University: Australian National University
Degree: Arts law
Commercial litigators represent and advise corporate and commercial clients when disputes arise from joint venture projects, civil fraud, commercial and banking transactions, corporate governance, financial services regulation and professional negligence. Disputes are usually decided by either litigation or arbitration. The 2013 Jackson Reforms significantly changed the UK court process, including the way litigation is managed in relation to directions and costs, leading to the rise of alternative forms of dispute resolution such as mediation.
Career success can be achieved in different ways, but a truly meteoric rise requires the willingness to embrace new experiences, take calculated risks and recognise and seize opportunities when they present themselves. This mindset is evident throughout Rebecca Williams’ ascent to become co-head of Watson Farley & Williams’ dispute resolution department. Since she first moved abroad from her native Australia in an exchange programme to Indiana University in the United States as a student, she has always “enjoyed the opportunity to challenge myself and live in other countries and experience different cultures.” Eschewing starting out at a traditional law firm after being admitted as a solicitor in Australia in 1997, she joined an insurance start-up with two more experienced partners: “From day one I put myself on the front line and was on the phone to clients – quite a brave move at the time.”
After spells working in New York and Sydney, Rebecca moved to London in 2001. First she worked for a year at Harbottle & Lewis on a case involving Francis Bacon’s estate, then moved to Lane & Partners (which has since merged with Bird & Bird). It was during her time there that she decided that she wanted to specialise in construction and engineering disputes. “I was in the disputes department, where I worked with two partners who did a lot of work in this area,” she recalls. “To my surprise, I enjoyed it and it became clear that I had an aptitude for it.” She moved to specialist construction and engineering disputes boutique Fenwick Elliott and developed her practice over a successful seven-and-a-half years at the firm, before joining Watson Farley & Williams in 2015: “I saw that there were obvious synergies between my practice and WFW, which is very active in transactional and asset finance work around renewables. I had experience of the offshore wind industry, having worked on two arbitrations over technical defects, so it was a good match for my expertise and skillset.”
Specialising in renewables
She made partner in 2017, achieved equity in 2019 and now co-heads the firm’s London dispute resolution practice. The team handles the full range of construction and engineering disputes, with a continued strong focus on the renewables sector. As well as the offshore and onshore wind industries, Rebecca has expanded her practice into the solar and biomass sectors. The work has a highly international flavour, with English law remaining a trusted standard for commercial contracts. “Projects, contractors and developers are contractors and developers are based all over the world,” she explains. “Last year I advised on another solar farm project in Australia and have recently worked on a dispute over the construction of a solar farm in Greece, as well as a dispute in Ghana between a South Korean contractor and a UAE developer, plus a dispute relating to a major construction project in Malawi.”
Disputes are common in major infrastructure projects and this rings doubly true for the pioneering, risk-taking renewables industry. “These projects involve new and complex technology, some of which doesn’t have an established track record, and as the technology gallops ahead, the standards don’t always keep pace,” she explains. “Defects are therefore not uncommon. For example, a key issue in solar farms is delamination of solar panels – when the bond between the plastics and glass separates – while several disputes that I have worked on in the offshore wind industry have involved the same error in the standard guidelines that the industry previously used as the basis for building projects. The mistake involved a miscalculation of the axial load capacity of a key wind turbine component by a factor of 10, which meant that all the wind farms in the North Sea that had been built according to this standard started to fail. This kind of dispute is very difficult to resolve as both parties will understandably feel that they are not to blame and should not have to shoulder the costs.”
The timescales of delivering such complex projects frequently run into problems, while the irresistible opportunities offered by the sector can also lead to overpromises. “What I’m seeing in solar is that there are contractors who really want to enter the market and become players, and in their enthusiasm to get a foothold, take more risks than is prudent and then want to redress the situation later on,” Rebecca observes. “A good example would be that the contractor signs up to guarantees in relation to the performance of assets which are then not met, leading to a legal dispute as the party that has taken imprudent risks will try to find ways to get out of the agreement.”
Her clients vary by industry. “In offshore wind and solar I typically act on the owner-developer side, but in cases involving biomass or energy from waste, I will often act for a contractor,” she explains. “This is a necessary part of maintaining lawyer-client relationships – if the firm acts for developer clients and then acts for contractors who are bringing claims against them, we won’t win many friends.”
Don’t be afraid to let your personality shine through because the human element is still at the heart of lawyer-client relationships.
Client focus and commercial awareness
Looking out for the best interests of clients is essential to the job, which is why litigation is not necessarily always the aim. “Our service is dispute resolution, so we strive to resolve disagreements amicably and navigate clients through disputes to ensure they are settled as quickly and cost efficiently as possible – that is why we get so much repeat business,” Rebecca emphasises. “When acting for a developer, for example, we also offer project execution support so that we can be brought in whenever there is an issue on a project to help resolve it rapidly. We have a good success rate – maybe six or seven issues out of 10 are resolved at this stage. Around 20-25% of the disputes we advise on reach a formal dispute resolution forum, whether that be adjudication, arbitration, expert determination or litigation. The close support that clients – and colleagues in other departments – require on these projects mean that as dispute resolution lawyers, we have to be very adaptable and responsive. This ensures that we have a steady pipeline of work.”
When cases do go to a formal hearing, the stakes are often high – as a recent Technology & Construction Court case shows. “We inherited the case, PBS v Bester, from another solicitors’ firm after the client had lost two adjudications and three enforcement hearings,” she explains. “We were able to turn it around completely and won the TCC proceedings overall, but during the proceedings the other side began an adjudication using what we strongly believed was suspect evidence. We had just six weeks to gather enough evidence to prove that there had been a fraud or our client would have to pay out – it was the first time that anyone has resisted enforcement on that basis. We crunched through 57,000 documents and were eventually successful in getting the adjudication overturned.”
Considering her advice for aspiring lawyers, Rebecca points out that “there is no formula for what makes a good lawyer, but don’t be afraid to let your personality shine through because the human element is still at the heart of lawyer-client relationships.”