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Shared knowledge

Tuesday May 18th, 2010

By Jayne Francis-Ward, Assistant Chief Executive, Nottinghamshire County Council and John Riddell, Partner in the Local Government Team of EM LawShare panel firm Weightmans LLP

In a ground-breaking initiative, 18 local authorities from throughout the East Midlands have combined to create the UK’s largest ever public/private sector legal partnership.

Public sector procurement has in the past been described as an unwieldy. Summarily criticised by politicians and media, taxpayers are continually reminded that they will never fathom its vagaries without a new direction or approach. In its defence, public procurement is a necessarily complex process which includes checks and balances designed only with the best intentions.

Amid all of these competing interests a collaborative procurement project between local authority legal departments has quietly begun to deliver genuine results for a fast-growing membership.

East Midlands (EM) LawShare awarded its second round of four-year contracts to a panel of private sector law firms on 1 April 2010. The partnership now counts 50 local authorities among its members, approximately 80 per cent of all public authorities in the East Midlands. EM LawShare collectively instructs a panel of five private sector law firms – which were successful through the recent formal tender – to provide advice, training and support across a comprehensive range of legal disciplines.

The guiding principles of the EM LawShare procurement model are to secure value for money through collective buying power, to encourage knowledge sharing through networking and training, and to reduce duplication amongst the member authorities – one of the key tenets of central government strategy.

The consortium was originally formed in 2006 after an invitation from Nottinghamshire County Council (NCC)’s legal department to every counterpart across the region. NCC had a partnership arrangement with its own private sector providers not dissimilar to the services now enjoyed by EM LawShare’s membership, the difference being that it acted alone from a procurement perspective. NCC was also at the centre of a group known informally as the Benchmarking Club where several authorities met to discuss costs, outputs and how they were operating in order to share best practice.

The invitation worked and 13 local authorities combined to form EM LawShare in 2006. Its rapid growth to 50 authorities including county and district councils, fire and rescue and police authorities, provides a compelling story of how better collaborative working helps to deliver services and improve outcomes.

Savings

EM LawShare has delivered savings to members through a variety of means since its launch four years ago and our calculations suggest a figure of between £3.5 million to £4 million shared across the consortium since its inception. Typically, observers would suggest the most obvious factor influencing this is EM LawShare’s ability to use its combined buying power to secure competitive rates from private sector. However, scrutiny on this basis alone would not be entirely valid because comparisons on hourly rates are far too simplistic a benchmark. Yes, competitive rates can be achieved but the consortium never professes to be able to beat everyone’s deal on a like-for-like basis. The market is competitive and public sector work remains a sought-after source of income for lawyers.

However, from the providers’ perspective, the tender this spring was just as competitive, if not more so, than a normal one. The attraction of a contract to serve 50 local authorities backed up by data showing a significant volume of work already generated made it unlikely that any provider would say ‘I’m not interested in that’. This tender offered good quality work at a fair price.

Where EM LawShare has genuinely excelled is in the provision of value added services to its members at no cost or a fraction of their usual price, the majority of which would simply not be available to local authority legal departments buying on their own.

The five providers on our panel – Weightmans, DLA Piper, Freeth Cartwright, Anthony Collins Solicitors and Browne Jacobson – have devised a comprehensive training programme covering 13 legal disciplines, which keeps members absolutely up to date in each one. Civil litigation, conveyancing and property, planning, employment, housing, social services, education and criminal litigation are just a selection of the topics already coded into EM LawShare’s timetable for the 12 months beginning in May 2010.

Sharing and de-duping

Less easy to quantify, but no less important in judging the effectiveness of a consortium, are the savings made by members through networking and the sharing of knowledge. On occasion local authority legal departments are obliged to seek advice from the private sector. EM LawShare has aimed to reduce this need by improving access to knowledge and services through the consortium approach. A small local authority may only have two full-time staff in its legal department. As consortium members they are now part of a vast legal department with hundreds of other colleagues, all of whom meet regularly and increasingly maintain contact through online networking, which we are currently developing for our membership.

Significant legal issues affect public bodies across the board. One recent example concerned equal pay where all staff in local authorities had to go through job evaluation exercises which caused some serious challenges. EM LawShare was contacted by members implementing their own job evaluation equal pay processes so that they could share ideas and experiences with their peer group. Some vital questions could then be asked about what had or had not worked and the membership was ultimately able to learn from the best practice guidance. This has resulted in a significant de-duplication of work; if outside instruction from a private legal firm is required it may now only need to be requested once instead of separately – with potentially 50 such calls – by each consortium member.

Future challenges

The consortium has the great knack of putting theory into practice. When the Gershon Efficiency Review recommended that public authorities make savings through shared services, the founders of EM LawShare took notice and did just that. The Total Place agenda is now looking to make savings across the public sector by sharing services and expertise – ie avoiding duplication. The ambitious plans for sharing information and training under the EM LawShare umbrella could be seen as a foundation stone of the implementation of the Total Place agenda.

Our challenge now is twofold. Firstly, we hope to expand the membership and encourage PCTs to join, while we also seek to expand the provider panel so that members can, when required, instruct barristers as well as solicitors. Secondly – and perhaps most importantly – the aim of the consortium has to be for its members to move forward and not simply treat it as a joint procurement exercise, although of course they are welcome to do that if they so wish. If one member of EM LawShare has a significant legal issue to deal with, then it is more than likely to be an issue which is shared across the membership. The way in which we communicate and share ideas will form the centrepiece of our development over the next 12 to 18 months. At the centre will be web communication, with members using a secure online networking methodology which allows topics, documentation and advice to be disseminated clearly and efficiently to deliver much better value.

Ultimately, EM LawShare has been successful in providing advice, training and support across a comprehensive range of legal disciplines for its member local authorities and will continue to do so over the coming years.

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