David Ward was appointed a partner in the employment team at Blacks Solicitors in 2019, aged just 31. He talks to the Brief about developing niche practice areas, winning at the Employment Appeals Tribunal and his career path at one of Yorkshire’s biggest independent firms.
David Ward is one of five partners in the employment practice at Blacks Solicitors, the firm he joined as a trainee in 2011 and has remained with ever since. In 2015 he successfully applied for associateship and, in December 2019, was elevated to the role of salaried partner.
“That was just before the lockdown and all the upheaval it caused,” he recalls. “It’s amazing to look back. We didn’t really know much about the pandemic in December of 2019, and then from December to February it wasn’t really on our radar so much in the UK – we knew about it, but it didn’t seem like it was going to affect us massively.
“Then in early March we started hearing so much about it and it became a real threat. On 15 March 2020 I decided it might be best if I just head off home. I’ve worked from home, apart from one or at most two days a week in the office, ever since.”
This, he continues, is a far cry from his pre-pandemic routine, which involved an 80-mile round trip from his home in York to the office in Leeds and back every day.
“I used a lot of fuel and a lot of time commuting,” he says. “I don’t do that now.”
Affinity for employment
Before joining Blacks, Ward studied law at The University of Salford, and then completed his Legal Practice Certificate at the College of Law in York (the latter has since become the University of Law, and has relocated to Leeds). The first member of his family to attend university, he achieved a first-class honours degree, and passed his LPC with distinction.
Employment was the fourth seat he completed during his training contract, and he says he felt an immediate affinity for this area of law. “I had found learning about employment law at university fairly dry (yet with a great lecturer (RIP Victoria)), but actually working in it in practice is very interesting and rewarding,” he explains.
His first seat as a trainee had been commercial litigation which, as a new trainee, he admits to having found intimidating in its breadth of scope. His second was private client, where he enjoyed the element of human interaction, and his third was commercial property, which he found too transactional for his taste.
In employment, however, he found his Goldilocks zone. He says, “It harked back to litigation, but the tribunal rules are a lot more condensed, common-sense and, to an extent, easier to follow.
“Every day is different, though. There are all sorts of different cases, and types of cases, and interesting scenarios, and I just felt that I took to it.
“Every employment practitioner that I have ever spoken to has taken to it in that way. Nobody has got a bad word to say about it in terms of a day job.”
Almost a decade on from qualification, and a partner in the firm, Ward has established a number of niche practice areas, including the automotive sector, education and uniformed services personnel.
Ward has a longstanding interest in the automotive industry, and related mechanical sectors, which stems from his father’s occupation restoring and painting cars. He says, “From a very early age I have worked on machinery and vehicles, to a semi-professional level.
“It’s a massive hobby of mine and I’ve got a lot of background knowledge of the automotive and agricultural machinery industries. If ever there has been an automotive-related matter that I have been able to assist with at Blacks, I have been involved with it.”
His interest in education, meanwhile, has developed as a result of his partner being a primary school teacher. “I have a working knowledge of how teachers live and work, and their workloads, and how schools work.”
Schools, he continues, differ from most other employers in their terms and conditions, rules and working practices. And, while they are known for being heavily unionised workplaces, they do still produce work for private practice lawyers.
“Unionised workforces tend to work with their unions and/or union solicitors when they have a dispute,” Ward acknowledges. “But my instructions in these matters have, to some extent, been from people who didn’t get on with the union, or weren’t a member of a union, or who didn’t necessarily want to involve the union and wanted someone independent.
“It depends on funding as well. If unions fund then that’s fine, but unions don’t always fund. And I have developed a bit of a niche no-win, no-fee practice within Blacks.”
His specialisation in military and police personnel, meanwhile, simply came about by getting involved in those cases when the opportunity arose. “When we have received interesting jobs in those fields I’ve always dealt with them, and branched out.
“I have dealt with quite an interesting sex discrimination claim against the RAF, and a whistle-blowing case around a large police force. I have also successfully won a constructive unfair dismissal claim brought by our client against the cadets.”
Ward identifies the whistle-blowing case against the police, which is ongoing, as a particular professional highlight of his career to-date. He says, “We got a judgment in that claim, and it wasn’t in our favour. We went to the Employment Appeal Tribunal in London and succeeded on appeal to get the judgment remitted back to the original tribunal, because the original judgment lacked reasoning.
“It may be the case that with better reasoning we will succeed. Succeeding in the Employment Appeal Tribunal has to be a real professional highlight, because winning in a first-tier employment tribunal setting with a claim is no mean feat.
“You hear a lot in the press about the claims that have succeeded, but it’s not the easiest of tasks to succeed in an employment tribunal, and to prove that an employer has behaved unlawfully. So the wins are great, and the EAT success has been a real highlight.”
In his early thirties, with the biggest highlights of his career likely still to be ahead of him, what does he believe will be the “next big thing” in the field of employment law? As someone who is enjoying the reduced commute and, he believes, a more productive environment that results from flexible working, Ward is clear on this.
“It’s the extent to which hybrid working dominates employment practice going forward,” he says. “I’m interested to see whether the world returns to a more office-based environment or whether we just stay as we are”.
“With employment law practice, events tend to happen and then there’s a bit of a delay while businesses implement the necessary changes. So, a lot of my respondent clients are now putting in place hybrid working arrangements and, rather than just being reactive and it being an unwritten rule that their staff can just default onto hybrid working, clients are now putting these arrangements into their contracts of employment from the outset.”
Finally, as someone who made partnership six years after he qualified, Ward says he is committed to helping the next generation of lawyers progress. “I take a lot of satisfaction from mentoring others and seeing trainees pass through the department, excel at what they’re doing, and move on to other seats and qualify,” he says.
I try to take as active a role as possible in mentoring junior staff, and that is a really rewarding part of my role.
- Connect with David Ward via LinkedIn