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What it’s like to be a projects lawyer working to create huge new things

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By The Careers Team on

Legal Cheek Careers meets the award-winning Pinsent Masons pair who are helping to build a new £588m NHS hospital

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Carly Caton and Lynne Davy will never forget the Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust project — which saw the young duo take the lead in the creation of a new £588m NHS hospital in the West Midlands.

Not only was this the first ever healthcare project delivered under the government’s new public private ‘PF2’ finance initiative, but it was Caton’s first time in charge of a deal on this scale, and Davy’s debut working independently of a partner.

Happily, it all went swimmingly, with the 670-bed Midland Metropolitan Hospital set to open in 2018 under a partnership between the NHS and construction giant Carillion. What’s more, the faith Pinsent Masons placed in Caton and Davy (pictured below, left and right) has been rewarded with an award — the firm won Energy & Infrastructure Team of the Year at the Legal Business awards last month in recognition of its work on Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust.


Legal Cheek Careers caught up with two of Pinsent Masons‘ rising stars to hear about an incredible few months, while tapping them up for as much careers advice as possible on behalf of wannabe lawyers seeking to follow in their footsteps.

Legal Cheek Careers: The Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust project sounds complex, but it boils down to the creation of a new hospital, right?

Carly Caton: Yes. Essentially we are building a new hospital because the old hospitals in the area are becoming run down. The NHS doesn’t have the money, so it was decided to do it by a public-private partnership whereby Carillion, the construction company, builds and operates the hospital, and the NHS pays them back over a 30-year period.

Lynne Davy: Public-private partnerships introduce a different level of complexity into the structuring of projects. Everything becomes more complicated and less linear. In particular, the addition of banks into the equation — because money needs to be borrowed — requires you to consider a whole range of further eventualities as lenders seek to protect their income stream over the term of the project.

What is the lawyers’ role in all of this?

Caton: In one respect, it is to cover as many eventualities as we can — which in a project like this is a lot of eventualities. In a broader sense, there is a lot of management coordination as you drive things forward while herding the various different parties. My specialism is healthcare projects, so I am always looking to bring my sector knowledge into play for the benefit of clients.

Davy: On the technical side, you are following a fairly well-trodden path, with public-private projects like this having been around for some time now. Having said that, the PF2 structure we used for the Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust project was new, with various untried elements. For example, the government took an equity stake in the project for the first time. Being a construction lawyer, I work across projects in all sorts of different sectors, usually alongside someone like Carly with a particular sector expertise.

How did you get into projects law?

Caton: I fell into it. Projects was actually my first seat as a trainee at Pinsent Masons. I had no idea what it was before I started, to be honest, but I really enjoyed it and went on to qualify into this area. At first I was very generalised — doing everything from building schools, roads, airports and prisons to defence projects. But gradually, as is the norm as you advance your career, I began to specialise — in my case in healthcare.

Davy: My experience has been a bit more idiosyncratic. Originally I was put off law because my LLB was so dry. So I went to work in financial services, before going to work for an oil company in Yemen. There, I realised that I wanted to work in energy and construction — as a lawyer after all — so I came back to the UK, did the LPC, worked in the legal department of a construction company for a year and then joined Pinsent Masons as a trainee.

With the sort of things you work on taking place all over the country, and internationally, is there an optimum place to be based?

Caton: No. The team on Sandwell was based all around the country, with Lynne and I in London, and the lead associate, Gemma Wilson, in Leeds. Solicitors at our offices in Birmingham and Scotland also played a key role. That’s very much the way we work as a firm — so if I said, for instance, that I was moving to Manchester tomorrow it wouldn’t be a problem. All our offices have equal status and it’s very much about bringing in the best specialist from wherever they happen to be.

Davy: It’s also worth noting that a fair bit of our work is international, with the UK public-private finance model often being replicated abroad, and lawyers like us consulted for our expertise in these projects. For example, Carly and I are currently working on a women and children’s hospital in Abuja in Nigeria, having closed at the back end of last year a hospital project in Dubai and also advised on the expansion of Zagreb airport.

What’s the best part of your job?

Caton: The feeling you get upon closure of a project is quite something. Certainly that was the case with Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust, which is the first massive project I have ever closed by myself. It was daunting at times, so to see it actually happen was really rewarding — and meant that I could catch up with all the Christmas shopping I hadn’t done yet. Later, I took everyone on the team for a very nice afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason. Working in the health sector also means that the contracts I am involved with are actually making a difference to patients — they are putting in place better buildings or better services for the provision of healthcare. I like that element of it.

Davy: I’d echo Carly on that. The progressive increase in the amount of responsibility that you are given means that completing a new project like Sandwell gives a great feeling of satisfaction when you see everything come together. Personally I enjoy the tangible nature of the work we do. By this I mean that, although what we are doing may be perceived to some as just being a load of paperwork, as projects lawyers we are part of a team contributing to creating something physical and valuable and important, be it a hospital, a power station, a road, etc.

Do you have any pieces of advice for wannabe lawyers?

Caton: Getting work experience and researching the sort of firm you want to work for. There is such a huge variety of the sorts of things you can do as a lawyer that one job might suit you whilst another would not. Generally choosing commercial options at university and law college means you don’t close any doors and the skills you learn are always useful no matter what area you qualify in to. Have a genuine interest and be sure it is what you really want to do (work experience helps you figure this out — for example I thought I wanted to do family law but having spent 2 weeks with a family lawyer at a high street firm in Guildford I soon realised that I didn’t!).

Davy: Work hard and have interesting things to talk about with future employers. Be prepared to self-advertise but not without some humility.

Pinsent Masons is offering 72 training contracts this year across its offices in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Belfast and the Middle East. The application deadline is 29 July 2016 for England, 30 September 2016 for Scotland and 24 February 2017 for Northern Ireland. Apply here.