recently retired from South Lanarkshire Council. What’s your current focus?

I wanted to spend some more time, when not on tribunal work, travelling and enjoying life. I picked the wrong year for that, so have concentrated on my tribunal work which I find immensely satisfying. The Mental Health Tribunals carried on throughout lockdown and the Housing & Property Tribunal restarted hearings in July, with hearings mostly conducted from home via telephone conference calls. Like many lawyers, the house is my new office!

What skills or experience from your local authority role have helped you here?

Obviously working closely with social work services provided a great deal of experience that has helped with the Mental Health Tribunal, including an understanding of the services which support people with mental disorder and the benefits and limitations of alternative legislative regimes. My work with housing was relevant to the Housing & Property Tribunal, particularly time on an internal homeless appeals panel. Communication, analytical and leadership skills, and an ability to work closely with colleagues with different expertise also help.

I find my current role very diverse and fulfilling, but most of all still allowing me to use the law to ensure the rights of individuals are protected and they get a fair and just hearing.

Is it important for in-house solicitors to look beyond their day job?

I absolutely encourage all solicitors to look for opportunities that help them develop their knowledge and skills in any area they are interested in.

I got involved early on with a group called the Social Work Legal Officers Group, which provided an excellent source of information and networking, and became chair. It became part of the larger Society of Local Authority Lawyers and Administrators (SOLAR); I eventually joined the executive committee and then became President for nearly two years, an amazing privilege and pleasure which again developed me in ways I never thought I would. I am also a member of the Law Society of Scotland’s Mental Health & Disability Committee, which has given me a chance to influence proposed changes in the law.

I would encourage everyone to find ways to give something back to your colleagues and the wider public where you can. No opportunity or experience is a wasted opportunity.

What impact do you think COVID-19 has had on local authority legal teams?

This has been an incredibly hard year for everyone, personally and professionally. Homeworking puts an extra strain on the IT capability of most organisations, and delays in downloading or internet reliability can put a strain on your endurance and patience! Your work-life balance can suffer as homeworking can lead to more difficulty switching off, and even to longer hours. Discussing issues and sharing problems with colleagues is much less spontaneous and of course there have been difficulties coping with staff shortages, as well as emergency legislation. We have all been missing face-to-face contact with colleagues and clients, and although many might have welcomed some more homeworking, no one I have spoken to has wished to work completely from home and many I fear are struggling as the pandemic has gone on.

Do you have any thoughts on how lawyers build good mental health, increase resilience and manage stress successfully?

Given what I have said above, I think building networks or reconnecting with existing networks is essential. Your teams need regular time together online, with maybe some social activities just to keep morale up. We might also try and ensure that meetings are not arranged over lunchtime, especially in winter, to allow people the chance to get outside while it is daylight. And can two work colleagues get together for a walk, if they live near each other?

Have you seen any positives coming out of the current crisis?

The pandemic has made all organisations rethink how agile working and homeworking can be part of the future. It has shown that we can perform most services remotely; it may not be optimal but by using videoconferencing, we don’t need to all be in person at every meeting. We can offer more flexible work patterns that suit members of a legal team but also the organisation, which can save on paper and travel costs by moving to online participation in meetings. There will be different ideals and priorities for each individual. This may take some discussion for each team, but if lawyers can do anything, it should be to reach a compromise that works for both parties!

What other key challenges face in-house teams into 2021?

If the biggest challenge wasn’t budgets before COVID-19, it certainly is now, and the ever-tightening of budgets that has been a feature of the last few years means that another major challenge will be to keep in-house lawyers motivated and to alleviate the stress from constantly facing cuts and reorganisation. The current investment in IT may provide solutions such as prioritising when you need to attend a meeting in person. We must also invest in and prioritise the mental wellbeing of employees.

How have attitudes and working practices in the legal profession changed in the law since you started out?

When I started, part time was not really an option for most solicitors and now there are so many different permutations. It should not matter whether you have caring responsibilities or not: everyone has different reasons for wanting flexible working and getting the right balance can be extremely important for mental health.

Another main change in attitude is recognising how important mental health is. Most of us will be affected or will know someone during our lives and career who can be affected. With the right support and attitude you will get a highly trained and skilled member of staff back to work, when in the past this could go unnoticed or unsupported, leading to poor outcomes. As a manager I often had to consider how to support a colleague; just being there to listen is sometimes incredibly important and everyone can do that.

What advice would you give lawyers who want to start a career in-house?

Be passionate about what you do, and have desire to help your community or the goals of the public or your organisation. Be open to new areas of work: you may find you are working in areas you never imagined but are very suited to. Take time to understand your client departments. With mutual respect you can achieve more together, and that takes trust and time.

What are your thoughts on training in-house or in private practice?

In private practice, I had a very varied and all round experience which has stood me in good stead. Wherever you train you should use it to get as much experience as you can. You will start to gain an understanding of what areas of work you like, but time has taught me that most experiences are valuable and skills learned in one area translate to many others.

What is your most unusual/amusing work experience?

Probably my most unusual experience came just a year ago as President of SOLAR. I was asked to give a talk at an International Symposium of Municipal Clerks. The talk was to be given after a dinner held in Warwick Castle, and I found myself delivering it in a medieval hall surrounded by knights in armour, having just watched a mock fencing duel by two of them! It was both a surreal and amazing experience, and one I would never have imagined my in-house role at a Scottish local authority would bring.

Finally, what do you love doing outside the day job?

Currently, I am doing the few things you can do – Zoom calls with friends and family, walks and online yoga, and of course baking… If and when we can I will be found catching up with family and friends I have not been able to see – and with all those nights out to celebrate leaving South Lanarkshire Council and SOLAR.

The Author

Jan Todd, former legal services adviser, South Lanarkshire Council

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