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Positive impact from city's newest law firm

By Mike Scialom

Bircham Dyson Bell partners from left are Simon Burson, Duncan Walker and James Stephen. Picture: Keith Heppell
Bircham Dyson Bell partners from left are Simon Burson, Duncan Walker and James Stephen. Picture: Keith Heppell

From the off, Bircham Dyson Bell knew its way round Cambridge

Women in Property event featuring, from left, John Hicks of WSP who hosted the event; Katy Klingopulos, senior associate in the Real Estate Department at Bircham Dyson Bell and Lynette Lackey, a former national chair of Women in Property
Women in Property event featuring, from left, John Hicks of WSP who hosted the event; Katy Klingopulos, senior associate in the Real Estate Department at Bircham Dyson Bell and Lynette Lackey, a former national chair of Women in Property

Given that it’s been going for just a year, Bircham Dyson Bell (“BDB”) knows its way round Cambridge rather well.

This sense of embeddedness is at least partly due to the fact that head of the Cambridge office, Simon Burson, and fellow partners James Stephen and Duncan Walker, have long been working in the city.

Simon looked after Eversheds’ real estate business for nearly 10 years, latterly as head of department, before he joined global law firm King & Wood Mallesons (KWM) in 2015 to establish their Cambridge office. However, due to “wider business issues across Europe”, KWM pulled out of Cambridge just before Christmas 2016. Simon was committed to the office and to Cambridge and so looked for a new home for himself and his team of 10. He talked to a number of law firms including BDB. The key factor for Simon was that the Cambridge team be respected for having developed a range of skills which matched the demand for legal services in the Cambridge cluster.

“I didn’t want to dilute the Cambridge brand and, having talked to half a dozen firms, we collectively decided on BDB,” explains Simon. “For them this wasn’t a back office proposition: they wanted to be in Cambridge and wanted to be a part of Cambridge, so quite fortuitously BDB said ‘we want to be where you are’.”

BDB is one of the UK’s oldest law firms. Established in 1834, it has 268 employees in London, its only other office.

“The firm specialises in private wealth, government and infrastructure, corporate/commercial and IP/IT, charities and obviously real estate – so a strong long-term proposition.”

“My focus is corporate work,” adds James Stephen, a Norfolk lad who got acquainted with Cambridge when he was a postgraduate at the university. Of his backstory he says: “I did 14 years in London – Mayer Brown, Baker & McKenzie, big global firms – but I knew I wanted to live and work here.” James arrived from Penningtons Manches last year and is a partner in corporate and commercial.

BDB’s Cambridge office began life in January 2017 and currently contributes four partners to BDB central, which has a total of 48 partners across the whole firm.

“We’re the new kids on the block in the firm,” says Simon of the dynamic. “We’re very much involved firmwide and are definitely part of the firm’s strategic direction, so we have a say in the way things are going. We think the personal approach is the way to get things done. We believe that being part of the professional community, and the client community, is all about bringing people together and we’re here for the long term. Cambridge has a way of doing things and we have that entrepreneurial approach as a firm so we like to be seen as someone people can talk to.”

This inclusive ethos was evident at the Cambridge office’s evening reception last month at Downing College, which provided an opportunity for clients and contacts from across the business community to meet and engage with one another.

It’s not all about tradition, though. The current crop of issues is setting new precedents for economic volatility. So would the US having a trade war with China affect the way that Cambridge does business with the Chinese?

“There’s a lot of inward investment from China into this market and I’ve been involved with advising local clients who work with China,” says James.

“Chinese companies are not nicking IP from the West,” says Simon. “They’re acquiring IP. Our IP partner, Dennis Lee, is Chinese and speaks Mandarin and Cantonese. There’s a lot of Chinese investment in this area and having someone speak the language is a huge asset. It’s a massive opportunity.”

Closer to home, the team are involved in the Cambridge to Oxford Arc project and recently visited the regional mayor’s team to discuss the proposals.

“We went to the mayor’s office to talk about the Cambridge-Oxford development,” says Simon. “We’re involved in government contracts, private estates and the transport sector so we’re one of the firms uniquely placed to link it all up, and you’ll see more from us in the next two or three months on that.”

Stand by for a conference perhaps, but the duo will say no more, except to add that with a Cambridge South rail station in the mix “there’s masses going on and we think there’s an opportunity there”.

The city’s newest law firm just celebrated its one-year milestone and is now actively developing its Cambridge services. It has skills for the life sciences sector, not least on the IP side, and data security and privacy is also fast-moving – as we now all know! Because the team was previously embedded in the city their views have evolved as the city has developed. They appreciate that any new firm has to understand the way business is done here. The tumult of clashing views, as ever, centres on the CB1 district.

“I know there’s some criticism about the way it looks,” says Simon, “but I like the way it’s panning out so that on the left hand side as you leave the station, it’s modern, and on the right, it’s older looking towards the city centre.”

With an insider’s knowledge, Simon pinpoints the size of the floor plates as being a focus of attention.

“The floor plates are 10,000 to 14,000 square feet,” remarks Simon. “They can be divided but there will be pressure to let whole buildings to firms like Microsoft (who are already on Station Road), but I don’t think you can do that very often in Cambridge.

“However, the developer appears to have a very sensible, organic approach to it (CB1) and I think it will be Brexit-proof as Cambridge will continue to be the number one place to develop new technology and science.”

You can read about what the firm thinks of it all in its regular monthly article in the Cambridge Independent, where the firm looks at various topical issues from being a tenant in Cambridge to buying out a rival.

“We’re really plugged in to living and working here,” says James.

Cambridge is such a successful market that it’s become relatively easy for us to engage in it, and it’s very exciting for us to be part of the Cambridge story,” concludes Simon.


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