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So you want to environmental lawyer?

Who: Victoria Taylor

Local authority: Suffolk County Council

Role: Environmental solicitor

Otter ledges, ancient footpaths, ditches and drains, traffic lights, gypsies, breaches of planning control, developer agreements, new nuclear power stations – if it's ‘green’ and contentious, it usually ends up on my desk.

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I joined Suffolk Legal six years ago as a newly qualified solicitor. My training contract had been split between criminal defence with a legal aid firm in Brighton; and a happy six months of European legal reform in Brussels on secondment to the Law Societies. Equipped with some work experience in local government and a passion for ecology and nature conservation, I pitched strongly for and obtained a post as an environmental lawyer with Suffolk Legal.

So I learned environmental law from scratch. Only slightly daunted by nine volumes of the encyclopaedia of planning law, I read and read, picked up any work that anyone would give me, and worked very hard. Six years on, I think I can only say that I know a lot more about environmental law than I used to. Still my clients ask me questions to which I do not know the answer – humbling for this know-it-all. And despite all of that, I am considered an expert in my field by colleagues.

When I joined, I worked primarily on developer agreements (s106 and s278 agreements), planning enforcement cases, and some contract disputes which no one else wanted to deal with. Now I advise on a broader range of planning and environmental law. I have redrafted our developer and highway agreements, and advise on planning performance agreements. There are significant new powers to consider – being a Lead Local Flood Authority, obstructions in a watercourse, setting up the Sustainable Urban Drainage System Advisory Board. Nationally important infrastructure is planned in Suffolk, and I deal with an increasing number of environmental judicial reviews. I also supervise trainee solicitors and legal assistants.

So you want to be an environmental lawyer? The following would help:

  • work hard - you should have a strong work ethic and be able to motivate and prioritise for yourself, especially when much of the work is client-focussed advice, rather then deadline-driven litigation;
  • develop your relationships with clients - you want to be a ‘trusted advisor’ to them, so they come to you early on, and mention emerging issues that might be a problem. Return emails. Deploy basic social skills. If things have gone wrong, they have to be able to tell you the truth about what really happened;
  • see the bigger picture - and know why you are sitting at your desk. I feel strongly that the people of Suffolk pay me to help protect and manage our beautiful environment. And that’s why I get up every morning – for me it is public service and ‘light green’ environmentalism. It’s probably different for you. You might have ‘deep green’ tree-hugging principles, or trade-union dedication. You might be in it for the money, or the pension – just be clear about what it is for you;
  • know your stuff - you must know the basics of planning and environmental law (planning conditions, National Planning Policy Framework, stop and enforcement notices, s106, s278 and s38 agreements, highways adoption, basic litigation). You need to be able to read and absorb at speed, and give written and verbal advice clearly; and finally
  • be aware of the politics – good to remember that you are employed by councillors. Be polite; act with integrity; and speak truth to power.

Being an environmental lawyer is fascinating, and Suffolk Legal is a great place to be a lawyer. I work with clever, thoughtful people. I am given a high level of autonomy. The legal work is complex, varied and interesting. I can decide how to make my relationship with clients work. Perhaps because of that, I have a lot of work. My clients repeatedly say kind things about me, and come to me for advice. And my organisation backs me, and enables me to be confident in my ability to meet the demand of my role.

Victoria Taylor is an environmental solicitor in the commercial practice group at Suffolk County Council.

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