Government counsel at the top of their game: part 2

Anthony Inglese CB with his second and final look at the lawyers to be found in the corridors of Whitehall

A young Government Legal Service barrister is giving his first piece of advice to a Famous Top Political Figure.


He finishes speaking. Then the FTPF says: “Tell me something I don’t b****y know, kid!” And so began Stephen Braviner-Roman’s rapid and successful rise up the learning curve of how to give effective advice to ministers and eventually to become Director General with lead responsibility for Performance and Client Relations for the new Government Legal Department (GLD) serving most of government (formerly the Treasury Solicitor’s Department – TSol). Stephen’s Directorate comprises about 800 people, including the large litigation group and the Divisions which advise the Ministry of Justice, Cabinet Office and Treasury.

Why “Government Legal Department”? “We’ve changed our name to reflect who we are. ‘Treasury Solicitor’ was a misleading title, suggesting we all worked for the Treasury and we were all solicitors.”

Stephen joined TSol following a common law pupillage. “I started in the EU Litigation team – a rarified and entertaining experience – with trips to Luxembourg with counsel and clients.”

His next postings majored on giving advice and preparing parliamentary Bills: “I learned my craft in Transport and I developed it by handling lots of politically charged issues in the Home Office.” What’s the key to the work? “A level of analytical ability and an understanding of what clients need. The better advisers are marked by the ability to put themselves in the clients’ shoes and by their empathy with the clients’ objectives. Nothing annoys me more than if I hear of lawyers working to a different agenda from their clients.”

Later postings at more senior levels took him to Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), Serious and Organised Crime Agency and Communities and Local Government, “a great opportunity to work with Sir Bob Kerslake (Permanent Secretary to the Department but also then head of the Civil Service) and a strong Secretary of State, Eric Pickles.”

Stephen’s days are now a mixture of strategic board meetings, one-to-ones with the heads of legal teams whom he manages, team meetings around GLD (“hearing from groups of staff about what is happening on the ground every week”) and “keeping in touch” meetings with Permanent Secretaries and Director Generals at the head of GLD’s client departments: “It is important that people at my level don’t lose contact with the recipients of the service or with the legal work. We discuss whether these top level clients feel they are getting the full benefits of GLD. Where will they be experiencing resource pressures or difficult legal issues? How can GLD support them in strengthening their departments? No department wants to spend more on law but they need to avoid perverse cuts (for example, reducing spend on policy development can increase spend on later litigation) and we are helping them to make better informed choices.”

What’s the best relationship to have with clients in government? “Our aim is to be viewed as trusted delivery partners.” How do you know you are doing a good job? “Using our annual client satisfaction survey we’ve surveyed a thousand clients – a record – from Permanent Secretaries downwards on how they rate our services and our understanding of their business. The headline is reassuringly positive: 95% rate us as good or excellent – but we are far from complacent.”

With the GLD offering a bigger shared service across Whitehall, “we are doing more work on the commercial side than previously, including intellectual property and real property in addition to contractual and procurement work, but without at this stage seeking to move into the large commercial project work that is currently done by firms of solicitors.”

What’s next for GLD? “We are near the end of the first phase of building GLD, having brought in most central Whitehall teams. We now need to ensure we deliver consistently excellent quality for government. There are huge challenges facing the next government – economic, EU, terrorism, the international situation – in all of which government lawyers are at the centre, developing policies, defending cases in the courts.”

Business Innovation and Skills

Next, a trip to BIS, to visit Sally Langrish and Bridget Palmer, a Director-level barrister/solicitor partnership. I wondered whether they might be the most senior lawyer job-sharers in the country. Together they manage half the department’s legal group, a team not at the moment scheduled to join the GLD. They are responsible for 125 people and for advising, and preparing legislation, on state aid, intellectual property, company law and insolvency, science and – wait for it – outer space. Unusually for government lawyers, they also run a criminal investigation, clerking and prosecution function to tackle company directors and others who act whilst disqualified or flout insolvency law, putting at risk the assets of honest creditors. They were rejoicing at a recent court success in which a £500k fraudster was given a two year sentence and a seven year disqualification.

