“How governments may legislate to protect the natural environment is something leaders should be thinking about”

Business Leader recently met with Osborne Clarke’s new Bristol Head of Office Lara Burch to talk about her vision for the law firm.

Can you tell us more about your history at Osborne Clarke?

I have been at Osborne Clarke since 1997. Before taking on this role, I headed up the commercial team in Bristol for many years and led our UK transport and automotive sector team for several years too. I have worked in various parts of the business, so becoming Head of Office was a natural progression.

By background, I am a commercial lawyer with a particular focus on the transport sector (areas like rail and logistics, for example), and on the energy sector. I act for both local and international companies on major commercial transactions, and enjoy the variety that comes from both supporting local businesses and working on a cross-border basis.

When did you first think about taking up this role?

It’s a very exciting time for the business and the timing seemed right. We are going to be moving to new offices in Finzels Reach, and the business continues to grow due to the quality of work we’re delivering and the success that our clients are enjoying across a range of sectors. This growth is being underpinned by our 3D strategy.

Can you tell us about the 3D strategy?

The strategy has three core elements: specialist legal advice, expertise in a number of sectors and a focus on three key transformational drivers of change. These three drivers are digitalisation, decarbonisation and urban dynamics. Each of these is having a real impact on our clients’ businesses: how they transform their operations through technology, how they address the net-zero challenge, and how people change the way they live and work in an urban environment. These are all important topics, and they impact each of us as individuals, as well as how businesses operate.

What do you think you’ll bring to this new role?

The feedback I often get is that I’m a very inclusive leader. I see my role as pulling together all the capabilities that we have across the business and the different perspectives that people bring. And because I have that inclusive nature, and a real focus on fairness, I’ll be driving forward our diversity and inclusivity agenda to ensure positive change. I’m also keen to ensure that Osborne Clarke plays its part in Bristol as a major employer, as a business that supports local charities, local communities and helps to protect the natural environment.

How else do you plan to connect Osborne Clarke with the local community?

Laura Burch, Osborne Clarke

Laura Burch

We’ve had a strong connection to the local community for a number of years.

We helped to set up the Quartet Community Foundation with an original donation 30 years ago and our partners donate each year, enabling the firm to make community donations and support colleagues with matched giving. Since the trust was set up in 1997, we’ve made grants of over one million pounds. Some of the local charities we have helped include Youth Moves, Empire Fighting Chance, Misfits Theatre Company, FareShare SW and St Paul’s Carnival.

We have deep links with the Bristol Law Centre and we make regular donations to support its pro bono clinic and our lawyers volunteer there. We are also members of the Bristol Pro Bono Group and the Bristol Community Engagement Group.

In each of our offices, we always support a local charity and we give our people the ability to choose the charity through a very democratic voting process. Our involvement with the charity takes various forms, including fundraising, volunteering and helping to raise the profile of that charity. In Bristol, the winning charity this year was Gympanzees, a charity focused on providing specialist leisure facilities for children with disabilities. For the next eighteen months, we’ll be helping raise funds so that Gympanzees can build a brand new facility kitted out with specialist rooms and equipment.

Other local initiatives align with our diversity and inclusion agenda. For example, to promote social mobility and diversity, we’ve recently launched a partnership with an organization called Visionpath. It’s an education and employability programme called The Bridge and it has been designed to create ‘The Bridge’ between education and employment for young people from under-represented backgrounds.

Our support is comprised of a range of tailored sessions and interactions with the students, including career insight days, demystifying the legal sector, apprenticeship opportunities, interview practice, CV and UCAS support and one-to-one mentoring. In Bristol, these activities will centre on the Merchants Academy in Withywood.

We support environmental charities which align with our focus on being a good corporate citizen. In Bristol, we have long-term partnership with Avon Wildlife Trust and we have worked with the charity to provide education and volunteering opportunities for our people.

We also support local racial and ethnic minority communities through Bristol Council’s Stepping Up Programme, annual mentoring programme, and the #10,000BlackInterns national initiative.

What are your growth plans for the business?

We’ll continue to grow organically. We will maintain our focus on our 3D strategy and work closely with businesses that operate in the spaces we’ve identified as the ones seeing the most transformational change. Alongside this we’ll continue to act for the most exciting businesses in the region, and underpinning this is our commitment to driving change and remaining forward-thinking.

What are the biggest challenges you’re personally facing in your role?

I would say getting to grips with the scale of everything that is happening, not only in our own business and our clients’ businesses but in the economy generally, against the backdrop of the pandemic, Brexit, the challenges of addressing climate change and the conflict in Ukraine.

What do you see as the main challenges facing your clients?

Clearly, Covid has been a huge challenge. It impacts so much in a business and business models generally, particularly where supply chain dependencies come into play; and, of course, some sectors have been particularly affected, such as hospitality.

For many of our clients, one current challenge is finding the right balance between the long-term flexibility many staff would like, such as carrying on working from home at least some of the time, and the benefits that come from meeting face-to-face in the office.

Digitalisation is a challenge as well because although it brings new opportunities, it does require a lot of strategic thought about how you make the best use of the new technologies that are available, how they integrate with or replace legacy systems and processes, and how to address cyber security and best protect the business from the risk of cyber-attacks.

Looking further ahead, I believe that in two years’ time, the challenge of restoring biodiversity will be as much of an issue for businesses as the current challenges around meeting net-zero targets. Governments are already starting to mandate measures (such as the new biodiversity net gain obligations in the UK) – I think this is the start of a trend that corporates will need to have on their agenda. As we’ve seen with climate change, environmental issues have direct economic impacts – we will start to see that play out soon in relation to biodiversity, too.

What is your perspective on the supply chain issues?

Supply chains have been severely impacted by Covid, by changes in consumer demand during the various lockdowns around the world, by rising fuel costs, and in the UK, by Brexit. It will take some time for the effects of this to be unraveled. I’m more optimistic than some about how long that will take. There’s more scope for digitalisation to introduce efficiencies into logistics and supply chain processes, for example, which will help streamline things going forward.

What legal developments should business leaders be aware of?

The question of how governments may legislate to protect the natural environment is one that leaders should be thinking about: we’re going to see continued pressure to achieve net-zero targets, and similar mechanisms may well come into play to safeguard biodiversity. There is ever-increasing regulation around the use of digital technologies, particularly in dealings with consumers, too, that leaders need to consider.

We have whole teams focusing on areas of law that didn’t really exist even five years ago because there’s so much more regulation now and this demonstrates how quickly what matters changes. We are now outside of the EU, so business leaders will need to be monitoring two areas at once, in respect to what the UK is doing and what is happening in the EU, as over time the regulatory regimes are likely to diverge.

Regarding the economic recovery, how do you see this playing out?

I think that’s a really difficult question to answer because I don’t think it’s just one picture. It’s a very fragmented jigsaw of different outcomes depending on which sector you look at. The landscape for leisure and hospitality is very different, for example, from the landscape for a business running a social media platform, and that’s very different from manufacturing, and very different again for someone who’s providing workplace solutions.

Some sectors are going to continue to find things really challenging for quite some time. For others, the current situation just brings a host of opportunities.

What are your views on hybrid working?

We have learned lots during the pandemic about how people can work in a more flexible way. Within Osborne Clarke, we were already flexible before the pandemic, and many of our people did have a fair degree of freedom to work from home or from elsewhere. We had already set up connected working policies to enable this and invested in the technology required to support this.

For me, it is important that we maintain that flexibility, and we make it available to as many people as we can across the business, whilst not losing the benefits that come from meeting face-to-face and talking face-to-face.