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Spotlight: the public sector legal trainee

We hear from Patrick Bell, a legal trainee at the Government Legal Department (GLD), on what it’s like to work in the public sector.

Where do you work and what do you do?

I decided to go into law because of a longstanding interest in politics and the close connection between law and government. After completing my Graduate Diploma Law in 2011, I secured a training contact with the GLD in 2013 following a rigorous recruitment process. Unlike many private sector firms, the GLD is able to offer trainees work that goes to the heart of government and exposure to public figures. The GLD has a large litigation department conducting on behalf of the government in public and private law.

My first six month seat was in the Ministry of Defence (MOD) private law litigation team. The lion’s share of the casework related to personal injury (PI) claims brought by employees of the MOD and enlisted military personnel. The team also handled clinical negligence claims against medical professionals employed by the MOD. The more high profile work involved long-running human rights related PI litigation dating back to the Iraq war, and the Mau Mau uprising in the 1960s during the Kenyan independence campaign.

My second six month seat was in public law litigation dealing exclusively with immigration. Ninety percent of the work there is related to judicial reviews of immigration decisions brought in the Upper Tribunal Immigration and Asylum Chamber. The remaining 10 percent is related to statutory appeals against immigration decisions (particularly in relation to asylum), unlawful detention and other ad hoc matters.

My third six month seat was at the Department for Transport in the Railway Commercial Contracts and Procurement team. It provides legal support to the franchise competition process, general advisory work in relation to the railway franchising system, and legal support of contract lifecycle management to commercial contract managers.

I’m now in my final seat at the GLD’s Commercial Law Group located at the Home Office where I mostly focus on procurement matters and commercial drafting. I’m motivated to get the best deal for the public sector; especially, as I get the impression many private companies bidding for work think the government can be walked over and squeezed for every penny. In times of austerity and cuts, I feel strongly about defending value for money and ensuring risk is properly transferred to the companies that win the contracts.

What are the best bits of working in the public sector?

A big plus about working as a government lawyer is the variety of work on offer. You must quickly develop your legal knowledge of different practice areas and are expected to pick up cases or matters in which you have little experience. Work changes day to day keeping it exciting, and I’ve had the opportunity to develop a very broad range of legal skills at an early stage in my career.

Government lawyers take on high profile cases, and as a trainee I’ve been involved in matters that could be front page news. I’ve also conducted litigation in the upper courts; instructed QCs on my own cases; and, handled matters that have a cross-governmental impact. This level of experience is something that, I believe, a private sector lawyer may not experience in the first ten years of their career.

The most stand-out piece of work I’ve taken on was negotiating the terms of a unique agreement with a private sector company worth several million pounds. It involved weeks of push and pull with a partner from a well-known law firm who, I imagine, was surprised to meet such resistance from a trainee. Discussions reached crunch point on the date the documents needed to be signed where the partner, attempting to get agreement on his amendments, came up with a bizarre hypothetical scenario relating to who would take responsibility for a dirty chair. Until now, I hadn’t realised part of my role would involve discussions regarding a hypothetical chair and where the risk in relation to this chair would lie.

What advice do you have for those wanting to work as a public sector lawyer?

Previous work experience is important aspect of your background during the Government Legal Service recruitment process. At interview stage, candidates are required to demonstrate they can meet the core competencies. Prospective trainees should expect real responsibility early on; an incredible variety of work; high profile cases; the occasional opportunity to meet and advise ministers directly; and, a commitment to work/life balance that goes to the core of the organisation.

What do you do for fun when not lawyering?

I attended my 9th Glastonbury Festival this year, since I love music and dancing. I’m into sport, but mainly football. I am happy to see my team Brighton and Hove Albion finally make it to the Premier League after a long and sad absence from top flight football. I also like cookery, art, literature, spreadsheets and obviously law!

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