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Day in the life: a local government lawyer

Gemma Pesce, Senior Claims Handler, Chartered Legal Executive Lawyer, at Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council, speaks to the Legal Solutions UK & Ireland Blog about what it’s like to work as an in-house lawyer in local government.

What is your legal background and journey into becoming a lawyer?

I first obtained a law degree and then passed the Legal Practice Course. However, I was then unable to secure a training contract to complete my qualification, so I began my legal working career at a medium sized law firm as an administration assistant/paralegal. Once I had obtained some legal experience, I moved to a larger organisation and started out as a technical legal assistant – supporting a Civil Litigation Fee Earner. I then quickly progressed into a trainee fee earner and became a technical fee earner with my own assistant. I did this job for five years and during this period I applied to CILEx to obtain my legal qualification as a lawyer.

I started my employment with Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council (DMBC) in April 2017 as a Senior Claims Handler, advising and assisting the council in the delivery and development of the council’s ‘in-house’ claims handling service, providing expert technical advice and guidance on all civil claims handling matters.

My qualification route is unorthodox, but I always knew what I wanted to do in life. I was determined to be a lawyer. I was recently awarded a diploma by the Lord Chancellor, and the Secretary of State for Justice, Liz Truss (at the time), for being an ‘Inspirational Woman in Law.’ This only adds to my determination to succeed in the legal sector. I am also an ambassador for Spark 21, a charity founded to celebrate, inform and inspire future generations of women in the professions.

In addition to this, I am a lead Junior Lawyer and Director for Lawyers in Local Government. I am responsible for the drive, leadership and overall activity of my specialist area. This role is key to my career development, as I am a spokesperson for all junior lawyers within local government.

How does working in the public sector differ from working within a private practice or in-house at a corporate?

I worked in the private sector for six years and it was a different experience – one which gave me the skills to progress in my career. The legal matters I currently advise on are wide ranging and this was not available in the private sector. The public sector promotes a work life balance and this is important to me as a mother, as it allows me to maintain a happy work and home life without having to choose one over the other.

What key skills do you need as a lawyer in government/local government?

  • Experience of determining priorities
  • Setting and meeting targets and deadlines in accordance with corporate and legal priorities
  • Ability to analyse complex problems and to implement practical solutions
  • Communicate complex issues effectively to a wide variety organisations and individuals (internal and external)
  • Confident and self-motivated

What do you like about working in law in the public sector?

I like that I can make a difference. If we do something well I can promote the practice across all departments, but if improvements are needed I can assist in making changes to policies or procedures.

What challenges/frustrations do you face working in the public sector?

In times of austerity, you have to adapt the way you work to provide the best service with the resources available.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I allocate work out to the team and respond to referral advice forms. I attend any onsite meetings booked in advance and review documents before producing my advice report. My role is hands on and requires liaison with any departments involved to investigate matters. For example, if an injury claim was received from a school, I would meet with the head teacher to discuss the matter, obtain all relevant documents, and make a decision as to whether DMBC are legally liable and then provide feedback to the school.

What advice would you give to those studying who would like to work as a government/local government lawyer? What can they expect from this sector?

Obtain some work experience and get a feel for how local government operates. Make sure you do your research on your chosen area of law and keep up to date with relevant changes in the law. You can expect a work life balance, good variety of work and no Monday morning dread.

What do you wish you’d have known about practising law when you were a student?

I wish I had known about all the options available to me. I was only told I needed a training contract to be legally qualified. If I had known about CILEx from the outset I may have taken a different path. It doesn’t matter what path you take as long as you get there in the end, and in fact the bumps along the way have helped shape who I am today. I am proud to be a Chartered Legal Executive Lawyer and happy that we are widely recognised alongside solicitors.

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