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New Partners Joining our Further Education Team

on Thursday, 20 August 2015.

Our further education (FE) team, led by partner Emma-Jane Burnell, has recently been strengthened by the arrival of new partners, Jane Byford, employment, and Clive Read, real estate, from SGH Martineau.

Both Clive and Jane are based at our growing Birmingham office and are well-known within the FE sector.

To help you to get to know them better and their views on the issues affecting the sector we asked…

What attracted you both to joining VWV?

Jane: Having worked with education clients throughout my career, particularly FE and HE, my first priority on considering a move was that it was to a firm that had a strong education client base with the desire to increase that offering. VWV has a stellar reputation in the education sector and it is a priority sector for the firm in terms of investment and growth.

My second priority was to find a collegiate and supportive environment and a group of people I would enjoy working with and having known some of the partners at VWV for a number of years, I was confident that I would fit in and really feel part of the team.

Finally, as a Brummie the challenge of helping to develop the firm's relatively new Birmingham practice was one I just couldn't resist.

Clive: Initially the track record and pedigree in acting for education clients plus being part of a newish operation in Birmingham but reinforced by having a national practice across Bristol and London offices. Above all, though, the people. I was made instantly to feel very welcome from the very first moment I met them. There's a clear direction of where we are and where we want to be and it's exciting to be part of a very vibrant and commercial firm.

You recently joined VWV from SGH Martineau. How have you been settling in?

Clive: It’s been great. VWV is extremely professional and well-run, with a great reputation for real estate and education work, which was vital for me. There’s a strong camaraderie across all offices and there is a genuine sense of team work and everyone pulling together for the benefit of the firm and its clients.

Its core values permeate everything that is great about the firm – teamwork and collaboration, placing clients at the centre of the firm, and having a commercial approach. Everyone strives to deliver those core values each and every day.

Jane: It has been a fantastic move and I am relishing the new challenge! I am fortunate to be working with a great group of lawyers and support staff, with teamwork and collaboration not just being aspirational words but concepts that are put into practice in everything we do. I have been impressed by the enthusiasm and energy that my colleagues have to achieve the very best for our clients, working with them to find pragmatic and workable solutions.

What do you see as the pressing employment issues for FE colleges?

Jane: FE colleges are having to face ever more demanding student expectations, whilst at the same time experiencing cuts in funding. Staff performance, be it rewarding star performers or dealing with underperformance, is a key issue as colleges find themselves having to do more with less.

And in real estate?

Clive: With the increased pressure on fees (again) coming from central government, it is hard to see where some colleges can make gains. Sales off for residential or other development have largely been made and colleges are so much leaner than ever they were 20 years ago. What fat there might have been has long since been trimmed. Colleges will need to look to where they can make a difference, education-wise, and follow that which will inevitably mean some courses fall away.

Investment will therefore need to be very targeted and capital projects will have to demonstrate (even more) clear value for money. We're likely to see more refurbs than major campus-wide developments. Where they can, joint ventures or arrangements with industry are likely to come to the fore, if there are ways colleges can help train the future IT specialists, manufacturers, industrialists of tomorrow. Good relations with your LEP will be a must now they hold the key to capital grants

What are the key differences between now and when you started out in law?

Jane: Employment law is never static and it can be a challenge for employers to keep up with the changes that happen on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. For my practice, the most significant changes have been the expansion of discrimination law to now cover nine protected characteristics, the increased focus on family friendly policies and work/life balance and the legislation and case law emanating from the EU.

The ever changing nature of the law and increased legislation can present a minefield for employers and providing practical solutions and guidance in this context means working with clients as part of their teams rather than just advising on the law.

Clive: The pace of change never slackens and the global recession from 2007/8 has had some key impacts. Pretty much all jobs now are done on fixed fees or, if that’s not possible (because precise scoping is not predictable) then work is defined and priced as clearly as it can be and then firmed up later. Hourly rates are probably still of interest as a yardstick of sorts but in reality long gone are the days of 'it’ll cost as long as it takes', which only seemed to serve to reward inefficiency.

Whilst many aspects of commercial property can be commoditised I still believe there is very much a place for top quality, commercial, legal advice that all clients value and are prepared to pay for. That’s especially true of major projects where the legal profession can add genuine value in guiding clients through complex and difficult transactions. Colleges want clear explanations and the really good solicitors are those who can help colleges get what they want in a commercial way.

VWV has adopted a modern working environment. What does that mean in reality and how has it impacted on both your clients' and the team's working practices?

Jane: We have three offices (London, Bristol and Birmingham) but it genuinely doesn't matter which one you are working from and an effective team approach makes working across the offices seamless. With the use of video conferencing, electronic filing, and everyone having iPhones we can easily work as one team, provide a seamless service to clients and ensure that one of the client team will always be available when a client wants advice, with electronic access to any documentation we may need.

What's been your standout client/case?

Clive: That’s a bit like asking what’s your favourite song of all time! It can change from time to time between a handful of different songs. I’ve been very lucky to work with some great and inspirational people, a number of whom have become good friends. There's nothing like a major case or project to reinforce close relations.

Over 25 years there’s been no single standout case or client but I have been incredibly proud to help a number of colleges transform their campuses through new builds, from Rugby, Ilkeston, Stroud, and Epping Forest, via Hinckley, Leicester, Burton, Nottingham and onto Birmingham and Bournville, amongst many others. The real joy is then seeing the massive upsurge of opportunity and optimism those developments create, especially for students.

A project that has recently completed of which I am incredibly proud is for Barnet & Southgate College, where the college’s existing campus is being sold on a phased basis to a national house-builder, with the proceeds of sale being ploughed back into a new campus on a brownfield site, that has been remediated and made ready for development in a venture with the local authority and its developer partner. The project was pivotal to the college’s future expansion as well as to the local student population, acting as a catalyst for a much wider regeneration of that part of north London. It was complicated to make sure that the conditions precedent for the sale and the acquisition/development matched up, so that the college didn’t end up with no properties or two campuses! What stood out for me was the teamwork between my team and that of the college: we gelled, all of us working very long hours, over-coming the many issues that arose. All of us were determined the project would happen for the good of the people of Barnet. It'll be great when it is open for business.

Jane: As an employment lawyer, I deal with some very interesting issues and what people get up to at work never ceases to amaze me, especially in these days of social media. However, my standout case was an employment tribunal claim for unfair dismissal, race and disability discrimination which lasted over five years, during which time there was a 10 day tribunal hearing, the case then went up to the EAT and the Court of Appeal, before returning to the tribunal for an 11 day hearing. The client eventually won but not without allegations of witness intimidation, fabrication of evidence and the claimant giving her evidence whilst alternatively lying on the floor of the tribunal or bouncing on a red exercise ball due to a bad back, on the way. There was never a dull moment!

What else would you like to achieve in your career?

Clive: I feel there’s still so much I would love to do. For now, helping develop VWV Birmingham office so we become the automatic firm of choice for education clients.

Can you sum yourself up in five words?

Jane: Approachable, pragmatic, driven, straight-forward and confident.

Clive: Driven, leader, responsible, supportive, meticulous.

Jane will be presenting a workshop at the forthcoming Association of Colleges Employment Conference on 22 October 2015.