Insider Insight: Simon Tilling

Career advice from Simon Tilling, partner and environmental law specialist at independent UK law firm Burges Salmon LLP

Career advice from Simon Tilling, partner and environmental law specialist at independent UK law firm Burges Salmon LLP.

How did you land your current job?  

At school I was a scientist but read chemistry and law at university because I wanted to keep my options open.  From that degree, I developed an interest in environmental science and environmental law and decided to pursue a career in environmental law because it gave me the best of both worlds.

What has helped you get where you are in your career?

I chose to train at Burges Salmon LLP because it had one of the best environmental law teams in the UK.  That was 12 years ago, and in that time I have worked my way up from trainee solicitor to a partner, and have never looked back. The job is high pressured and demanding but I am supported by a great team.  The firm has a collaborative and collegiate atmosphere which provides a supportive environment for career development.  I can't really imagine myself practising anywhere else.

Do you have any tips for people who are about to embark in your field on how to make a success out of their careers and sustainability?

In the field of environmental law, success comes from a combination of enthusiasm, commitment, quality and ambition. Of all of those, my top tip would be to demonstrate enthusiasm in everything you do. People want advisors who care about their businesses and their issues. Taking a genuine interest not only provides a better service for clients but it is also what makes the job so interesting. One of the great things about my job is learning all about the businesses I work with, whether those are businesses in the environmental sector or businesses in other sectors with environmental issues.

Who have been the role-models/mentors in your career?

The three people who have had the most impact on my career are Ian Salter, Ross Fairley and Michael Barlow. These are the three partners at Burges Salmon who have made the environment team the market leading practice that I work in today.

Ian was at the forefront of environmental law and developed a specialist team during the 1990s. Ross had developed his environment practice at Allen & Overy and then joined Burges Salmon to take our practice to the next level. Mike Barlow was made partner in 2009 and is now head of the environment team. All three are inspirational environmental lawyers but have also been mentors to me, encouraging me to pursue my ambitions and supporting me in the journey from trainee solicitor to partner.

What stages of your career have been the most challenging?

I am probably in the most challenging phase of my career, having been accepted into the partnership in May of this year and now developing and expanding the practice, but it is a challenge I am looking forward to. To forge a practice as an environmental lawyer you need to be flexible and versatile and spot the opportunities when they arise. The work of an environmental lawyer today is quite different to the work being undertaken even just 10 years ago. The old adage that 'standing still is falling behind’ has never been more true when applied to the practice of environmental law.

Environmental law is constantly evolving and the biggest challenge is keeping pace with legislative and policy changes and new developments. My practice is broad and I need to monitor developments on a national and international basis. Whatever the outcome of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, EU law will continue to impact to some degree, and many EU regimes are based on international treaties to which the UK is a signatory, so international law will remain a big part of environmental law. Even in the UK, diverging environmental policies and legislative regimes for the devolved administrations creates an additional complexity.

The most rewarding?

The rewards come when you master the challenges. I have been lucky enough to be involved in some fantastic cases that have been at the forefront of developing environmental law. For example, I negotiated the first enforcement undertaking for a pollution event in Wales, I acted in the first appeal under the greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme to be heard in Northern Ireland, I acted on the first site to be designated as a special site in Scotland under the contaminated land regime and I dealt with one of the first investigations by the National Measurement and Regulation Office when it was given enforcement responsibility for the RoHS regime.

What is the key to getting the most out of your team/colleagues?

The nature of working in a law firm is that you are surrounded by bright, ambitious, talented and motivated individuals all of whom are driven to build their own careers. The key to getting the most out of those individuals is to give them the opportunity to develop and to pursue their interests by bringing in a wide variety of quality instructions and also giving them the freedom to seek out and win their own work. We also ensure that we have a mature training programme so that all our junior lawyers are equipped to handle the full breadth and depth of environmental issues that arise for our clients.

What qualifications have been necessary/most beneficial in your career?

To pursue a career in law you need to be legally qualified and therefore my chemistry and law degree and my post-graduate legal qualifications are the necessary ones. That said, Burges Salmon is pioneering an apprenticeship scheme for school leavers which offers an alternative route into law and which I think is an excellent idea.

Have you had much continuing professional development? Has this been useful?

As a solicitor, I am obliged to undergo continuing professional development to retain my practicing certificate. However, even if that was not the case, the truth is that continuing professional development is an integral part of working in the environmental field because the landscape is changing all the time and you are not doing your job if you are not keeping up to date. I don't see continuing professional development as some obligatory regulatory hurdle to be overcome each year but rather as a natural part of being an inquisitive environmental professional wanting to do the best for the clients.

Could you sum up, in one sentence, what has changed in the industry since you first began your job?

In one sentence: an awful lot.  It would be quicker for me to say what has stayed the same.

What does the future have in store for your industry - choppy waters ahead?  Or a fruitful and secure future?

It's an interesting time for environmental lawyers. As a whole, the future is far from certain. In the big City law firms and the London offices of global law firms we have seen good environmental lawyers being let go because environmental law has not necessarily been given the same focus in those practices as once may have been the case.  Practices built solely on environmental advice in transactions have experienced significant difficulties in the downturn and although work has picked up, the priority of the environment is still not as high on the agenda as it should be.  However, there will always be a role for environmental lawyers and I think those who are versatile and adaptable will make the most of the opportunities that constant change brings.

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