In the second part of this series, Vlad Valiente, a solicitor at Midlothian Council, outlines the process involved in restructuring the organisation’s legal department following the decision to meet more of its legal needs in-house. Catch up on part one.
Stage two of Midlothian Council’s legal services restructure was labelled as the Legal Project. This was where the hard work and bureaucratic hurdles really started. In order to address these we created a further working group encompassing our colleagues in finance, human resources and business transformation. Tools such as project plans, SMART objectives, Gantt charts, ongoing senior management approval and consultation etc were used to deliver the restructuring plan. Vitally, we agreed at the outset that this was much more than a “simple” recruitment of staff. Our aim had to be to build a viable and sustainable long-term legal services infrastructure.
The infrastructure building process involved, amongst others:
- Process mapping for the relevant legal remits we were bringing in-house
- Designing workflows and accompanying templates and styles bank for our work. This focus ensured that the service provision is not reliant on any one person. In other words if a staff member leaves, the infrastructure allows for others to pick up the work. Knowledge and practice is therefore retained in-house within the systems
- Improvement of electronic and file management systems
- Improvement of legal resources (library and online facilities)
- Creation of our own case management system, including case registers and shared inbox facility
- Creation of a staff manual to assist and welcome new members of the team
These are all big projects in themselves and accordingly some were developed before new staff were recruited and others were prioritised after recruitment. In addition, we listed and prioritised all the work that had to be brought in-house. This meant that client work was not brought back in-house at one time, instead, it was carried out in a phased way. Some areas were easily and quickly brought back in-house whilst others experienced more significant delays. The infrastructure building was seen as necessary in terms of taking a longer term view; this frontloading aspect would create a more long-term, efficient, viable and sustainable legal services team. The phased approach allowed work to be managed in a control way and allowed us to test the newly created systems.
How long did it take?
As can be imagined, this Legal Project was not achieved overnight. The infrastructure building process is ongoing and there are some areas of work still to be brought in-house. Accordingly, managing client department and senior management expectations has been very important throughout the process. The Legal Project started with planting of the seed of doubt over the best value question. It then moved through the shoots of assessment and investigation, recommendation and reporting, infrastructure building and recruitment. Now it has blossomed into a fully functioning in-house legal services team, with a court team, commercial team and offering much better support to the corporate governance function. In terms of timescales, with the caveat that work to bring back some areas is ongoing, the Legal Project has taken in the region of two years from the planting of the initial seed to implementation.
The success or not of the project is and will be measured in various ways. Obviously achieving best value is the aim and part of that is achieving savings. Due to the start-up costs and the frontloading and infrastructure building process, the savings have not yet been achieved but I am confident that we are not far from that target. In terms of meeting clients' needs and overall best value, feedback from client departments and senior management clearly indicates that the Legal Project has been a real success, particularly in terms of the earlier intervention and preventative work we are providing as well as the income generation. For example, our joint work carried out with social work on adoption and permanence has recently won the Scottish Public Services Award for Policy Development.
Not for the faint-hearted
I would highlight that this has been a very difficult, complex, time-consuming project. The easiest route for all concerned was the status quo. However as conscientious council officers, we decided that this was not an option and we had to improve the provision of legal services. We encountered many hurdles along the way but we always persisted and carried on.
The main lessons learned for anyone considering similar projects are:
- Recruitment processes take longer than expected (in fact, everything takes longer than expected!)
- Things go wrong, don’t let that derail you
- Overestimate the start-up costs
- Manage client and senior management expectations along the way - you need their buy-in
- Leadership, team work and delegation is essential
- Project manage and set targets, reviewing these along the way
- There will be more legal work than expected as client departments become aware of the new resource
- More staff means more work for legal managers
- Finally, every small step is a win - remain positive
To in-house or out-house?
My conclusion is that both are important, however, there has to be the right balance between in-house and external provision. Every organisation will be different and will have different legal needs. For Midlothian Council, I am left in no doubt that we are achieving the right balance.