Solicitors: the local agenda

As planners get to grips with reform and the move towards localism, lawyers are going to be more in demand to listen and advise, writes Domenic Donatantonio.

Berwin Leighton Paisner partners: the London Bridge-based team remains top-rated law firm
Berwin Leighton Paisner partners: the London Bridge-based team remains top-rated law firm

The Government is attempting to simplify planning. Ironically, with the sector set to embrace a more localist agenda, the legal profession is bracing itself for increased demands for help in navigating the new system.

The Department for Communities and Local Government is pursuing a range of measures to make planning and related consent easier to come by. This spring, decentralisation minister Greg Clark promised that no proposal would spend more than 12 months in the planning machine, as long as any appeal is lodged at a timely point.

So what does this mean for legal practitioners and clients? At Berwin Leighton Paisner, which remains the number one rated planning solicitors firm in the survey for the 13th year running, partner Tim Hellier says a significant increase in judicial proceedings has implications for specialist planning lawyers.

"On one hand, there is a greater need to ensure decision-making is robust," says Hellier. "That requires legal input in the formulation of application material, follows through into committee reports, and kicks in again at the planning obligations and conditions stage. On the other, the initiating or defending of proceedings has seen much growth."

Stephen Ashworth, a consultant at law firm SNR Denton, adds: "Lawyers must be good listeners: a big part of the process of examining the next round of plans will be about listening to the other side's arguments and responding rather than challenging."

That means law firms' clients are looking for a new range of skills. Solicitors will have to become more politically aware at both national and local level, and as capable of dealing with a parish hall crowd as they are with handling boardroom meetings.

Local authority clients are becoming more demanding. While price and reputation are still important, the key consideration when appointing a hired legal hand is often the "ability to specialise in those areas of law where we need particular help", according to Chris Pipe, planning services manager at Hartlepool Borough Council.

Developers are looking for solicitors who are willing to immerse themselves in a project. "Key considerations include the level of experience and track record of the partners and associates put forward to work on the instruction," says Jeremy Castle, planning director at developer Treasury Holdings.

"Some solicitors undermine themselves by presenting people at interviews who don't end up working on the project. It is vital for clients to meet the people they will actually be working with, rather than partners who are focused on winning instructions and generating business."

So how do law firms and individual planning solicitors match up to client demands? There are plenty of recognised experts, as the tables on these pages show, but what do they bring to the table?

Claire Dutch, a partner at City law firm Hogan Lovells, says clear, concise and cost-effective advice is top of the list. "Solicitors who really understand their client's industry and the commercial considerations relevant to their business are favoured," she argues. "Clients expect solicitors to give authoritative advice not only on the law but also on strategy and tactics. They also want solicitors who are accessible, approachable and fit in as part of the team."

Richard Buxton, partner at the Cambridge-based environmental and public law practice that bears his name, specialises in challenges to planning decisions. He says clients are looking for "reputation, experience and 'chemistry' with their problem".

Most lawyers feel that the Government's attempts to reduce their role in planning matters will backfire, at least initially. In the longer term, many accept that fee rates will be driven down. In the immediate future, though, they predict an upsurge in work as the sector gets to grips with the current reforms.

"The Government is certainly seeking to dilute the role of lawyers in a changing planning system," says Garth Hanlon, a director in the planning team at real estate consultancy Savills. "However, the very nature of planning means there will always be an important role for sound professional advice on complex and emotive planning issues."

Dutch agrees. "Many of us will pick up work in helping clients navigate the new system with its new neighbourhood dimension," she says.

But Ashworth thinks localism will put a squeeze on lawyers because neighbourhood plans are unlikely to require much legal input.

"Over the longer term there should be less recourse to the courts and adversarial inquiries," he predicts. "The emphasis will rightly be on involvement, consultation, examination and mediation. Much of that work will be done without lawyers."

In these straitened times, lawyers' fees are under scrutiny. Clients are increasingly keen on fixed fees, sometimes with incentives. "Clients expect at least a degree of capping and if possible conditional fees, in full or in part," says Buxton.

Solicitors, on the other hand, prefer regular hourly rates. Hartlepool Council insists on fixed prices for particular cases. "In this time of austerity, every penny counts," says Pipe. "A fixed price allows our planning services team to plan budgets ahead."

Dutch accepts that solicitors have to be pragmatic in their billing. "We are working in a market where we need to be competitive on fees. Clients also need certainty on legal costs. We are seeing a movement away from hourly rates and more capped, fixed and success fees being agreed with clients."

Ashworth recognises that legal input in planning has become too expensive. "Hourly rates is an easy option for everyone, but not one that can easily survive," he says. "Fixed costs, retainers, secondments, value charging and bonuses should all become more common. Lawyers' profit expectations will have to change radically to accommodate this.

"The days of a lawyer sitting and opining in a smoke-filled room, and then a team scurrying away to deliver as ordered, have long gone. Lawyers of all types must be accessible and participative members of a group promoting change."

The top five planning solicitors
Graphic: Top-rated solicitors 2011
Graphic: Top-rated planning law firms
More from The Guide to Planning Lawyers 2011-12

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