University: University of Oxford
The energy and natural resources sector is an important part of the legal landscape and is currently making more headlines than ever before. It covers, among other things, upstream oil and gas, LNG, pipelines and transportation, refining and petrochemicals, nuclear, renewables, mining and power. Emerging energy technologies such as hydrogen, biofuels and carbon capture also feature. The key legal issues centre on the development and financing of projects, M&A, commercial contracts, disputes and trading.
Given that Holly Stebbing now spends around “95%” of her time working in energy and natural resources law, it’s fair to say that she’s something of an expert in this legal field. So how did she get to where she is today?
Let’s rewind a little. Coming from a non-professional household, Holly admits that she had very little knowledge of a career in law. However, having graduated with a law degree from the University of Oxford, Holly set herself up nicely to enter the profession and after experiences on both vacation schemes and mini-pupillages, she quickly realised that she “preferred working as part of a team”. Much like her peers, a career at the Bar didn’t appeal to Holly given it can be solitary.
Opening up about her decision to head down the solicitor route, Holly adds: “As I’ve become more senior, I’ve also realised that solicitors have more client interaction and more input on wider case strategy than barristers. In time, that client interface translates into developing the client relationship more widely across our practice.” It’s this type of interaction and responsibility that’s now an integral part of Holly’s role as a partner at international law firm Norton Rose Fulbright.
After making the choice to become a solicitor, Holly’s next step was to determine the type of work she’d feel most fulfilled doing day to day. Identifying her interests and saying yes to opportunities during her training contract played a crucial role in Holly’s decision of which area of the law to qualify into. “I was fortunate to complete six, four-month seats as a trainee at Norton Rose Fulbright and was torn between corporate, competition and dispute resolution,” she explains.
"Over the years, my work has included a real mix of court and arbitration, as well as expert determination, adjudication, mediation and all hybrid forms of dispute resolution"
In the end, it was the black letter law and more versatile opportunities that swayed Holly in the direction of disputes. It was then after qualification that she began to develop her specialism in energy and natural resources disputes. Things happened rather fortuitously, as Holly describes: “I started working for a partner who I’d not worked with during my training contract. His main associate was on maternity leave and he got me involved on some great cases. I also did a lot of travelling on those cases, which really cemented my interest in the energy and natural resources sector.”
On top of these experiences, Holly also completed a master’s in energy and natural resources law post qualification and now finds herself involved in a “really interesting industry given the challenges and opportunities everyone is facing with the energy transition”. This, coupled with the way Norton Rose Fulbright is set up, means Holly’s role offers quite the variety.
She explains that other firms have a split between litigation and arbitration, but that’s not the case for Norton Rose Fulbright. “Over the years, my work has included a real mix of court and arbitration, as well as expert determination, adjudication, mediation and all hybrid forms of dispute resolution.” As the energy sector is a “high-risk industry” Holly has also been called in to advise clients on a number of major health and safety incidents, interacting with the police and health and safety executives, and representing her clients at inquests and in prosecutions.
While Holly’s expectations of a career in law were shaped “by watching legal TV shows”, with the reality being slightly less “glamourous”, Norton Rose Fulbright’s international standing means Holly still has the chance to “act on cases being heard in courts in other countries and arbitrations seated overseas”, which makes for an exciting work life.
The variety of work on offer runs parallel with the turbulence of the energy market itself, which is “famed for its ups and downs”. As Holly says, “you only have to look at the oil price over the years to see that there have been real highs and lows.”
But what are the factors that influence this turbulent industry? “We’re in unprecedented times,” Holly points out. “We had covid-19, then shortly thereafter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and, against those two major geopolitical events, we’ve got the challenge and opportunity of the energy transition.”
"There’s quite a job for litigators in keeping up to speed on legal developments. There are new cases, legislation and claims out every day"
These events and challenges mean there's a lot of disputes work for the firm’s energy and natural resources team. “The types of claim we’re handing are disputes relating to new energy technology – for example, what happens when the technology doesn’t work? There are sanction-type cases arising from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and covid-19 claims”.
“We’re also handling climate-related claims – a whole new breed of litigation that hadn’t been heard of, certainly when I was a trainee, which touches on many different aspects of the law”, including tort law claims, company law and derivative actions, human rights developments, competition law claims, consumer law claims, greenwashing and contract law breaches – the list goes on. “From a litigator’s perspective, it’s really interesting to see how these claims are developing and the new, novel causes of action that claimants are bringing,” Holly notes.
“You never stop learning” – an aspect of this type of work that makes it so exciting to be a part of. “There’s quite a job for litigators in keeping up to speed on legal developments. There are new cases, legislation and claims out every day”, making it important to have a mind “that relishes that intellectual challenge as you progress”.
Attention to detail, resilience and adaptability are three further core skills that Holly lists on top of the above as essential for aspiring lawyers to succeed in energy and natural resources law.
“The devil really is in the detail,” Holly explains. It’s important for aspiring lawyers to have an analytical mind “because we’re often trying to work out a solution to a problem, find a route to a claim or work out what’s happened or gone wrong”. Resilience is also key – “we’re called in to deal with difficult situations; if things were straightforward and going well, our services wouldn’t be required”. Holly adds: “You might find yourself on the receiving end of challenges from clients or opponents, a judge or a tribunal, or from a regulator. Those can be tricky to handle and can sometimes feel quite personal; therefore you need a bit of personal strength and resilience to process it all.”
Plus, due to the nature of the work being so varied, Holly explains that it’s rare to get a “cookie cutter case” so budding solicitors must be adaptable and “willing to pick up different types of work, new issues and educate themselves”. For example, “one week you might find you’re the expert on oil trading, the next in the component parts of a solar panel or on the parameters of decommissioning provisions in the petroleum act. You need to have a mind that’s ready to adapt itself and embrace the challenge that comes with learning a new topic”.
While these three skills remain important throughout a lawyer’s career, as solicitors become more senior there are “new skills you’ll need that you won’t have to deploy as much when you’re a trainee and junior associate”. It’s likely as you progress that you’ll have a team of people working for you, so good management skills are key. “You’ll need to motivate them, engage them and assist with their career progression.” The success of the law firm also stands more closely with you and your actions, particularly if you reach partner like Holly – “you’ll need to develop the practice, which means winning clients and work, as well as translating that work into profitable business for the firm”.
Getting to this point requires hard work. As a junior lawyer with limited work experience who wasn’t sure what was expected of her, Holly quickly learnt how important it was to listen to instructions and she urges the next generation to take heed of this advice: “Even if you don’t understand exactly what you’re being asked to do, take note of any instructions so you can work out what’s required of you later.”
“Take opportunities” and make the most of them because they could, like Holly, lead you towards a practice area you’d perhaps not fully considered. “Your training contract is short in the context of your whole career. As such, if you’re asked to do something that you didn’t necessarily have in your plan – for example, to go on secondment or support another team – make the most of these opportunities because you never know where they might take you.”
A successful career in energy and natural resources law won’t come easy and “there can be tough times”, however “the intellectual and personal challenge of the law is part of what makes it such a rewarding career”. So, find your spark and light that match.