Always looking out for the next big thing: my life as a projects lawyer

As Theresa May’s Britain gears up for a wave of infrastructure investment, Burges Salmon’s Marcus Walters advises students how to get into this fast-moving area

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It’s a good time to be working on energy and infrastructure projects. Theresa May’s government seems committed to financing some major new initiatives — and whether that’s by borrowing money to fund direct investment or through public-private partnerships, it looks likely that things are going to happen.

In particular there’s energy, where my firm has been, and is, involved in advising on a number of high profile projects including in the nuclear and renewables sectors, and transport, with various ambitious rail and highways plans. Much of this will tie in with the government’s devolution strategy, the aim of which is to give local authorities more autonomy about how they spend money. The press has seized onto the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ but there are similar devolution plans across the country including in the South West.

For students currently looking to enter the legal profession, some of these projects should be well underway by the time they start their training contracts, with further projects in the pipeline.

That said, it can be difficult to plan exactly what area you want to specialise in as a student. Beyond joining the right firm, and then identifying and approaching the relevant teams within which you would like to qualify, trainees and newly qualified lawyers to a certain extent have to follow demand. Certainly I had no grand strategy and in all honesty rather luckily fell into doing the sort of infrastructure and local government work that I now specialise in.

As a chemistry PhD graduate who was past my mid-20s I think I saw law as a way to grow up. And having ruled out patents — which would have been the obvious choice with my science background — on account of wanting to do something completely different, I secured a training contract with Burges Salmon and found myself getting involved in projects in the emergency services, defence and education sectors. There was a place for me in the department, and I really enjoyed the combination of legal work and project management that you do as a lawyer in this area. You’re a linchpin, holding all the different parts together.

At the same time, the life of a projects lawyer involves a fair bit of upheaval, as the key areas for investment change as a result of market forces or changes to government policies. So you find yourself always looking for the next thing and trying to build a practice with some breadth. That way you don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Sometimes an area can get wiped out overnight because of a government decision (for example, to remove a subsidy on which a sector is dependent). If your specialism is too narrow, you run risks. The other side of the coin is that if you can spot a growth area, and get in there early, your career can rise rapidly with it.

This is why it’s so important for projects lawyers to stay on top of politics and policy. I spend quite a lot of my time thinking about the reasons certain decisions are being made and what these policies are trying to achieve — and by extension considering what that means for my clients. While policy considerations are sometimes key, you always need to keep in mind the commercial considerations of the people you’re representing.

At the moment, the news agenda is dominated by Brexit, but the impact of leaving the EU on the work that we do as projects lawyers is probably overplayed. Naturally it’s big from a financial services perspective, but services like energy and transport will still need to be delivered irrespective of the political climate — and that applies not just in the UK but also internationally in places like the Middle East, the Far East and mainland Europe where Burges Salmon is also currently advising on large-scale projects.

Indeed, the one major area of uncertainty, our procurement laws (which in a large part are EU-regulation derived), could actually be changed down the line to better facilitate the sort of work we do. Perhaps more than ever in my career to date, there are a lot of interesting things on the horizon.

Marcus Walters is a senior associate at Burges Salmon. He will be speaking on Wednesday evening at Legal Cheek’s latest event, How to become a projects lawyer, at Burges Salmon in Bristol.