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What infrastructure lawyers do and why this area is going to be big for millennials

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By The Careers Team on

From renewable energy to high speed rail, hyperloop technology and driverless cars — a coming wave of projects will require lots of legal expertise

One of the UK’s leading law firms for infrastructure has given a detailed insight into what it’s like to work in a practice area that is set to grow in importance over the years ahead.

Four of Burges Salmon’s team — projects partner Keith Beattie, construction & engineering senior associate Catherine Gilbert, planning solicitor David Browne and business development manager Matt Evans — shared their views on lawyers’ role in the coming wave of major projects planned by the National Infrastructure Commission at a recent Legal Cheek Live commercial awareness session.

Noting the “chronic lack of investment over many years… indeed since Victorian times”, Keith Beattie suggested that there is a need to finance another “golden age” of infrastructure in order to “deliver the economic growth that we need”.

He continued: “The way that we live has changed and the way we use infrastructure has changed”, highlighting transport, energy and communications as key areas for improvement — specifically high speed rail, autonomous vehicles, renewable energy projects and faster broadband.

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Beattie then set out what lawyers who work in this area do, explaining:

“There’s no such thing I’d argue as infrastructure law. We deal with contract and then we deal with specific regulations — be it planning, be it health and safety, be it finance contracts. If you look at infrastructure as a thing, we are always going to need it, we are always going to need new infrastructure, better infrastructure. So I think in terms of being a broad church of legal practice, even just sitting up here, if the law changes in one area our careers aren’t over. If you specialise in one form of tax driven securitisation, and there is a change in tax law, then that’s gone — you then move onto the next one of course. In terms of the breadth of the sector and the breadth of legal specialisms, I think it’s probably as insulated as any area.”

What infrastructure lawyers do

What infrastructure lawyers do — Burges Salmon partner Keith Beattie explains at a recent #LegalCheekLive

Posted by Legal Cheek on Friday, November 10, 2017

In an area at the mercy of politics and public policy, with so many different stakeholders — from engineering and construction companies to financiers and of course government — commercial awareness is at a premium.

Beattie’s colleague, Catherine Gilbert, highlighted the importance of “understanding the challenges affecting your clients and the pace of change”. She explained:

“When we talk to our clients they really are interested in two very, very simple things. Do we understand their business and what they are trying to achieve? And are we nice and decent people that they want to work with. It’s up to you how you deal with the second part of that. But the first part — they don’t care which team we are in at Burges Salmon, they don’t care how we are split up and how we badge ourselves.

“So it’s absolutely crucial for us to be able to advise our clients and to really really be able to understand the challenges they are facing in their industry and that we are able to take a more holistic approach to their sectors, and have a much deeper understanding as a result of that as to what they actually want from us.”

Looking ahead another decade, she predicted that infrastructure lawyers of the future would be operating in “a completely different landscape advising on completely different challenges” — and just like her and her colleagues they would have to work hard to stay on top of the changes.

Lawyers don’t just need to be good at law

Lawyers don’t just need to be good at law – they need to understand their clients’ businesses and be nice people, explains Burges Salmon senior associate Catherine Gilbert at #LegalCheekLive

Posted by Legal Cheek on Tuesday, November 14, 2017

As the youngest member of the panel, David Browne — who only completed his training contract in 2015 — was particularly mindful of these new challenges. He gave the example of driverless cars requiring a smaller amount of road surface than current vehicles, telling the audience: “If you consider the amount of the UK that is covered at the moment in very large highways, if you shrink those you will get loads of parcels of land appearing around country which are going to go back to the owners of the subsoil. So there will be work coming out of new technologies even if on the face of it that work doesn’t immediately seem related to infrastructure.”

Browne also gave students an insight into his own career journey, explaining how he got into this area: “A long time ago when I was applying for training contacts, I thought everybody I speak to who’s done the job for a while says you can’t work out in advance what you are going to want to do. So I thought I’m not going to try and do that, I’ll actually listen to what people are telling me.”

He continued:

“So I just looked at the firms with a broad range of practice areas in terms of the legal specialism — I didn’t really focus on sectors so much, it was just a big range of legal practices. And the fact that [Burges Salmon] had a four month seat system, so you get six four month-long seats, rather than four six month seats, because I didn’t even do a legal degree, I did philosophy as my undergrad, so I thought I really don’t know what I’m signing up for, although I didn’t mention that in the interview. So it was that that led me in. You rotate round the teams for these four month stints. I got to planning and thought this is genuinely really interesting. Also I looked around and thought that I don’t think many other people know it’s really interesting, and so if I apply I think I have got a reasonable shot here. And so it all played out all right in the end.”

From Cambridge Uni to projects and planning law in Bristol

From Cambridge Uni to projects and planning law in Bristol: Burges Salmon junior solicitor David Browne on his career journey so far #LegalCheekLive

Posted by Legal Cheek on Sunday, November 12, 2017

Providing a different perspective was Matt Evans, a senior figure in Burges Salmon’s business development team. He told the audience of 80 students about how the firm wins new business, and, equally as important, maintains relationships with its wide range of existing infrastructure clients. “There’s a real good strong team ethic here, without competition between offices or between departments,” he said. “And that’s how we market ourselves — the best mix of advice, service and value for clients.”

Further reading

How students who embrace technology will become tomorrow’s infrastructure law stars [Legal Cheek Careers]

Burges Salmon's Bristol and London Presentation Evenings: Apply now before Monday's deadline

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