The highest-rated planning law firms and individual solicitors 2020

We profile the most admired law firms, council legal departments and individual solicitors, and reveal widespread growth at the biggest firms

Town Legal: firm celebrates its second year as highest-rated law firm
Town Legal: firm celebrates its second year as highest-rated law firm

This is the 23rd edition of the Planning Law Survey. As in recent years, only those working in roles that could involve them in commissioning or instructing a law firm or barrister were eligible to vote. The voting group for the law firm categories was made up of consultants, developers and infrastructure promoters, as well as public sector lawyers and planners.

Once again, only individuals invited by Planning were eligible to vote. This measure was introduced to ensure that the survey results could not be skewed by disproportionately high levels of responses from single organisations. To the same end, we took steps to ensure that the number of individuals that we invited to vote from individual consultants and law firms was proportionate to the number of chartered town planners, or specialist lawyers, at the firms.

More than 200 respondents completed the survey. Around 44 per cent of respondents are solicitors, 40 per cent are consultants, with the remainder split between developers and local authorities.

Plenty has changed in our annual review of the UK’s top-rated planning law firms, but not the identity of the firm that tops the table.

Town Legal celebrates its second year as our highest-rated law firm. The company has grown its roster of planning solicitors by 50 per cent in the past year, establishing a team of lawyers described by one client as “well respected and widely acknowledged as being experts”. Key appointments include Duncan Field, Louise Samuel and Michael Gallimore, who previously served as the respective heads of planning at Norton Rose Fulbright, Linklaters and Hogan Lovells. Instructions include acting on the restoration of the Parliamentary Estate, advising on plans for One Undershaft, intended to be the City of London’s tallest tower, and representing landowners affected by the High Speed 2 rail link. One consultant praised the firm’s “down-to-earth” approach, adding: “They simplify even the most complex issue.”

The second most highly rated firm in the survey is also the biggest employer of specialist planning lawyers. Pinsent Masons has 88 – more than double the number of any other firm in this year’s survey. There have been other changes at the firm. Richard Griffiths leads its energy, environment and infrastructure team, having taken over from Iain Gilbey, who now oversees global residential work. Instructions include advising on the new Stratford Waterfront cultural quarter in east London and promoting infrastructure projects, including Heathrow Airport’s expansion and the A303 Stonehenge Tunnel. One public sector planner praises the firm’s “high-quality and timely advice”, which a consultant says is always grounded in “the bigger picture elements of planning”.

Eversheds Sutherland maintains its third-place position and is rated by one consultant for its ability to advise on “contentious, multi-faceted development projects”. Instructions include acting for Westferry Developments on plans for 1,500 homes on the Isle of Dogs, securing approval from the communities secretary in January. Eversheds is also advising Mace Developments on plans to develop 1,867 homes and 3,500 square metres of retail and commercial space in Stevenage town centre. One voter commends the firm’s “combined expertise in real estate and planning”, singling out its “approach to delivery of infrastructure on major sites” for particular praise.

Rising from eighth to fourth place in our table of the highest-rated firms (see table, below), Dentons combines “excellent service” with an ability “to ensure clients’ needs are met in an efficient and detailed manner”, according to one public sector planner. The firm’s current cases, if permitted, are due to deliver more than 100,000 new homes. Those cases include acting for Tide Construction on a modular housing tower in Lewisham and advising Peabody on its proposals for the Holloway prison site. One consultant says: “Dentons provides a very reliable 360-degree service. They always look for solutions and work in total collaboration with the client.”

After securing joint sixth in our 2019 survey, Clyde & Co rises one place to claim a spot in this year’s top five best-regarded firms. One consultant praises the firm’s “approachable and personable” service and says its advice goes “well beyond the straight-line thinking of many other solicitors”. Clyde & Co is advising Associated British Ports on its objection to the proposed Lowestoft Third River Crossing and is promoting a 4,000-home urban extension for Corinthian near Canterbury.

Shoosmiths rises a remarkable 18 places to share fifth. In the past 12 months, the firm has appointed three new partners – Karen Howard from DLA Piper, David Mathias from Weightmans and Fraser Mitchell from Shepherd and Wedderburn. Notable cases include acting for the promoter of the 6,000-home Welborne Garden Village in Hampshire, a project that secured outline permission in October last year.

Growing reputations

Blandy & Blandy sat equal with Shoosmiths in last year’s survey. This year it rises from joint 23rd to joint 12th in the ‘highest-rated’ list. The firm represents a mix of clients, including the University of Reading and Reading Borough Council, for whom it has provided advice and negotiated section 106 obligations in relation to the town’s mixed-use Station Hill development.

