What’s it all about?
The public sector is one of the most diverse areas any prospective lawyer could hope to work in. Firms operating in this arena are involved in some of the most important projects in the UK, from central government issues to major transport and infrastructure projects. Delivered successfully they can bring significant social, economic and environmental benefits. As such, by their nature most are complex and many stakeholders are involved. Prime examples include the 2012 London Olympics and Crossrail – two projects that will leave a legacy for the capital. Public sector specialists typically act for local authorities and non-departmental public bodies such as the Highways Agency and the Environment Agency. The work is wide-ranging has recently centred on the planning, procurement and implementation of major infrastructure and regeneration projects.
In a nutshell, lawyers advising clients in the public sector play a key role in some of the most exciting and long-lasting projects in the UK – projects that affect the social and economic wellbeing of the country.
The working culture
Although this area does not follow the same transactional nature as others the pace within the department varies. Solicitors in public sector departments are usually involved in at least one major project which can involve anything from acting for objectors to a hybrid bill to helping gain the necessary consents for a new railway under the regime administered by the newly created Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC). The nature of these projects means there are times when you are very busy – for example, when there is a select committee hearing in the House of Commons or when a public inquiry is being held.
And aside from working on big projects there are always smaller but equally important files to keep you busy.
The diverse nature of the work means many skills are required. Most major infrastructure and regeneration projects are delivered by a variety of stakeholders and a lawyer working in this area needs the skills to advise all those involved. Regeneration projects in particular are becoming increasingly important to local authorities. Skills are needed in the areas of judicial review, planning and governance.
Also, in response to recent developments some firms have widened their range of services to offer advice on topics such as workplace parking levies and road-user charging.
Due to the varied and challenging nature of the work it is essential that solicitors practising in this area receive ongoing training and support so they are up-to-speed with all new and proposed developments. Those wishing to practise in this area must therefore realise that learning is an ongoing and constant requirement.
By way of example, Bircham Dyson Bell progressively took over the responsibility for the planning and authorisation of London Gateway Port – the largest new deep-water port development in Europe – in July 2004 and May 2005, acting for promoter P&O and then DP World when it acquired the former. The value of the investment is £1.5bn, making it the second largest inward investment in the UK and potentially creating up to 14,000 jobs by 2025. On an everyday basis the variety of skills and knowledge the project required kept things interesting and even exciting. One moment we needed a grasp of the mechanics of port operation and the land requirements that entails, and the next a fine appreciation of the political and commercial background in communications with the government and more widely.
What other practice areas do public/regulatory lawyers work most closely with?
A lot of work is done with property lawyers as many of the important infrastructure projects we get involved with require their input, particularly at the implementation stage which usually requires the acquisition of considerable amounts of land.
What phrase is a public/regulatory lawyer most likely to use and what does it mean?
A word that is often used is regeneration. The projects public sector specialists work on usually bring considerable benefits to the areas in which they are located and often result in the substantial regeneration of those areas.
Successive administrations have brought forward policies across the transport, energy, utilities and infrastructure sectors, many of which have garnered acres of media coverage. Far-reaching issues such as climate change also have a big effect on the work of public sector lawyers influencing, for example, the debate about securing the UK’s energy supply, the roles of nuclear, conventional and renewable energy sources in the energy mix and the challenges posed by EU directives on the disposal of waste. This latter is a big issue for an island nation where landfill sites are no longer appropriate.
A good example of recent legislation is the Planning Act 2008 which introduced a new approach to gaining the authorisations required for nationally significant infrastructure projects. Overseen by the IPC, this approach is intended to bring greater transparency and engagement to the planning process, with the intention of making it more efficient while maintaining a balance between the interests of the country, promoters and objectors. The past 30 years have seen an unprecedented growth in the importance of public and administrative law. Today, public sector organisations need to be fully conversant with a wide range of measures and developments including the Human Rights Act 1998, freedom of information legislation, the effect of devolution and the impact of EU law.
While most public sector organisations have in-house legal teams they also have to engage with law firms, thereby creating exciting opportunities for solicitors.
Alex Hallatt, solicitor, Bircham Dyson Bell