Is the future for Planning Law Regional?
I was speaking to the head of a planning team about market trends and salaries recently and it got me wondering about the future of the planning law sector and whether it may be going regional. If you read the legal press, I am sure you are aware of the latest NQ pay war in the magic circle and the knock-on effect this has with other firms in the rankings. This means that over the course of the last few years salaries for London Associates have been rising quickly. I believe that this has been having a knock-on effect within the real estate sector in general and affects planning teams which is an area where I have a special interest.
In my opinion, this issue is most acute in what I would term the London, single site, upper size, law firm and makes me wonder if the future of planning law is regional?
A good way to analyse this is to look at the list of leading planning firms as published by Planning Magazine. I use this as a reference as it is voted for by industry professionals. It is not perfect but gives us a good guide.
The two leading firms on the list, Town Legal and Pinsent Masons, are very good examples of how this sector has evolved over the past few years. Both are different practices with different business models, but they have some features in common which I believe demonstrate the trend for a planning team to require either a unique selling point or the ability to do work regionally.
Town Legal, as a boutique, is not restricted by large overheads and layers of management structure. Although they don’t have a physical regional presence, their boutique model allows them to be flexible, agile and sensitive to client requirements in a competitive market so that they can service those needs. Pinsent Masons can offer similar adaptability to their clients but do it on a larger scale. They can provide innovative solutions to clients by providing a comprehensive UK wide service across their regional network for all business sectors. This allows them to compete for a large market share of mandates (infrastructure or development) in the UK and cross-border. This has also led to several other planning teams adapting how they approach their business model. CMS, for example, strengthened by their merger and while they retain a London HQ which is important for their strong institutional client base, they are also investing in Sheffield and Manchester. DLA Piper approached it differently by relocating their planning team to the regions. Of course, this doesn’t mean the end of the London planning lawyer. However, in a world where magic circle NQs are paid £100k and top-ten NQs circa £85-90k, justifying the charge-out rates for these lawyers is going to be difficult and is likely to have a knock-on effect in sectors that are cost-sensitive such as housebuilders and local authorities.
Looking at things from a recruitment and talent perspective, what does this mean for the career prospects of planning solicitors? I think it will have a negligible effect on junior lawyers as at an early stage in their career it is important to get settled with a solid team and pick up as much decent experience as they can. Where it will begin to have an impact is on the mid-level to senior lawyers who are looking for internal career progression. Therefore, I would advise those planning solicitors to think carefully about prospects when looking at very high paying associate roles in city practices. They should evaluate how big the team is, how many partners, legal directors (or equivalent) are in that team and how clear that route is likely to be. Of course, not everyone is looking for partnership and there is a case to be made for being a well-paid, non-partner expert. However, for anyone looking for long term partnership prospects it may be worth considering whether the planning team you are looking at has enough of a unique selling point to justify future partnership appointments or whether you should go regional sooner.