Five minutes with Paul Dunlop the Ironman of law
Paul Dunlop is a Principal of the firm, Head of the firm’s Litigation and Disputes team and leads one of Dorset’s most successful agricultural law teams. He is recognised by The Legal 500 as one of ‘the UK’s leading individuals’ in his area of law. However, his journey to the top is unique and in this interview we find out how Paul came to spearhead teams in both litigation and agricultural law for Blanchards Bailey.
What made you want to pursue a career in law?
I am told that the first career I wanted, when I was about three years old, was to be a Refuse Collection Officer, or Bin Man, as a result of the bin lorry’s flashing lights being a highlight of my week.
As time passed, I wanted to be a fireman, and I took a degree in Disaster Engineering and Management, which included a year of studying at the Fire College in Moreton-in-Marsh. At this point I became interested in the legal system, especially the concept of corporate manslaughter following a number of major man-made disasters.
This inspired me to join a law firm in a minor administration role. I quickly improved a number of their processes and this freed up my time to start some basic paralegal work. Within the year I was promoted to the head of a debt collection sub team with 10 members of staff and I was being supported by the firm to study the Common Professional Examination Course (to convert my degree to a law degree). I was offered a training contract and supported through my Legal Practice Course, eventually becoming a Solicitor.
How did you find yourself specialising in Litigation and Agriculture at Blanchards Bailey?
I had worked in agricultural litigation since September 2008 before moving to Blanchards Bailey in 2013 to gain partnership. I could see that Blanchards Bailey was a forward thinking and progressive firm. I believed that my skills, knowledge, work ethic, personality and motivation matched and complimented that of the other Principals and staff. Thankfully I was correct; the firm is continuing to grow and I have not looked back.
Litigation is like a box of chocolates as you never quite know what legal problem you are going to get. My specialism enables me to deal with these varied problems and cases and refer them to areas of the law in which I am acutely versed.
My litigation team is ranked by The Legal 500 as specialist in commercial litigation and I was named as a leader in this field and in agriculture and estate litigation. As a team we advise on almost all areas of litigation, including employment law, but I focus on contentious Wills and probate claims, land disputes, commercial disputes and negligence claims.
What is your take on the agriculture sector in Dorset today?
With an area of 2,653km², Dorset is the smallest county in the south west, with about 74% of the area being farmed land. Agriculture is a key industry of the county and there are 2,241 commercial farm holdings in Dorset, with 5,974 people directly employed in agriculture and many people living outside the main conurbation linked to it in some way. About 80% of our staff have direct links to agriculture with family members working in the sector.
The county has lush pasture and is therefore extremely good for raising prime beef and dairy herds. The latest statistics produced by the NFU show that Dorset has 178,895 cows. Unfortunately, TB and low milk prices have seen a decline in the number of farmers who can afford to keep cattle. I, like everyone in the industry, hope that farmers start getting paid a sensible sum for the milk they produce, rather than having to sell it for less than it costs to make.
With produce being sold cheaply in England and land prices remaining extremely high, a lot of farmers are reliant on subsidies. Chancellor Philip Hammond has recently guaranteed that subsidies will continue to be paid until at least 2020. Farmers who are reliant on subsidies need to look to diversify and/or streamline their business so they are prepared for whatever happens. Land values and rental fees have increased as a result of subsidies and many farmers I have spoken with believe the industry will benefit if prices reduce.
Many of our Dorset farmers export their produce to Europe and further afield. The slight reduction in the value of the British pound has been advantageous for such farmers, but the uncertainty of future trading agreement and tariffs may present problems.
What qualities do you think you need to be able to do a good job for your clients?
It is a given that I need to know the law. The most important thing I can do for my client is to resolve litigation to their satisfaction as quickly as possible. I use my experience and knowledge to be a peacemaker, mediator and negotiator, at the same time as being a forceful litigator, so my clients’ cases are ready for trial, but hopefully don’t proceed that far, saving them costs, anguish, time and stress.
I offer clients a service which is professional, commercial and supportive.
What do you love about your job and what makes you proud?
I love to use the law, the written word and tactics to manoeuvre my clients into a position whereby they succeed in their dispute. It is very rare to have a case where all facts and evidence wholly support your client’s case; for good reason such cases do not get litigated. Therefore, strategy, practicality and problem solving are key attributes.
I am proud that I am able to help clients at difficult times of their life and the firm can help them by becoming involved in future litigation. I carry out a number of cases under Conditional Fee Agreements and other funding agreements to enable clients to have access to justice which they might not otherwise have had if they had to pay privately as the case progresses.
Tell us about a specific example of your work of which you are particularly proud?
An agricultural client had been forced to leave his family farming partnership by a controlling father in the 1980s. Our client was promised he would receive what was owed to him. When his father passed away a few years ago our client had a potential partnership dispute claim, an Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 claim, a promissory estoppel claim, a proprietary estoppel claim and a breach of trust claim. The total estate was worth in excess of £10m but it had other claims against it, as did the farming business.
Although the incident happened in the 1980s and there were limited documents and minimal witnesses, I was able to secure my client a settlement of about £2m, without even issuing court proceedings. My specialist knowledge of both probate claims and agricultural disputes enabled me to deal with the variety of issues.
What do you get involved in outside work?
I take part in Ironman events and whilst I don’t always find the time to train as much as I should, I have completed a half Ironman in 5hrs 28 mins and a full Ironman in 11hrs 24 mins. I hope to complete a full Ironman in less than 10 hours within the next three years. I really must increase my training soon!
I shoot as regularly as I can, although I am still a novice and probably miss more than I hit.
My wife and I have two working cocker spaniels and we enjoy walking them in the countryside around where we live and walking coastal paths, the moors and the mountain ranges in the UK.
What does it mean to you to be individually recognised by The Legal 500?
The Legal 500 is an independent organisation which has criteria of assessing the competence and ability of lawyers all over the world against other firms, departments and individuals. The Legal 500 seeks information from clients, third parties, other law firms and referees to ascertain whether you should be named and therefore it really is a 360° appraisal of your ability.
I am extremely pleased that the hard work and commitment to the legal profession and the agricultural sector which I have put in over the last 10 years has been duly recognised.
Do you see any changes to laws and developments in your field of which people should be aware?
The legal profession is ever changing. I had four multi-million pound cases last year which settled at mediation before a claim was even issued. I am now instructed by clients to review their business and their literature to see if I can help them avoid litigation, rather than waiting until it is too late.
The shape and size of law firms are changing, as is the technology and the pace that we need to deal with matters. The firms who are not prepared to invest in IT and staff will not survive. The court system has undertaken an exercise in costing a file from start to finish using paper versus electronic communication and documentation. The savings were tens of thousands of pounds. My department is paper light, everything is held electronically and we could be paperless if we did not receive post or have to correspond with third parties by hard copy letters. I foresee all firms and the court being paper light in the next five years.