From connected and autonomous vehicles to internet-synced highway and maintenance gizmos, the world is changing — and needs lawyers who understand it, says Burges Salmon’s Will Gard ahead of Commercial Awareness Question Time in Bristol next week
If Burges Salmon’s head of infrastructure Will Gard were in the shoes of today’s students he would be thinking about how fast-moving developments in tech are set to change the world — and then be looking to position himself accordingly.
“It’s an interesting time and for me the biggest unknown is technology. There are some major changes taking place, which is a challenge for senior people in my field of infrastructure as we attempt to plan for the future. Who knows what the world will look like in three years let alone ten? Of course, for young people entering the legal profession, this is a great opportunity,” he tells Legal Cheek Careers.
Gard — who has particular expertise in the design, construction and operation of energy, water, utilities, transport and other infrastructure projects — highlights some areas to watch. They include self-driving cars, which his firm is particularly strong on, with a specialist team advising on ground-breaking autonomous vehicle projects such as Venturer, Flourish and Capri and recently working with AXA to produce a report on the legal and insurance implications of the sector.
Another hot area is the new Internet of Things tech that is beginning to be applied to infrastructure; for example, in signalling and the maintenance of bridges. And then there’s the possibility of using new fintech models to supplement traditional financing methods for projects. “All these things will bring a great deal of legal challenges,” he notes.
Burges Salmon’s projects team will be hosting Legal Cheek’s latest student event, ‘Infrastructure: the next growth area for lawyers’ in Bristol next week. Apply to attend
More immediately, Gard and his colleagues are preparing for the coming shift away from diesel and petrol to electric cars, and the associated increase in demand for grid power. Nuclear will likely form a central part of that alongside increasingly efficient offshore renewable energy projects (one of Gard’s specialist areas). Other priority project areas buzzing around infrastructure lawyers’ radars are HS2 and HS3, the third runway at Heathrow and enhanced broadband and new 5G coverage.
To make these big things happen requires the successful coordination of a lot of stakeholders. At the top, government — and politics — plays a major part. Brexit, says Gard, has “created a lot of uncertainty and led to a bit of a hiatus” on key national projects, but at the same time has “to a certain extent put the importance of improving our infrastructure higher up the agenda and made us think more about the foreign investment that we will need to deliver major projects”. He has been encouraged by the National Infrastructure Commission’s publication of a ‘Post-election priority actions for Government’ list of a ‘top 12’ key infrastructure aims. “It’s encouraging that there is cross-party support for most of these things,” he says.
Perhaps a bigger concern is where the money comes from. “As ever it will be a mix of public and private funding, and it’s obviously important that as a country we position ourselves to attract the right sort of investment,” Gard continues. And this is before you even get onto the delivery phase, which can see lawyers perform any number of roles, with large projects cutting across practice areas including corporate, banking & finance, employment and litigation.
It’s this variety that first drew Gard to the job. He had watched lawyers from the other side of projects as a civil engineer, a role which he spent the first seven years of his professional life in. Opting to do a law conversion at the age of 30 was a risk that paid off, with Gard’s sector experience helping him secure a training contract with another South West firm where he swiftly moved up the ranks. He joined Burges Salmon as a partner in 2003. He recalls:
I was a late career developer in terms of knowing what I wanted to do. I suppose at first I just wanted to get outside and do stuff, and then like many civil engineers I felt drawn to the management and business side but in my case found the legal side of things particularly attractive.
In addition to keeping a close eye on technological developments, Gard’s other big piece of advice to students is to consider “finding your sector first and then combining it with the law”. Most important of all, though, is to “follow your passion”.
Burges Salmon’s infrastructure team will be hosting Legal Cheek’s latest event, ‘Infrastructure: the next growth area for lawyers — with Burges Salmon’ in Bristol on the evening of Thursday 12 October. Apply to attend.
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