Public law comprises several interlinking practice areas which concern relationships between people and government. For law firms dealing with smaller private client matters, this might mean challenging the level of care provided to a disabled person by a local authority, or assisting the parents of a child who has been denied the kind of education they believe he or she is entitled to. Meanwhile, other firms build up practices in the administrative side of public law, which may involve advising local authorities or central government departments on large-scale concerns such as national infrastructure development, building up expertise along the way in particular fields of activity, such as energy, waste disposal or transport.
Dougal Ainsley had worked in a number of roles before coming to law, but they had mostly left him unchallenged and unfulfilled. As he explains, something had to give: "There were times in previous jobs when we needed to go to lawyers for legal advice and it was these meetings, talking in detail about the legal matter in hand, that showed me what I was missing – I could see that the role of a lawyer involved intellectual challenge, wide-ranging subject matter, rigorous training and scope for career progression, and that the lawyers I was speaking to had developed the specialist knowledge and skills to actually get stuff done."
His decision made, Dougal began the process of requalifying as a career changer. "For me personally it was definitely an advantage to have career experience elsewhere," he explains. "I would not claim that this is best for everyone and certainly people thrive in law straight from university, but it helped to draw on my experiences during the difficult periods as I pursued my conversion courses, a training contract and eventual qualification as a solicitor."
Workplace wisdom gained from extensive prior experience certainly helped Dougal to make the right decision when choosing which firms to apply to for a training contract. "I was careful," he says. "I knew that law firms are not all the same and my previous work experiences had left me with a clear preference about the kind of working environment that I would like. I applied to Bircham Dyson Bell because it has a reputation as a friendly place to work, it is known to welcome career changers and its work areas really interested me – the firm does a lot of government and third-sector work, in addition to having strong commercial clients."
An enjoyable and stimulating training contract was followed by qualification into Bircham Dyson Bell’s commercial and regulatory group, where his team specialises in public law. "We advise government departments, local authorities, statutory bodies and regulators," he explains. "In terms of pure public law we advise bodies whose powers are set out in statute which can be difficult to interpret. It might surprise some people, but such bodies do not always know what they are and are not able to do. A body may come to us with a plan to take a particular course of action and it is our job to determine whether it is permissible, so our role is to advise the body on its powers and responsibilities."
The team also specialises in planning law. "Planning law is, in a way, a branch of public law," explains Dougal. "Typically, our engagements with planning law involve working within a regulatory framework to help a body which wants to carry out some development. We identify any restrictions that the client may be under and any processes that it might need to go through to carry out the development. We do major infrastructure planning – nationally significant projects in the transport, energy, waste and water sectors – and a big feature of that is to deal with the relevant authority, which for town and country planning matters will be the local planning authority – usually the district or county council – and for major infrastructure projects will be the planning inspectorate, which is an executive agency of the secretary of state. We engage in dialogue to determine exactly what we need to present to the authority to ensure that when we make the application for planning permission, it is successful. Being good at working with the authorities is an important part of the role, as this helps you to get results for your clients."
Seeing such big projects through to fruition is a great source of job satisfaction, although pushing a matter through the corridors of power is not without its frustrations. "Some consent processes require the formal authority of Parliament, for example, through a hybrid bill. What you realise through dealing with parliament is that parliamentary processes are in some respects out-dated," says Dougal. "Parliament is a historic institution, of course, but the system is not always transparent and I don’t think that this is good for democracy in this country. Although I enjoy the work and handling matters with parliament on behalf of my clients, I think the system is ripe for reform – it seems to me that there is still work to do to make our country a truly effective, modern democracy."
However, this does not detract from the satisfaction of getting a project green lit and underway, which not only benefits the client concerned, but communities as well. "One example that stands out as a highlight is one of the nationally significant infrastructure projects that I mentioned," says Dougal. "We had a local authority client who needed to build a road which would make a big difference to the surrounding area by massively relieving congestion, thus improving the quality of life for residents. The project also opened up a lot of land for housing and retail development – it was a good scheme and it was also the first that I worked on – so it’s one I remember particularly fondly."
And it’s not solely the satisfaction of a job well done that Dougal enjoys – the day-to-day work is also interesting and challenging. "Naturally I’m going to contrast my experience in law with the other jobs that I have had, so being trusted to do genuine brain work is something that I appreciate," he explains. "I’m sure this is common to all lawyers, but it is particularly evident in public law, which involves some real deep-thinking exercises. As infrastructure-related planning lawyers we have to interpret and draft legislation – there is real intellectual rigour."
The relationship between government and the rest of society is one that Dougal’s role enables him to observe first hand and more keenly than most – and he sees cause for concern. "One arguably worrying development to be aware of is that opportunity for judicial review – the power to challenge the decisions of those in power – is seen by the current administration as an unjustified restraint on executive power; they want to restrict people’s rights to scrutinise public decision making to promote efficiency and growth," he explains. "That is one way of looking at it, but another is that it is curtailing people’s ability to hold power to account, which is an important part of any democracy. I think we should be careful that we don’t get the balance wrong."
Balancing commercial imperatives with the needs of society should also be a priority for the legal profession in the coming years, suggests Dougal. "This focus on efficiency and the bottom line can be seen in the Legal Services Act and the rise of alternative business structures – and such concerns are clearly important; lawyers are there to provide valuable services to their clients, not to pontificate in ivory towers," he says. "However, law firms, the partnerships, are a valuable part of the economy because of their ownership structure. I think there is merit in having some businesses owned and controlled by the people who work in them, so I would not want the Legal Services Act to completely change the picture and turn every law firm into a limited company owned by more distant shareholders. I think both kinds of structure are valuable and there is much to be said for having a mix."
If a career being involved with public and administrative law sounds as interesting to you as it did to us, Dougal’s advice is to pay special heed, firstly, to developing your communication skills. "I think a lot of graduates think they already have these because they are bright people and have written good essays in the past, but practising as a solicitor requires the full range of communication skills," he explains. "The need to be able to communicate quickly, clearly and effectively in say, a client meeting, is a skill that requires development and I am certainly not claiming to have completely mastered it myself! For my particular area, you also need an interest in law making and constitutional principles. Finally, you need empathy for your client’s position so that you can properly interpret what they are trying to do and give them the advice they need."