Who’s Who Legal interviews Tina Patel, commercial lawyer for the Staffordshire and West Midlands Police Joint Legal Services. She discusses the requirements of her role and relationship between in-house and private experts.
Name: Tina Patel
Position: Commercial Lawyer
Department: Staffordshire and West Midlands Police Joint Legal Services
Number of employees: West Midlands Police – 12, 000 employees
The UK public sector has been hard hit by the recession, with the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government announcing the biggest cuts in state spending since World War II at the start of its term in 2010. With a budget deficit of around 10 per cent of GDP, cuts have been made to public sector jobs and budgets affecting the NHS, local government, the police force and the civil service, to name a few.
The police are facing the challenge of providing the same level of service with fewer staff and resources to hand. Despite the tests this presents, it has also provided the opportunity to look more closely at policing and evaluate how it might be done differently, and indeed, better.
The police authorities of Staffordshire and West Midlands are pioneers in this evaluative process and in December 2011 legal staff for both police forces began operating under a new joint legal service.
The joint legal service benefits from the pooling of resources – finances, specialist expertise and support services – and increased internal capacity reducing the need for external support.
One of the tasks of the new joint legal service has been West Midlands Police’s Business Partnering for Police Programme (BPP Programme). This project is another ‘first’ for the police, which aims to transform the way in which the police operates and delivers its service to the public by contracting with private sector companies for various services.
Who’s Who Legal spoke to Tina Patel, the lead in-house lawyer working on this procurement to find out more about her role within the joint legal service department. Patel made the move in-house in April 2011, her primary reasons being the opportunity to be more involved in decision making, provide quality advice and see the product of this advice. Patel says that in private practice you see only a snapshot of a case, and walk in and out, whereas an in-house lawyer is involved from start to finish.
Tell us about your role
I am the lead commercial lawyer for procurement, contracts and other general commercial matters. I also, on occasion, assist in real estate matters. The other commercial lawyer within the department leads on real estate matters. Any employee within the force (West Midlands Police has 12,000 employees and Staffordshire has 4,000 employees) has access to our department. I then provide advice which relates to commercial matters.
Describe a typical day
No two days are ever the same – which is the beauty of this role. We try to carry out as much legal work in-house as possible and I often carry out much of the legal work myself from start to completion. I am involved in the usual duties of a lawyer – advising, drafting and negotiating – but most importantly I am involved from an early stage, which allows me to provide advice which shapes the decision-making process and can reduce risk from the onset. I see myself as an ‘involved’ legal adviser as opposed to being a ‘reactive’ legal adviser. I can be involved in major projects advising the command team to a single commercial partnership agreement advising an officer within a local police station.
How big is the legal department?
There are 20 employees in the department including six lawyers and one barrister. The remainder includes legal executives, support staff and investigators.
How much work is done in-house?
Within procurement and commercial, around 90 per cent.
When do you enlist the advice of external lawyers?
We use external lawyers and counsel in complex procurements such as the BPP Programme or if there is a particularly challenging aspect to a matter. Sometimes, I do not have the capacity to complete certain work within the deadlines given and must refer the work to external lawyers.
What skills and qualities do you require in a public procurement lawyer?
We require procurement lawyers to be technically brilliant but to also relate advice back which is clear and definitive.
What special projects have your team been working on recently and which law firms did you use?
I am currently the lead in-house lawyer for the BPP Programme. The procurement is using the competitive dialogue procedure, owing to the complexity of the contracts and the high value of the procurement, rangingbetween £300 million to £3.5 billion. I am informed that this is the largest procurement currently running.
It involves a number of stakeholders and the process is time-consuming and challenging. However, it is a procurement which aims to transform the way in which policing is carried out and is the first of its kind, therefore it is hugely interesting and a real once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Simultaneously, we have also been involved in the procurement of the business consultants and legal consultants to advise on the programme. Trowers & Hamlins advised initially and on a temporary basis until Pinsent Masons were appointed as the official legal consultants.
The pre-qualification questionnaire stage has just been completed.
Do you tend to work with the same firms?
Yes – we have the police’s national legal services framework at our disposal which we will start using and also a panel of local firms which are drawn through an evaluation process. The national legal services framework was set up by the Metropolitan Police Service and is a panel of law firms selected through a tender process. The law firms offer their services at a competitive rate available to all 43 forces in England and Wales.
What measures do you use to control or monitor fees?
We control fees by doing most of our work in-house where possible. When referring work to external lawyers, we ensure that they receive clear instructions, but the biggest advantage an organisation can have is its in-house lawyer, who acts as an intelligent client. The department monitors fee rates and fee arrangements on a regular basis. If an in-house lawyer has private sector experience, they will know instantly if fees are reasonable.
What do you consider to be the biggest challenge in public procurement law?
The biggest challenge is drafting the procurement documents – the invitation to tender and the evaluation criteria – in such a robust way so that the client procures exactly what the client wants. Often the EU procurement process has the potential of dictating the outcome rather than the outcome being dictated by the needs and requirements.
How have you been affected by the cutbacks in public spending?
We have been hugely affected. The joint legal services department was created to better utilise resources and finances between Staffordshire and West Midlands police forces.
Furthermore, procurement and commercial agreements must be much more cost efficient which means certain clauses within contracts must be carefully drafted to achieve flexibility.