GCRC Interview: Geoff Wild, Director of Governance & Law at Kent County Council – Whole Interview

Our latest interview is with Geoff Wild, Director of Governance & Law at Kent County Council. He heads up one of the largest teams of local authority lawyers in the country, operating as an in-house trading practice, and serving over 300 clients nationwide from across the whole of the public sector.

Geoff has led his team to several awards, including twice winningThe Lawyer Public Sector Legal Team of the Year (2005 and 2009) and the LGC Legal Team of the Year 2009. He was named as a leading innovator and the Legal Industry Pioneer of the Year in the Financial Times Innovative Lawyer Awards 2012 and was named General Counsel of Year at the British Legal Awards 2012. In addition, Geoff was named as Leader of the Year in the Law Society Awards 2011, where the judges identified him as “someone who has made a dynamic contribution to legal services in the public sector. Applying a business model of ‘in-house private practice’, his entrepreneurial leadership has built up a practice of over 100 lawyers and a turnover of £7 million”.

What motivated you to work in the public sector?

It was a conscious decision and one that I made when I was still at law college. I was conscious that all of my peers who were entering the profession were going down more conventional routes – private sector, city and other such operations. I wasn’t so keen to follow suite because I wasn’t looking to go into the law for a profit margin, I wanted to be able to practice law but feel as though I was having some social impact as well. It all sounds a bit virtuous, but it was just something I felt I wanted to get out of my work, rather than just getting a paycheck at the end of the day or working towards the company profit margin. I’d get bored very easily if I felt that what I was doing didn’t have some wider impact than simply making money.

Is making money the main difference between working in public sector and the more conventional routes in the law?

There is a very distinct public sector ethos which prevails amongst those who work in the sector and I think it does draw a certain category of individual to it, which is very tangible when you work in the sector and see it around you.

How much has working as a lawyer in the public sector changed over your career?

I’ve been working in local government now for just about 30 years. It’s changed hugely, but in some places it’s hardly changed at all. The thing about local government is that there are over 400 local authorities in England and Wales and each one is run differently. There’s no two authorities that are alike. You can go to a team with one organization and it will be unlike any other.

There’s some, like Kent, who have really tried to push the boundaries and have found themselves on the cutting edge of developments and innovation. Other authorities have hardly moved on at all since the 1980s and possibly even before then. They’re still stuck in a time warp and that makes public sector law a fascinating place because you see so much variance in the quality and performance.

Does the political situation of each council have a bearing on the legal team in terms of productivity and efficiency?

Politics can get in the way, but politics is part and parcel of every council. You have to know how to manage the political element of the job. I don’t think it’s a barrier. Whatever the political party in power, it shouldn’t affect the performance and the ability and ambition of the legal team. It is an excuse if it’s used.

And how is Kent a forward thinking council in relation to others? In terms of technologies or particular policies?

It’s a question I’ve been often asked. Kent is very much a forward thinking, open, entrepreneurial entity and it’s always been that way since I’ve been here. It’s as though it’s in the DNA. You can’t point to anything that says we’ve set on this course consciously or deliberately. It just seems to have had leaders and managers who have thought this way and have always encouraged others to think this way and its got into the bloodstream of the organization and that makes it a very special place to work and operate. I’ve been given an enormous amount of encouragement and freedom to do things the way I do, and in return I’ve encouraged many others to do the same.

In the corporate world we’ve heard of many in-house lawyers having to be very business-minded and entrepreneurial. Is that the same in the public sector?

It’s the same for any in-house counsel, whether in the public or commercial sector. You have to put your lawyerly mantle to one side and adopt a business mantle. You’ve got to have the business skills – that goes without saying – but you cannot rely on that alone to operate successfully in house. You have to be a business advisor, you have to be close to the business and you have to walk a tightrope. You have to maintain the integrity, the governance and the adherence to the law by the organisation, but you also have to be very much in tune with its business ambitions and its performance.

You serve 300 clients nationwide, so does your role entail that your work is as much about managing these clients as it is lawyering?

I do relatively little law in my role because I am responsible for managing a service which is a group of 130 lawyers and 300+ clients. So I’m part of Kent County Council, but at the same time I’m running a vibrant legal business which now is trading in the market with the wider role. That takes up a significant majority of my time.

In light of this, how have the recent cuts in the public sector affected legal teams in the sector?

A short answer is that with all in-house operations they have a budget given to them and that budget is being cut due to financial pressures, and that is the same in the private sector as it is in the public sector. But if you don’t have a budget, you can’t have cuts made against it.

Here at Kent, I’ve decided to operate on a fully trading basis where we have a zero budget – we don’t take any funding from the organisation – and therefore we are immune to the cuts that are being made to budgets all around us. What we’re given instead are income generating targets. My job is not to reduce staff or service or save money, my task is to generate money, which is a far more positive and motivating target to aspire to in these times.

My job is to go out there to win more business, generate more profit and how I do that is up to me, so long as I deliver it I will have met my targets and contributed to the funding shortfall that the council is facing at the moment.

What’s the balance between work that’s done in house and work that is done out of house?

It’s about 80-20 – 80% in-house, 20% out-house by value, on a £12.5 million turnover.

So you’re operating like a law firm in a sense?

Exactly. We’re the in-house private practice. We operate a private practice business model from the heart of the public sector.

What sort of charging models do you employ for legal work?

Typically it’s still done on an hourly basis. We have a single blended rate for all our lawyers, we don’t operate different layers of charging. We are, though, moving towards fixed pricing and wherever possible we will let our clients know what their work will cost them at the outset. So we’re shifting our pricing model from an hourly rate to more fixed pricing.

