By Winnie Agbonlahor

18 Sep 2014

Winnie Agbonlahor meets the new Treasury solicitor and head of the legal profession, Jonathan Jones – a man trying to bring all the government’s lawyers into a single force

The civil service’s legal professionals have been experiencing major structural changes for some time. Since 2011, the Treasury Solicitor’s Department (TSol) has been absorbing legal teams across Whitehall – and the profession’s current head, Jonathan Jones, took up the reins in the midst of some of the biggest mergers.

Jones began work in the civil service’s top legal job on 1 March, following a 25-year career in the Government Legal Service (GLS) and two years as the Home Office’s chief legal adviser. By then, the legal teams of Defra, DCLG, the Home Office and the MoJ had already been absorbed into TSol. Since Jones has been in post, DWP and DH have also joined, whilst DfT, DECC and the MoD are set to arrive soon. That only leaves BIS and HMRC, which are still weighing up the pros and cons with Jones’s team.

Bringing together the government’s legal teams in one unified service will not only improve efficiency, says Jones, but also foster a more joined-up way of working and better sharing of knowledge. For lawyers themselves, the real prize lies in improved career management: “We can take a single unified approach to how we manage people’s careers, and how we can support people so that they’re in the best place to move around [departments],” Jones says.

If, he adds, “we can get these benefits, and drive up quality, be more efficient in the way we deploy our people, reduce duplication – all of those good things – I think if we can make a success of it.” And if it does work out, he says, there will be a “strong case for HMRC and BIS to join”. However, he’s keen not to present this final step as inevitable: “I don’t want it to sound like a power grab by me,” he comments. “Each of these mergers is a negotiation, and it has to suit both us and the client – because in the end this is all about the quality in the service to the client departments. And that’s the conversation we’re yet to have with BIS and HMRC; but I’m a passionate enthusiast for making this model work.”

Jones understands why departments might have reservations about handing their legal staff to TSol: “They don’t want to lose control over the quality of the service they get. They also really value the close relationship they have with their legal advisers, who are generally co-located physically with their clients.” Departments, he explains, “seek reassurance that they’re not going to lose that” – and this is a “reassurance we’ve been able to give. In organisational, structural and employment terms, the teams become part of TSol, but the departments retain their dedicated teams – and in most cases, they remain co-located.”

The overall aim, Jones says, is to improve the service: “There are no limits to my ambition for the quality of the service we provide. I am hugely proud of the GLS. I think we have some of the best lawyers in the country.” Yet he acknowledges that there are skills gaps: commercial law, for example, has “historically not been an area where the GLS has been particularly strong, because the core of the government legal work has been public law, constitutional law, legislation, human rights – that kind of thing.” 

Some departments have already “built up strong commercial teams”, he adds, citing the MoD: after all, “it’s become really clear that this is a core part of the government’s business: its commercial, contracting function”. Yet many departments tend to commission this work from private companies, in part because law firms “tend to pay rather well for it – so in the past we’ve slightly struggled because we couldn’t, and still can’t, compete with the top end of the private sector”. Because government can’t match private sector salaries in the commercial law field, it often has to hire private firms at great expense – but it’s unrealistic to ask government to raise wages at the moment, says Jones: instead, he’s set up a “new commercial law group which brings together some smaller commercial law teams, so that we can build a really strong, unified central commercial expert hub.”

The GLS might not be able to compete with City firms on pay, but it has other advantages, says Jones: “We offer a better deal in terms of working hours: we work hard, but we respect people’s right to a life. We have a pretty flexible range of working practises: plenty of our people are part-time, and the offer for home-working is pretty good. We offer the prospect of much greater variety than that typical City model. Our lawyers are given a level of responsibility soon in their careers. And the GLS is the only profession in which you can write the law. Equally, our litigators are working on cases that are going up to the Supreme Court, which is also shaping the law.”

Put like that, the GLS offer sounds strong. And if Jones gets his way, the TSol offer will be just as tempting – pulling in the last autonomous legal teams, and finally creating the universal shared service whose first seeds were planted back in 2011.

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