One project, four regions: How Womble Bond Dickinson works collaboratively to tackle complex cases
With 1,000 lawyers based across 19 cities in the US and eight cities in the UK, Womble Bond Dickinson (WBD) is an all-service commercial law firm that uses its unique combination of regional heritage, local knowledge and transatlantic reach to great effect for its clients. The firm’s regional strength and its collaborative approach across these different regions enables WBD’s lawyers to tackle complex cases and advise government organisations, wealthy individuals and many of the largest businesses in the country. Curious to delve deeper into how this approach works, we spoke to Tom Ewings, an Associate in the Planning and Infrastructure team at Womble Bond Dickinson. By pinpointing a recent project that Tom and his team had worked on, we were able to unpack the practicalities of multi-office teamwork and better understand how a trainee solicitor would fit into this dynamic…
Talk me through a recent project that the Planning and Infrastructure team has worked on, where trainees and fee earners have worked collaboratively across different regions…
A project that really stands out is the ongoing 'MetroWest' project for North Somerset Council. This is an application to the government Planning Inspectorate for a 'Development Consent Order' (DCO) to reinstate the railway between Bristol and Portishead.
Passenger services have not run on the railway since the 1960s when the Beeching Cuts saw the closure of many railway branch lines. While the railway corridor remains, towards the Portishead end of the line there is little left of the track and supporting infrastructure. The DCO aims to deliver a modern rail service, including new stations at Portishead and Pill.
The DCO application for MetroWest has been made under a bespoke planning regime for the largest / most significant projects, known as 'Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects'.
The WBD Planning and Infrastructure team is one of only a handful of legal teams across the country with the expertise to advise on such applications, from conception, preparation of an application, drafting an Order, through Examination (involving public hearings on the issues arising from the application) to the eventual authorising of the scheme by the Secretary of State.
MetroWest is a challenging project owing to its scale and complexity. The WBD team has been instructed by North Somerset Council on the project since 2015 so there is a huge amount of background for a trainee to get to grips with. Furthermore, the legal issues arising from the application are numerous and complex – these include the environmental effects and proposed mitigation (from great crested newts, protection of rare plant species, through to flooding) and wider transport impacts such as the legal mechanism to deliver redesigned roads and footpaths.
Which Womble Bond Dickinson offices were involved in this piece of work, and what role did each office play in bringing this project together?
Four of our eight UK offices collaborated on this project. The partner leading on the MetroWest application, Richard Guyatt, is based in the Bristol office, and his role includes management of the application submission and subsequent examination before the Planning Inspectorate, including advocacy during hearings. Richard is also supported by a Bristol-based paralegal, a trainee, solicitors and associates who head up various aspects of the application legal issues.
In the Leeds office we have a solicitor, Frances Everett, assisting with a wide range of tasks, including management of the examination, deadline submissions, and preparation of statutory notices for local and national publication.
Down in the London office, the project requires partner level input from the Construction and Engineering team on the commercial contracts between the client and third parties, including advising on contractor liabilities, indemnities and insurance.
Further south, in our Plymouth office, we have a legal director, Sarah Holmes, leading on the environmental impact assessment and Habitats Regulations Assessment, including advising on the related scheme mitigation.
The Planning and Infrastructure team works across regions with very little geographical constraint to how work is distributed. There are team members in Bristol, Leeds, Plymouth and Newcastle with extensive experience of DCOs.
Whilst MetroWest is a local instruction for the Bristol-based team members, even before the onset of Covid-19 restrictions the team worked 'virtually'. The simple need to resource the project with a mix of lawyer grades and specialisms led to the multi-office approach.
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How did Womble Bond Dickinson’s structure and regional approach facilitate the successful completion of this project?
The fact that WBD's Planning and Infrastructure team sits within a closely-knit Real Estate sector team means the wider legal input needed for MetroWest on property negotiation matters has always been close at hand.
The multi-office approach also means colleagues from other non-Real Estate disciplines – including corporate and commercial law specialists in the London office – can be brought seamlessly into the project through existing working practices.
The focus is on getting input from colleagues with the right legal expertise without geographical location being a barrier. In the case of MetroWest, WBD's ability to demonstrate the diversity of its expertise across the offices is considered by the client to be a considerable asset, notwithstanding the fact the client also benefits from a Bristol-based team with invaluable local knowledge of the scheme's setting and the local challenges.
What challenges did this multi-region approach present to you and the team? How did you overcome them?
Pre-Covid-19 we were conscious that lots of meetings with the client attending the Bristol office would mean colleagues in Leeds potentially feeling on the periphery of the project team, even though in most cases they joined meetings via Teams or Skype.
Therefore, we arranged for them to attend the Bristol office for key meetings, and to get to know the client. The firm is passionate about reducing its carbon footprint and therefore these trips between offices were planned well in advance so team members could arrange multiple other meetings on the same day with other project teams/clients, minimising the need for additional travel.
We also acknowledge the importance of the team being together in one place (something we have tried to replicate as best we can under Covid-19 restrictions) to allow issues to be discussed and ideas bounced around.
A multi-office approach tends to mean these organic discussions only take place within each office. Therefore, the MetroWest team has diarised twice-weekly morning catch-up calls via Teams, with a very loose agenda allowing people to seek advice from colleagues on any issues they are dealing with at the time.
Did social distancing and remote working have an impact on this piece of work? If so, how?