Does that approach help to win more business?

I wouldn’t say it wins more business on its own. You have to look at the whole package – people don’t choose their lawyers solely on the way they charge them – but it certainly helps customer relations and helps in building goodwill and hopefully future referrals and recommendations.

When you referred earlier to some councils being stuck in a time warp, do you feel this approach to billing in terms of customer relations is a point of differentiation between forward-thinking and backward firms and councils?

Absolutely. It’s a very important issue as far as I’m concerned. I recruit a lot of lawyers, and I sit in on a lot of interviews, and what I’m looking for are not the black letter legal skills that perhaps used to determine whether or not we recruited them. It’s all on soft skills now – I need to have people who can develop client relationships, develop new client markets, be able to give fantastic customer service and be able to communicate in a way that is the opposite of lawyerly.

I don’t want them to be full of legalese and black letter law; I want the lawyers I recruit to be very down-to-earth with common sense who can relate to non-lawyers very easily. So many of our clients are now saying that they don’t want legal speak or distant and remote ‘ivory tower’ lawyers; they want hard-working lawyers who can roll their sleeves up and talk to them in their own language, not spend six pages telling them what the case law is – they just want one line saying if they can do or not.

I don’t think lawyers are churned out of law school necessarily adept in these areas. I find it very hard to teach some of our more traditional black letter lawyers this softer skills. If I can recruit people who have these skills naturally, or more developed and refined, it just makes my job a lot easier.

Is this a problem with legal education as a whole at the moment?

Yes I think so and I’m not sure what the law schools are doing about it. Some are more alert to this than others, but it will take a long time for the education system to change so that lawyers are more rounded individuals when they come out. Some of our best lawyers have come from non-legal backgrounds, whether that’s medical, engineering or sales or marketing. They’ve done something before qualifying as lawyers which gives that more complete skill set, they aren’t just churned out of law school into the real world and blinking in the headlights, they’ve come with a bit more worldly experience which really helps.

You’ve won a few awards for being an innovative lawyer. It’s a very interesting time for the law in general with structural changes and the impact of the recession. How much is this a time for innovation in the law in general?

The time for innovation should be any time, but the opportunity for it now is greater than ever because whenever you have periods of disruption in the market or destabilizing influences, that’s the best time for innovation to come to the fore. This is definitely a time of change – we’ll look back in a period of 5-10 years and say that it was all really happening then. You see new players in the market, new ideas, the new empowering of clients and in-house counsels far more than ever before. The whole legal landscape is changing – you look at the more traditional roles as barristers and solicitors and they are all changing and realigning themselves. You can see the ABS’s and legal enterprises coming into the legal profession for the first time which is going to make a huge difference to the way legal is going to be done, packaged, marketed and sold. There’s so much going on at the moment and I think it’s all very positive – the opportunity for getting in and involved at the ground floor of some of these things is really good now.

How much do you agree with the view of some that there is a big move away from secrecy towards greater transparency in the law?

I’m not convinced that is a big shift – there will always be things that are confidential, withheld and non-disclosable. There’s been too much of a presumption of secrecy in the past, but that has changed now, which is a good thing. However, there’s always going to be room for confidentiality and the withholding of personal information but at the same time the rest can be put out there, through various forms of media, in a spirit of transparency, openness and accountability.

Technology as a facilitator of innovation is obviously significant, but there are obvious security problems with new technologies. Do these security problems prevent lawyers from embracing technology as fully as they perhaps could?

I think they’re anxious about embracing technology because in the future they can see that there will no longer be a need for lawyers as we know them now. I think technology will replace lawyers quite significantly as part of the raft of changes that are going on at the moment. We don’t need lawyers to do an awful lot of the stuff that can be automated or processed through technology. If you read Susskind and others, they are very keen on systemisation and packing of legal services that makes it more accessible to people. There will not be this same mystique around the law, it’s going to be something that is far more readily accessible and open to members of the public and organisations. The lawyer as a professional is going to be limited to fewer and more exclusive areas. So the advance of technology is a given and lawyers will have to get used to the fact technologies, to some extent, are going to replace them.

With this in mind, and more and more people still trying to get jobs in the legal market, do you think there is going to be a real tension in the market?

There already is – there’s a saturation in the market. A lot of law firms are either cutting back on trainees or releasing lawyers and every trainee post that is put out there onto the market attracts hundreds of applicants. There are more lawyers in training than there are posts and that is a trend that is not going to end in the near future.

For those lawyers that are going to lose out, is the legal qualification still going to offer those people skills to prosper elsewhere?

I think so. The training, the discipline and the skills that you have as a lawyer should be transferrable. Unfortunately the way in which lawyers are trained and recruited nowadays takes them away from their general skills and makes them into specialists. Law firms in particular are requiring increased degrees of specialism from their lawyers such that they are lose out on their more general skills if they’re not too careful.

It must, then, be quite difficult for a young lawyer who wants have this specialism to be more attractive to a law firm, but at the same time wants to have more general skills to make them more employable in the more widely difficult job market…

Well exactly – it’s a juggling act. You have to try to balance the risk of trying to do one or the other.

About William Barns-Graham

William is the content manager and head of communications at GC Research Club. He is a professional journalist, researcher and strategist. He has worked at GC Research Club since February 2013 and has rapidly become a distinguished voice in the in-house legal blogging community, writing on Lexis Nexis and interviewing leading legal thinkers and writers, in house lawyers and CEOs within the legal tech world. He has also coordinated the GCRC Sports Panel series.
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