My career story: “I moved from City law to the public sector and back again”

Planning lawyer Matthew Evans trained and practised as a planning lawyer at Denton Wilde Sapte, then worked for the London Borough of Hackney before moving back to private practice with West End firm Forsters.

Matthew Evans, Forsters

What’s your background?

I’m from Shrewsbury and went to a fairly standard comprehensive. I remember speaking to various people about what I could do. I was lucky because I had a cousin who did law – he told me to steer well clear of the profession but he managed to get me some work experience which was obviously useful. A friend of a friend was a barrister and I had a long chat with her too. I ended up picking law at Leeds – I picked it more because it had a cricket pitch on its prospectus than anything.

I was lucky enough to get a training contract with Denton Wilde Sapte in my second year of university. It wasn’t magic circle, which I wasn’t hugely interested in, it had a decent spread of work and a decent reputation.

Falling into planning was by luck rather than judgement really. I’d always liked stuff that had no clear-cut answers, and I’ve always been interested in politics. Wanting to combine that grey area with politics, the only real area for me in a City law firm was planning. There’s not really anything else that covered it in that way. It was luck of the draw, though – I’d had a couple of mates in my intake who’d done a seat in planning and said they really enjoyed it, so I gave it a try.

If you’re interested in the public sector and politics and the grey areas of law, planning is certainly something to consider – don’t dismiss it as a parasitic area or a something that only exists for real estate purposes, it definitely can be something that stands on its own.

What took you out of private practice to work for the London Borough of Hackney?

I qualified in 2007, and had done some fairly meaty bits of work and then in 2008/09 there was the big crash. The department at Dentons disintegrated, really: there wasn’t enough work anywhere and planning was particularly hard hit. The work dried up.

What do you when you’re a planning lawyer in the City and there’s no work? Well, a local authority is one of the options available to you. I’d lived in Hackney for a few years and there happened to be a job open and it seemed perfect.

What was it like going into such a different type of organisation?

Everyone has this image of going into the public sector, that it’s a job for life, it’s secure. Coming from somewhere where there had been very little work for some time, that was very comforting.

But equally, are other questions: what sort of work am I going to be doing? Is it going to be functional and uninteresting? Given that I live here as well, is it going to be too incestuous? All these things go fizzing through your head.

One of the biggest culture shocks was that everything was open plan. Dentons had two-person offices across the whole building, and suddenly I found myself with a whole load of lawyers: one room and 60 of us who covered every single function the council has to offer.

It is chaos. You get people running up and down, there’s people trying to deal with kids that have been put into care, then there’s housing litigation and rent problems, then it’s back to planning and there’s people building stuff that they shouldn’t be building. I miss it now to a certain extent. Coming from the City, it was a real blast in the face: a whirlwind is probably the best way to describe it.

What type of person fits into that environment?

There is a place for people who are introverted – I know that sounds odd, given what I’ve just said, but I certainly wouldn’t suggest there aren’t opportunities to work in a quieter fashion – there’s a much greater appreciation of flexible working, for example.

But is there naturally an appeal for people who are a bit more relaxed and extroverted, who are happy just wandering around asking people questions and who have a more collaborative approach to law rather than just going away, sitting in a room and coming out with an answer three days later.

The range of work you get is phenomenal and the experience you get is absolutely fascinating. From the bottom to top, the standard and breadth of it is incredible.

What about the political side of working in the public sector?

If you’re interested in it you’ll find it fascinating; if you don’t like it you’ll find it very frustrating. In the private sector you can speak to the CEO and he or she can make the call and get things done. In the public sector, every single body has its prescribed powers, there are rules to follow, forms to fill out and it is very bureaucratic.

Sometimes that’s a good thing: it means a decision is a decision – it can’t be changed unless you go through the whole process again. If developers are trying to push and pull you, that can be quite invaluable.

And dealing with councillors is a good thing, because you realise that local politics is still alive and well and there is a value to it. And they do put in a shift – councillors work very hard. Don’t dismiss the public sector as a dying place: it contains some of the hardest working people I’ve ever come across. That sort of passion for the job certainly rubs off on you. But equally, trying to balance political will with legality can be frustrating.

Why did you return to private practice?

There had obviously been an erosion of funding for local government right from 2010, and by the time of the last election we were really starting to see the effects. It was getting to the stage where people were deciding whether they wanted their bins collected or whether they wanted libraries. The cuts become a bit soul destroying.

You see residents who have unlawful developments going up next to them, and having to say: ‘It’s with the enforcement team, but there’s only one of them, he’s the only person who goes around and can check these developments. We take your point, but we’ve got four years to do it and it might be three years and 11 months before we get round to sorting it.’

That’s not great from a morale point of view. There was lot of talk about externalising services, and if you’re going to outsource the interesting stuff, what does that leave us with? I was eight years qualified, and I had to decide what I wanted to do. Then Forsters came across my radar and it seems like a good fit.

Were you apprehensive about going back into private practice?

I think it does cross your mind – you remember all the bad bits of private practice and think, ‘Do I really want to do that again?’ But equally, there was the other pressure – if I stay am I going to be doing NQ work as an eight-year qualified, is my career going to stall? I think the driver was that Forsters has a very good planning team, it had demonstrably gown in the past two or three years, it had some good work and good clients.

How did you pitch yourself to the firm at interview?

One of the good things about having private practice and public sector experience was that you do have a view from both sides of the fence and I think that was something that I was able to emphasise quite a lot. And I had done some big projects while I was at at Dentons, and one or two high profile things at Hackney.

I did get asked whether I’d gone native, and I had to say, ‘No, I know exactly what the deal is, I’ve got plenty of friends who are still in the City, that’s not a problem!’