How have they organised their job share? Sally works Monday to Wednesday, Bridget Wednesday to Friday. “Wednesday is our overlap day in the office,” says Sally. “We use it for handover discussions, management meetings and wider leadership gatherings. We prepare handover notes for each other and on our days at home keep an eye on the emails and talk on the phone.” Bridget adds, “For our first fortnight in the job we both came in every day for initial meetings with our direct reports and others.” It is clear that this is a genuine job share, where both partners do the whole job, rather than a job split, where the job is divided in half and each merely covers for the other.

They are both experienced job sharers, Sally being on her second job share and Bridget on her third. Bridget: “Every time one has to consider how to make this job work, at this time of life. For example, with young children at home one has more spare time in the evenings, whereas with older children there is more spare time during the day. It was important for us to explore whether we could work together efficiently.” Sally: “It’s about ensuring compatibility. There are lots of wonderful colleagues with whom I think I could never job share.” “But you have to work hard at making it work,“ says Bridget. “Like the description of the serene swan. You bear the burden of the job share – the people around you shouldn’t.”

Their descriptions of each other? Bridget on Sally: “Energetic, enthusiastic, good sense of humour, good fun”. Sally on Bridget: “Thoughtful, great integrity, strategic, not needing to take immediate decisions, and insightful with people.” Summing it up Bridget says: “Our instincts are very similar, though our personalities are different. That’s the key.” And Sally adds: “We have similar underlying values.” Disagreements are extremely rare. “At our level, it’s usually a matter of judgement, where there’s no ‘right’ answer.”

Amongst the advantages of job sharing, “there’s a better work/life balance,” says Sally, “and it’s like having a mentor. Also, we bring all of our respective CVs together, so the client benefits from a more rounded set of experiences.” Just consider their contrasting CVs. Bridget trained as a solicitor in a trade union practice followed by a PhD in EU law before joining the Health and Safety Executive. She moved to TSol to work on equality law and then to the Department of Trade and Industry, the forerunner of BIS, and enjoyed various internal moves of increasing seniority within BIS, handling intellectual property, labour markets and consumer law and implementing the giant Company Law Act 2006, before the present job. “I still haven’t exhausted the legal challenges of BIS work.”

Sally’s pupillage was in “civil/commercial/employment/aviation chambers, where I first encountered EU law”. She joined the GLS as a European Fast Streamer. In a 20-year career she has spent half of her time in Brussels. Her various posts have involved her advising the Treasury and working in the European Commission, the Foreign Office and the UK’s Permanent Representation to the EU as Director of Corporate Services (“I gained management experience and an opportunity to see how an organisation runs”).

BIS values flexible working and practises what it preaches. “Sixty per cent of our lawyers work flexibly – including part time, compressed hours and job sharing,” says Bridget, “and it’s not just about women with children. People are trusted in terms of their work.”

Barrister v solicitor?

Has being a barrister made a difference to Stephen and Sally? Although their advocacy training helped them to contribute confidently in meetings with ministers and international negotiations, “the oral fluency required for meetings,” as Stephen puts it, “is a different skill from what’s required in courtrooms.” Sally says of her solicitor partner, Bridget: “The barrister/solicitor question is not the important one. We are lawyers who have had different career paths and know different things.”

Both GLD and BIS, and other parts of the GLS, are looking to recruit lawyers. Is there a “best” time in one’s career to join the GLS? “No,” says Stephen. “It can work for different people at different phases of their careers and lives, including for people seeking pupillages and training contracts. But you need to be adaptable and flexible, and we are always looking for bright people who want to make their careers in government law”.

Who knows? If you apply, you may find one of them assessing you from across the table, as I assessed Stephen when he joined the GLS all those years ago.

Contributor Anthony Inglese CB

Formerly General Counsel to HM Revenue & Customs 
Master of the Bench, Gray’s Inn

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Anthony Inglese CB

Anthony Inglese CB was head of legal in five Government Legal Departments over a 38-year career, most recently as General Counsel and Solicitor to HM Revenue & Customs. A Bencher of Gray’s Inn, he now trains and mentors lawyers.