Independence of local council lawyers is crucial in 2020
2020 is an election year for local governments, and as such, in-house lawyers at local councils need to be especially diligent in ensuring that their professional duties come first, argues one general counsel.
Speaking last week on The Corporate Counsel Show, Liverpool City Council general counsel and manager of governance, legal services and procurement Elizabeth Espinosa said that 2020 presents “many, many wonderful opportunities” for in-house lawyers working with councils to collaborate with other local councils, communities, businesses and with state and federal government.
This, and their professional duties, are especially important this year, she mused, given that it is an election year for local governments.
“For in-house lawyers working in local government and for those private practitioners providing advice to in-house lawyers in local government, it’s a time where really your profession has to come first as a lawyer. The integrity that you provide and contribute to the organisation cannot be more important now than any other time. We have seen opportunities for lawyers to provide frank and fearless advice. And now more than ever, the independence of lawyers is crucial,” she said.
When asked if remaining independent in local councils was difficult, particularly in election season, Ms Espinosa responded, “safely and confidently”, that it is not.
“One of the reasons it’s not difficult is because all local councils have and must comply with the code of conduct. Part of that code is the interaction of the elected councilors, the politicians and the staff, which is regulated, and it is not a difficult thing to do,” she said.
“However, members of the public or other organisations might have a sense, or perception, that because you are a member of staff, you are a ‘yes person’, you do what you are asked to do. For a lawyer, that is not the case. You are an officer of the court, first and foremost, and secondly, you’re doing your client no favours if you’re not providing frank and fearless advice.”
Interactions between the legal team and the rest of the local council, therefore, is never seamless and there are a multitude of challenges, Ms Espinosa continued.
“Some of those challenges can be described fairly simply if you think about all the different things that councils do. Some business units engage and interact with lawyers all the time. For example, the construction or the infrastructure part of council, they build roads, they build playgrounds, they landscape parks and are regularly engaging with lawyers in the preparation of contracts and negotiating contracts. And some of these contracts are multimillion-dollar contracts. They know what law means and they know that the law protects their contract,” she said.
“It’s really important, because the council is a custodian of public money and also a custodian of public assets. You have other business units, however, who do not have that regular interaction with lawyers and that is where the challenge is.
“The challenge doesn’t arise because they don’t want to comply, they just don’t know how to. So, that’s where a good in-house legal team will understand that part of your client is like a new client coming in the door for the first time. You need to be a little bit more patient and not assume the knowledge of the process.”
To listen to the full conversation with Elizabeth Espinosa, click below: