From scattered lawyers to a single group: the creation of the civil service commercial law team
When Wendy Hardaker took on the newly-created post of commercial law director for the Government Legal Department, she had a very clear vision of what she wanted to achieve. She’d been working in government since 1995, when she joined as a legal trainee, and by 2014 was head of commercial law for HM Revenue and Customs. It was her success in realising that vision that led to her winning a Civil Service Award for leadership in 2015.
Before 2014, the government’s commercial legal teams had been scattered around different departments. “In some departments they had one or two lawyers doing commercial work, and in some departments they had 10 or 20,” says Hardaker. “It was all very random – there was no real consistency of approach, and no real thought of looking in a more concentrated way at how commercial and legal work should be done within government.”
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In the 18 months following her appointment, Hardaker brought those disparate teams together into a single group responsible for commercial law within government. To make it more challenging, they don’t operate in a single location: Hardaker now has 150 staff working in eight teams spread over 12 locations with six or seven separate IT systems to manage. “It’s a never-ending logic problem to solve,” she says.
Although the logistics of the change were demanding, the biggest challenges, she says, were cultural: “We were moving lots of individual teams who had worked in particular ways into recognising themselves as a group and working together. That was quite tricky.”
While some staff welcomed the change because they were “crying out for a bit of company”, others were less happy, but she says that some of the people who were most opposed at the start have now become the “biggest advocates”, realising the benefits of having colleagues who understand their work and who they can share ideas with.
She had to find opportunities to bring people physically together and to work across teams so that they eventually saw themselves as part of the commercial law group rather than lawyers for the department where they were based. Communication was at the heart of the successful transition. She launched a blog for the group, and has built cross-team projects, such as a training committee with representatives from the different teams. Every three months, she holds an event that brings all the groups together. She says: “It’s amazing how important it is to get everyone in a room and get them networking and talking to each other and feeling that they’ve got shared things in common.”
Commercial legal work, she points out, is very different from other kinds of legal work: “You need the temperament for it, and having support, and a proper network for support, makes a massive difference to people.”
It was her group who nominated her for the leadership award, citing her achievement in transforming a collection of individual teams into a “highly regarded shared expert service”. Winning the award has made building client relationships easier, she says: “It helped me open more doors than I had been able to do previously.” Hardaker, who is also a carers champion, was particularly pleased that the nomination mentioned her “great kindness” – not always a quality associated with leadership.
“The thing I got out of it was how much my group had cared about the way we’d done it and how grateful they’d been for the things I’d done,” she says. “And frankly, when you’re doing a big change project, you have to make a lot of decisions that often aren’t very popular, and for me it was completely eye-opening that they’d realised that but nonetheless they still nominated me for this.”
The role continues to expand. Hardaker will have much greater numbers of senior civil servants working for her, and the group will expand its regional footprint, including creating teams in Leeds and Bristol. She also plans to find new ways to make the most of partnerships with external law firms, because it’s impossible to do all commercial legal work in-house. But she can make those changes secure in the knowledge that, as a result of her efforts, her team has its own distinct identity: “One of the proudest things I found in the first 18 months was when I’d go to meetings and my lawyers would introduce themselves as members of the commercial law team rather than, ‘I’m from MoJ legal’.”
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