The earthy side of law
We spoke to Craig Burman, Partner and Head of the Environmental and Regulatory team at Schofield Sweeney LLP, to discuss waste, Brexit, climate change and the year that has changed us forever.
What was your route into law?
For as long as I can remember, I have loved houses. It’s a good job too, because until I was 36, I had lived in one house for every year alive. As a kid I was convinced that I would be an architect, but that changed when the 18-year old me decided to study law so I could go to the same university as all my friends, where architecture was not on the syllabus.
My 18-year old self had no idea how much that single decision would shape the rest of my life.
On my second last day of university, I found out that a local law firm was recruiting a newly qualified solicitor. I rushed down and handed over my CV with an impassioned plea. I was called in for an interview the next day and the job was mine that afternoon. I spent most of the next eight years in a courtroom, representing clients faced with criminal charges involving murder, rape, fraud, common assault, dangerous and drunken driving as well as clients in commercial and matrimonial disputes. There was never a dull moment.
Fast forward another twenty something years and I have swapped the South Island of New Zealand for Yorkshire. Disputes remain part of the job, but they now involve the environment, waste, contaminated land, health and safety, noise, odour, flooding and planning.
What does your role involve?
Several years ago, Schofield Sweeney recognised the impact that environmental considerations and climate change were having on our clients’ businesses. In 2015, we became one of the few Yorkshire regional law firms to provide clients with specialist environmental advice. I am very lucky that this side of my practice is so varied.
As an example, in the last week I gave advice to a waste business whose premises have been destroyed by fire, negotiated the withdrawal of charges for a company director in breach of her environmental permit, spoke to a developer whose site had been the victim of fly tipping, advised a farmer buying a quarry full of illegally deposited waste, and instructed a barrister to assist with a claim for environmental damage in a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
During the same week, I advised a restaurant chain on how to re-open their buffet in a covid-secure way, advised numerous businesses on health and safety implications of the pandemic, and corresponded with the Coroner on behalf of a widow whose husband had died abroad with Covid-19.
I act for local authorities and drainage boards who are working hard to ensure we resist the impacts of increased rainfall and rising water levels for as long as possible. I also assist developers to manage the liability of contaminated sites and ensure they are redeveloped in a way that makes them safe for future generations. I speak to landowners on flooding, drainage and sewage issues which have become much more commonplace in the past ten years.
“If it is wet, smelly or ugly, I can usually help!”
What would you say now to your younger self?
My younger self was pretty apprehensive about the year 2000, but we all tumbled into the 21st century remarkably unscathed. I would tell my younger self not to fear the millennium, start a pension earlier, give up single use plastics, and prepare for 2020 – the year that comes from nowhere and turns everything on its head.
I would tell him that although 2020 will be challenging, it will bring us new opportunities. It will make us value the people we work with more than we have ever done before. It will allow us to use technology as an alternative to face-to face meetings and reduce our carbon footprint. It will show society just how important it is to put our vulnerable and elderly before profits and economic considerations.
I’d also tell him that I think we’ll be okay.
What opportunities has 2020 brought for your business
My colleagues and I are very fortunate that we can all work from home. When the government announced lockdown, we had already sent vulnerable staff home, and were ready for everyone else to work remotely too. Although our servers creaked under the weight of 165 remote log ins, our IT has held up superbly.
Some of our clients could not work from home and had to scale back their operations. Others found innovative ways around challenges and had an incredibly busy lockdown. We found that we could deliver the same service and give clients the reassurance they need while not being together in our offices, and without access to the photocopier and original documents.
We have learned lots of things, but three valuable lessons stand out;
- We do not need to be face-to-face to be effective. Working collaboratively can be done by phone, email, video, text, WhatsApp, Messenger, post and even fax.
- We are adaptable, creative and flexible when new challenges present. Centuries of wet ink have been replaced by an electronic signature on formal documents. Witnessing signatures can now be done by video or using an app that scrambles everything securely in a way I can’t even begin to explain.
- We need to keep having conversations about wellbeing, health and happiness. We have all had bad days since 23 March, and when we’re worried or anxious it affects our work. Creating an environment of support and openness has allowed us to understand the challenges we and our clients face, discuss the bad days and focus on the good.
What has been the biggest challenge and how have you overcome it?
I left the public sector over five years ago to build an environmental and regulatory practice at Schofield Sweeney. I had no clients and very few leads on day one. As a former Environment Agency prosecutor and Regional Solicitor, my knowledge and experience of environmental issues were really useful for clients, but the biggest challenge has been letting potential clients know what we can do for them and who to turn to when an environmental or regulatory issue crops up.
Networking before 2020 involved face-to-face meetings, speaking engagements, attending events and lots of coffee. Since lockdown, Zoom calls have been something of a substitute, and socially distanced walks have turned several clients into friends. Until we can safely meet again, the most effective communications have been simple calls or emails to let clients know that you care, and you are here if they need anything.
How has 2020 changed what you do?
I often receive instructions following a visit to a client’s premises by officers from the Environment Agency, Local Authority or Health and Safety Executive. Most regulators have not been making site visits for much of 2020, but clients have had to change the way they work to make sure they are Covid-secure, and that has been a challenge.
An unexpected effect of the pandemic is the growth in advice to businesses on how to remain Covid-secure. Authorities have turned their attention to environmental health and safety matters and are conducting spot checks of local businesses. Twelve months ago, most of us had never heard of Covid, but we have all had to become experts on minimising the risk of transmission. Many clients have sought advice on the difficulties this has created.
How will Brexit impact on what you do?
Virtually all of the work I do involves laws which have come from the EU. The government are currently considering the Environment Bill, which will bring a range of new environmental protection measures and will set up the Office for Environmental Protection to monitor and report on our environmental performance. These measures will replace those aspects of EU law that will no longer apply.
I will have to get to grips with a new environmental regime, but 2020 has taught us all that you can teach old dogs new tricks! I have some nagging questions about whether the Environment Bill goes far enough to protect the environment and reduce our impact upon it. As a nation, I also hope we will properly fund the excellent work done by the Environment Agency and local authorities to minimise the impact of flooding and rising sea levels.
How to balance work and life
For most of my career, work life balance has been about leaving the office at a sensible hour and not working too many weekends. In 2020, it’s all about how to manage the blurred line between work and home life within the home.
At the start of lockdown, my dog and my work laptop constantly followed me around the house. One would present me with its lead and the other would present me with emails while I was cooking dinner or watching TV in the evenings. Work would start at 8am at the dining table and have no finish time. We now have an understanding, my work laptop and me. It lives in my home office upstairs and I leave it alone most evenings after 6.30pm. Like everyone, I see much less of my friends and extended family than I used to but managing to see less of my work laptop has been great for maintaining a healthy work life balance.
I remain in ongoing negotiations with the dog, however.