Ben Stansfield is a Partner in the Environment and Planning team of Gowling WLG. He advises on an array of environmental and planning matters and takes an active interest in developing and mentoring junior and aspiring lawyers. I have been lucky to know Ben for many years and I have also been fortunate to have him as a client. He has kindly agreed to answer some questions about the thriving environment and planning sector and why any trainees should consider it as a discipline to work in.
Why is environment and planning an interesting sector to work in and why should an aspiring lawyer consider it as a career option?
Unlike many areas of legal practice, it touches upon public, private and criminal law, and lawyers do a mix of transactions, litigation and standalone regulatory advice. It's got it all!
Planning is fast-moving due to its political nature and the human factor always comes into play when planning decisions are made, giving it an air of unpredictability. Environmental law has never been so topical and so to advise clients on cutting edge areas of law is a real privilege and always fascinating.
Tell us about your route to become a solicitor and how you ended up working in environment & planning?
I studied Law and French at University, and whilst I had a number of training contract interviews, I would always get stage fright and not sell myself particularly well. After I had finished my LPC, I was a paralegal at Slaughter and May in their Real Estate group. It was there that I met the Environment team - they were passionate about what they did, worked very hard, but had a lot of fun - I got great experience working alongside them. I trained at Clifford Chance with the intention of becoming an Environmental lawyer, but the CC team did planning as well, and so I ended up doing both. While it was a stroke of luck then, I dont think I fully appreciated it at the time.
How would you suggest either a graduate, paralegal, apprentice, or trainee solicitor with an interest in environment and planning get experience in the field?
Well we do meet a lot of applicants who express an interest in the department who don’t have a great deal of experience in the area. That’s ok, particularly for grads and paralegals. But as with anything, you have to be able to demonstrate that interest. There are some easy wins, such as - join the UK Environmental Law Association (UKELA); sign up for online lectures and conferences; read the Glasgow Climate Pact; read some of the Government’s policy documents to understand what’s coming around the corner and that will affect our clients. Telling us that you have an interest in the subject but not being able to articulate that, or not having taken basic steps to learn more is a red flag. For more experienced candidates, a lack of direct experience isn’t necessarily a barrier, particularly on the environmental side, but I would expect even more preparation and evidence of a genuine interest
You have interviewed numerous people at all levels keen to work in this sector. What common mistakes do people make and what advice would you give to anyone approaching an interview?
A general lack of preparation is always frustrating - not knowing about a recent consultation or significant decision impacting our work feels like a missed opportunity to impress.
Low energy - I know it’s tough and nerve wracking but we will try our best to encourage you to show some excitement about what you do or what makes you tick. We don’t expect Kids TV Presenter levels of enthusiasm, but monosyllabic responses are hard to work with!
Not asking questions - it’s a simple way of showing interest in us and interviews are a two-way street. If you’re stuck, ask us about what the most interesting matter we’ve got on our desks.
Claiming experience, you don’t have - there is no such thing as the perfect candidate and we don’t expect that you will have done everything, so don’t pretend you have. We like honesty and enthusiasm to learn, and it gives us confidence if you can admit when you’re unsure, instead of charging ahead on something you’re not familiar with. It also helps us understand how we can help develop you
You have a reputation of asking the occasional "oddball" question during an interview to add some levity and bring out a candidate’s personality. What are some of the best responses you can recall?
Good candidates are always very well prepared. They can talk about their experience, how they contributed to the teams in which they worked, and what the issues of the day are. But it feels a little wooden sometimes.
I really like to ask one or two questions on an area that a candidate hasn’t prepared - purely so I can start a conversation without it feeling like a rehearsed Q&A. The questions I ask don’t have a right or wrong response - they’re purely to get to see a candidate’s human side. So I might ask about TV box set recommendations, favorite biscuit, which piece they use when they play Monopoly, and so on. When candidates relax, you get to see more of them - and vice versa…I fully expect someone to challenge me as to why I am convinced that the Rich Tea is the finest biscuit on the planet!
In your opinion what attributes make a good environment & planning lawyer?
Particularly on the environment side, there will be new things coming across your desk that you've not done before. So a willingness to roll your sleeves up, read around the topic, and think laterally are really key. Environmental law straddles every sector that our clients operate in, and so it's important to try and get under the skin of some of those sectors – learn the technical language and understand the issues that those clients face.
Many of your clients are internal – lawyers in other departments, like real estate and corporate. Making sure that we are the specialists of choice is really important. Developing an internal profile as the 'go-to' person is critical.
It was very interesting to hear Ben’s view on the sector and I really appreciate his input. If you are keen to consider environment and planning as a possible option, then do get in touch.