Local Government Lawyer Insight December 2018 LocalGovernmentLawyer 8 Suki Binjal, who is in the middle of her term as President of Lawyers in Local Government (LLG), is the first lawyer in her family. Studying business at Hammersmith College, an interest in law was first piqued by a summer job as an outdoor clerk for a criminal law firm in Shepherd’s Bush. Although ultimately not attracted to working in that particular field, it did mean that she went to the University of Wolverhampton to do a law degree. A spell of teaching law at a 6th form college, whilst also working for a high street law firm, called Tedstone, George & Dove, in the Midlands followed, before she went to the College of Law in Guildford to complete the Law Society Finals. Then the legal market – in the mid- 90s – turned as the recession hit. “Whilst awaiting a training contract, I landed a job in Westminster City Council’s housing department, in its housing protection team. I thoroughly enjoyed this role, which at times could be challenging, simply due to the nature of the private sector landlords. “But Westminster was my light bulb moment, realising that I found local government really fulfilling. I felt I could relate to local communities and to changing lives in a positive way.” Westminster was very accommodating towards another of Binjal’s loves, travelling, which she did, on and off, for 18 months, around work commitments. “When I got back, I applied for a training contract in a district council in Nottinghamshire - Bassetlaw District Council.” So she moved up to Nottinghamshire for what turned out to be another of many formative experiences. “The work was very interesting. It was a rural district where you had to be a Jack of all trades. It was a good foundation for learning all about district councils. I started to gain an understanding of being a policy maker, a regulator, an employer and service provider.“ During her time at Worksop, Binjal got to handle a lot of housing work. As soon as she completed her training, she managed to secure the role of Principal Housing Lawyer at Blackpool Borough Council. So again she was on the move. But she also wanted to expand her knowledge of local government and frontline services and Blackpool was to prove the perfect opportunity to do that. “I was there when it became a unitary authority,” she says. “I managed the childcare and adult team and other new services that came into the council. David Eccles, the then Director of Legal Services, showed me how you could step from one role to another. It was one of those lovely ways of not mothering you or smothering you, but empowering, involving and teaching you.” Eventually Binjal decided to return to London for family reasons, and to fit in some more travel. But before she could leave, she was approached about becoming the interim Director of Law at the Commission for Racial Equality (which in due course became part of the Equality & Human Rights Commission). It was a big break to be part of Central Government and travelling could wait. “It was a challenging period for the CRE and I had to give the Commission some robust advice on certain occasions. But I didn’t shy away from doing that,” she says. “I also shaped their first strategy on how they directed their legal resources and decided which cases they would take on – up to that point the causes, whilst commendable, were piecemeal. The strategy provided the legal team with a strategic direction and an organisational focus.” Suki finally went travelling (again), and her travelling companion became her husband. On her return to the UK, an eight-month spell at the Local Government Association provided an opportunity to help shape legal policy in the aftermath of the Victoria Climbié case and with the prospective introduction of the Children Act 2004. Subsequent stints at Westminster (again), Tower Hamlets Council and Portsmouth City Council were to give her the opportunity to run a wider range of services beyond legal. These experiences encouraged Binjal to set up her consultancy and she has not looked back since, with spells at a range of organisations before landing at Hackney – on a fixed-term contract. “It is niche, working with organisations that are ambitious and want to change, want to create different models of service and drive traditional legal services models into the 21st century. “I have helped recruit permanent directors of law and also delivered alternative service delivery vehicles including advising on devolution. My briefs have not been to sit and watch, the directorate whilst the recruitment of a permanent director concludes. My consultancy roles are challenging but I get Fig 5 A commitment to public service and a willingness to move for the right opportunity have seen Suki Binjal, President of LLG, work for public bodies across England. Philip Hoult finds out what she considers to be the key challenges for local government lawyers. The road from here "There are some clients who just see the legal team as the ones they go to for legal advice and that's it. Rather than going to them for help in delivering what they want to deliver, or to work together as partners because you all work for the council. I think that bit has been lost. We need to work collaboratively, to deliver whatever the mayor's or leader's priorities are; what the corporate plans require."