Firms sharing joint 16th include Howes Percival, which moves up 14 places from joint 30th, and Charles Russell Speechlys, a new entrant in the table. Howes Percival cases include advising Breckland Council in relation to a 4,000-home urban extension and representing CK Properties at the Epping Forest local plan examination. Charles Russell Speechly has clients including the Church Commissioners for England, to whom it is providing advice on urban extensions in Ashford, Hereford and West Sussex.

To see an extended version of the table above, please click here. 

To see an extended version of the table above, please click here.

Staffing changes

Several firms report significant growth in the number of specialist planning lawyers employed (see table, above), including Town Legal and Pinsent Masons, the two firms at the top of the highestrated table. Burges Salmon grew its planning team from 16 to 21 solicitors. Meanwhile, Osborne Clarke saw its number of planning solicitors fall from 12 to nine, a shift the company attributes to changes in the way it identifies full-time members of the planning team. Gowling WLG grew its planning team by four and now has 18 specialist solicitors, including four partners. The firm says it has seen growth in existing specialisms such as logistics, regeneration, housebuilding and infrastructure work. At Womble Bond Dickinson, the number of planning solicitors has fallen from 27 to 21, although the firm remains the joint sixth largest employer in the table. The company says it now has a larger number of trainees, paralegals and a solicitor apprentice, and points out that service delivery is “no longer all about qualified solicitors”.

Sector growth and mobility

Our separate survey of staff numbers at major and medium-sized planning law practices (see table, above) suggests that the sector continues to grow. Among the 25 largest teams with ten or more qualified solicitors, 13 report an increase in qualified solicitor numbers since last year’s survey, six have the same number and six record a drop.

As of the end of February, the 63 firms providing information were fielding 720 qualified solicitors, including 226 partners. The overall figure rises to more than 900 once trainee solicitors, town planners and other qualified staff such as paralegals and legal executives are factored in. In response to a new survey question, 28 firms identified a total of 62 “partnerequivalents”, comprising senior staff undertaking work requiring partner-level expertise and experience even though not formally partners in the practice. These individuals include legal directors, consultants, in-house counsel and senior or principal associates.

Our request for information on staff moves and promotions at senior levels revealed signs of a healthy degree of mobility within the planning law sector. Respondents identified 15 lawyers who have upped sticks to take on new partner positions over the past 12 months, including three apiece at Shoosmiths and fast-growing Town Legal, and eight in-house promotions to partner status (see tables, right). Further down the scale, we have identified around three dozen moves involving associate-level solicitors in the past year, mostly to new employers but including a handful of in-house promotions.

Table: Law firm moves at senior level

Table: Law Firms' Planning Partners and 'Partner Equivalents' 2020

The highest-rated individuals

Outside the top five highest-rated individual solicitors, there are several other notable individuals.

Formerly head of planning at Norton Rose Fulbright, Duncan Field joined the Town Legal stable in April last year. He claims sixth place in our individual rankings (see table, below). Current instructions include advising on the redevelopment of the Olympia Exhibition Halls and the London City Airport masterplan.

At seventh is Robbie Owen, head of infrastructure planning and government affairs at Pinsent Masons. He also serves as board secretary and director at the National Infrastructure Planning Association. One consultant says Owen can consistently be found “influencing the policy debate”.

Roy Pinnock of Dentons and Claire Dutch of Ashurst share eighth place. Formerly head of planning at Hogan Lovells International, Dutch joined Ashurst to co-head the planning team in December 2019. Clients include Ballymore, Londonewcastle, Mount Anvil and Telford Homes. One consultant describes Dutch as “a leader in the field” and “a pleasure to work with”. Another praises “her great depth of knowledge and insight.”

Pinnock’s current instructions include working with the Royal Borough of Greenwich in relation to plans for nearly 16,000 homes at Greenwich Peninsula. “Roy takes complex legal points and breaks them down into simple statements with clear advice on what to do next,” says one consultant. “I wish all solicitors would do this.”

To see an extended version of the table above, please click here.

The 5 Top-Rated Individual Solicitors: Profiles

Local authority teams

All is stable at the top of our table of most admired local authority legal teams (see table, below). Westminster, the City of London and Southwark take the top three spots for the third year running. However, Guildford, which last year shared third place with Southwark, drops down to joint eighth. Newham moves up from eighth to share joint fourth place with Tower Hamlets, Leeds and Manchester.

In the individual rankings (see table, below), the City of London Corporation’s Deborah Cluett returns to first place after being second last year, knocking Westminster City Council’s Isaac Carter, now fifth, from top spot. Eleanor Penn at the Royal Borough of Greenwich is in second, one place higher than the third position she shared last year with Westminster’s Jay Akbar, who retains that position for 2020. Sadia Hussain at the London Borough of Southwark is a new entrant at number four.

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