Hearings with the Planning Inspectorate – the MetroWest application involves a six-month 'Examination' by the Planning Inspectorate, to ask questions to the applicant and other interested parties before making their decision on whether the DCO should be granted – have been severely impacted by Covid-19.
The Examination would normally be conducted in a public building (and open to the public to attend) but Covid-19 has led to the whole process being run online via 'virtual hearings'. This has been a huge challenge for the WBD team which is responsible for leading the Examination on behalf of the client – despite the vast experience of the team, everyone has had to learn a completely new process and set of rules.
Site notices would also usually be physically checked by one of the lawyers in the team prior to being issued to the client for putting up along the route of the proposed railway. During lockdown, however, staff were not permitted in the office and so we had to work closely with the skeleton business support team who were in the office each day, via emails and telephone calls, to prepare the notices.
How common is it for the Planning and Infrastructure team to work collaboratively on a project across different regions?
The team's expertise in the area of DCOs means at any given time there are multiple instructions on this type of application, and it would be impractical for this work not to be spread across the offices owing to the sheer scale of the projects and legal matters to advise on.
Throughout 2020 (and continuing into 2021) the team has been instructed on numerous DCO applications (at various stages pre- and post-application) being led from both the Bristol and Newcastle offices, with additional input from colleagues in Plymouth and Leeds. This work type almost always requires input from non-planning disciplines, primarily property transaction lawyers but also corporate and commercial specialists and construction and engineering lawyers.
The planning team also advises clients across the country on a range of planning matters, from compulsory purchase orders to development agreements. In some cases, there is a geographical focus on a particular office, where perhaps WBD has a major and long-standing local client, though work is always distributed so as to ensure fee earners and trainees across the team, and in all offices, are kept busy whilst ensuring clients have the appropriate expertise available to them.
It should also be noted that where the Planning and Infrastructure team does not have a presence in a local office, members of the team work closely with those offices to ensure planning expertise is easily on hand. For example, the Bristol team regularly take instructions on planning matters stemming from property transactions via the Developers and Investors team in Southampton.
What do you enjoy most about this way of working?
It provides an opportunity to share ideas with a greater number of colleagues.
Offices are allowed to develop specialisms within their Planning and Infrastructure sub-teams and grow their local client reputations, but this is never to the detriment of colleagues in other offices who are kept regularly updated on work across the country and have opportunities to become involved. This is aided by regular whole-team calls where everyone is invited to discuss the work they have on and if any resourcing from other offices is needed.
The Planning and Infrastructure team also runs regular lunchtime workshops on work areas such as DCOs and on Town and Country Planning matters. This is a great platform to bring colleagues together from across offices to share experiences, discuss recent legal and policy developments, and pose questions arising from recent work. These sessions really instil a sense of collaboration and togetherness between Planning and Infrastructure colleagues across the offices.
How does this approach enable the firm to flourish overall?
This approach enables the Planning and Infrastructure team to tap into local markets and develop strong regional client bases, while also being able to resource work using colleagues from across the country, if necessary, and share experiences from across the country to inform local matters.
The lack of geographical restriction also means those offices with minimal presence from the Planning and Infrastructure team are not disadvantaged when it comes to internal planning support.
What role would a trainee play in a project of this nature?
Our trainee Chloe played a crucial role in the preparation of the MetroWest application. Her contribution ranged from project management, including arranging and attending client meetings, to research tasks, and drafting of documents to be submitted with the application. Chloe also led on the initial preparation and proofreading of the notices to interested parties and statutory bodies once the application was submitted to the Planning Inspectorate.
On projects such as MetroWest where there is a large amount of legal work to be undertaken across a breadth of issues, this gives the most capable of trainees an opportunity to be involved in the project for the full six-month seat and demonstrate their abilities and the depth of understanding they can achieve during that time.
What responsibilities would a trainee have and how would this enable them to develop their skills as a solicitor?
The DCO regime is very exacting, and our trainee Chloe was involved in the submission of the application which is heavily regulated. If documents are not submitted in the appropriate manner, or if any information is missing, the Planning Inspectorate will refuse to accept the application for consideration. This would have had a significant impact on the client both in terms of immediate cost and impact on the scheme delivery programme.
Chloe was a key team member for drafting and proofreading application documents, and compiling the supporting information requested by the Planning Inspectorate. This experience is invaluable when considering the steps necessary to become a qualified solicitor, in terms of learning the required attention to detail, drafting and research skills, and responsibility to the client.
How would a trainee work alongside other trainees and fee earners from the different WBD offices involved?
Our trainee Chloe is based in the Bristol office and, on MetroWest, she was supervised by an Associate also based in the Bristol office. However, the multi-office approach meant Chloe regularly worked alongside colleagues from Leeds and Plymouth. For example, assisting them with discrete research tasks and reporting to them directly, attending virtual meetings and arranging for actions to be diarised, and drafting client emails.
The Planning and Infrastructure trainees attend the general trainee forums where work matters are discussed, across teams and offices. In addition, the Planning and Infrastructure trainee would be expected to work alongside the trainees in other teams involved in the project, such as the property transactions team.
While the team trainee will be supervised by a lawyer in their 'home' office, they are not bound to supporting their supervisor alone. Trainees are encouraged to offer their assistance to the entire team so they get the greatest breadth of experience, and this includes cross-office working and reporting directly to the relevant lawyers on the matter.
To find out more about Womble Bond Dickinson and the firm’s vacation scheme and training contract opportunities, check out their graduate careers website now.
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