Mike Hughes goes behind the brand at Womble Bond Dickinson to meet two senior staff who epitomise the local strengths of the business in the North East


A LEGAL brief seems like a good place to start when building a case that this is a different - perhaps unique – law firm.

In the latest Chambers UK Guide, a leading guide based largely on client feedback, WBD was highly ranked in 65 practice areas including 19 top tier rankings, and was named as a National Leader in ten practice areas.

More than a hundred of the firm's lawyers were recognised as leaders in their areas of expertise.

It quotes: “Chambers UK showers much praise upon WBD for many areas, but recurring regional strengths include real estate, construction, employment, corporate/M&A, IT and banking & finance. On a UK-wide basis, WBD stands out for its work in sectors such as retail, rail transport, energy and natural resources, manufacturing, education and health. Chambers FinTech also highlights the firm’s work in this innovative area.”

Read more: Womble Bond Dickinson previews the construction year ahead

The firm can trace its roots in the region back to 1786, and in 2013 Dickinson Dees merged with its southern counterpart Bond Pearce to create Bond Dickinson.

Its past is just as impressive and far reaching as its present and future, with the firm’s American predecessor, Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice LLP, established in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1876. 

In 2017, the firm approved a transatlantic combination with US based Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice LLP to create Womble Bond Dickinson, building on a Strategic Alliance announced by the two firms the previous year.

But as with anyone you might think of working with, you want to go behind the ‘About Us’ paragraphs online and meet the people behind the brand, question them, listen to them and let them put their side of the case to discover what the true character of a business is.

Having talked to some of its most senior and experienced staff in the North East, it is the regional heritage and local knowledge at Womble Bond Dickinson that makes it such a powerhouse.

This ‘transatlantic law firm close to home’ has an immense international reach but its effectiveness in the sector, and what has attracted such praise, is that each office is a hub embedded in that area, staffed with people who have deep-rooted personal links with the region, know it inside out and care about what happens here and how they can influence that.

My two guides behind that brand are Peter Snaith and Nigel Emmerson. Peter is head of WBD’s manufacturing sector group. Before joining the firm he worked as an in-house lawyer at ICI and has maintained a focus on working with chemicals and chemistry-using companies. He also has a wealth of experience in ports, transport and logistics and international trade.

Nigel joined the firm in 1992 – on the same day as Peter - and now heads the Housing Group, specialising in all aspects of residential property and working with organisations like The National Trust, Grainger and Bernicia.

He is also the firm's representative in the UK Apartment Association, is a trustee of Urban Green Newcastle and works only an hour from where he was born.

“I was born in Guisborough,  brought up in Stokesley and studied at Stokesley School before I came to Newcastle in 1992 to work for Dickinson Dees,” said Nigel.

“My parents and sister still live on Teesside and I remain a staunch Middlesbrough fan. 

“I head our National Housing group, and  in May 2020 I took over as head of the Newcastle office and started looking at how we could do more to play our part in the future of the region.

The Northern Echo: Nigel Emmerson and Peter SnaithNigel Emmerson and Peter Snaith

“We wanted to bring our national and international expertise to benefit the area, to confirm our commitment to the region and let more people know that this is our biggest office with 420 people and why it is so hugely important for us to stand up for the region and what it deserves.

“That commitment means we are in a strong position to not only support the region but to play our part in leading it. For me personally there are unbreakable ties and if I can help the region progress and fight for more then that is an amazing side to my role here.

“Peter was born in Darlington and he and I still have strong links with the Tees Valley and it's been a particular pleasure to me to see what has happened there in the last three to four years.  It is hugely important for us to talk the region up and make sure we can all take advantage of all the opportunities.”

Nigel is a proud Teessider who has lived in Newcastle for 30 years. 

On the relationship between north and south of the region, he is drawn back to football:

“We have  three major football teams in the region.  Whilst we all want our own team to beat our local rivals, I am sure most people ultimately want all three to be in the Premier League as a sign of a strong North East.  . 

“Teesside has its own distinct personality and I know when we speak to the mayor Ben Houchen he is very keen that his focus is Teesside. We understand  that, but also believe that Teesside can be even stronger if it works with the rest of the region and we do our best work together.

“Wearing one of my other hats, I sit  on the British Property Federation's Regional Policy Committee, which exists for the real estate industry to take advantage of Levelling Up and I'm there as a voice for the North East. 

“When I am asked what the challenges are here I mention infrastructure, skills and devolution.

“I don’t think the whole region will have a united voice in terms of one leader but a sense of political stability is absolutely key for people coming to the North East and investing.

“We have that stability in the south of the region and it's no surprise that that is attractive to a lot of investors.”

The construction of a watertight skills pipeline connecting schools to careers is another vital element for Nigel and his region, as he says:

“It’s a huge issue for the north and south of the region. We want to give jobs to North East people but the question we have to look at is ‘do the people exist with the skills that we need?’ It’s another big challenge for Levelling Up.”

And on that third priority – infrastructure – he draws on his expertise in the housing sector to highlight a positive step forward.

In the Building Back Britain Commission's recently released first report on the Coronavirus recovery there was talk of a "radical rethink" on changing future  housing demand away from London and the South East to areas such as the North East.

“That's an important move we want to see because this is where the houses need to be built,” says Nigel.

Another important aspect of those changes in direction from the Government is that it shows that Levelling Up is moving away from being a catchphrase and more into supported policy. Is this a defining moment?

Peter says the Womble Bond Dickinson team can certainly see a clearer road ahead.

“All the Government is doing and what they're aiming for can only be for the good of the region and if we were to have a change of Government tomorrow then I can’t see the policy principles behind Levelling Up being scrapped. They make sense whatever your political colour.

“There has been enough talk over decades about the South East being overheated, so we need to rebalance the economy.

“We’ve got fantastic assets in this region, including an already world class industrial infrastructure, which the freeports initiative can only enhance through investment in areas which need it most. 

“Nigel and I both have sons growing up in the region and they are probably at some point going to want to work in London or internationally, but I would love for it to be an option if they wanted to stay in the North East.

“You can see things steadily moving that way. We have fabulous businesses expanding or setting down fresh roots in our region and we want more big businesses realising that actually you don't need to be in London all the time. 

“What is happening around Darlington with Treasury North and the DiT is great news and, for me, whether those Government departments moved to Darlington or Newcastle or Leeds, decentralising things in this way is clearly the right thing to do.

“We’ve got the space, we’ve got the assets – like the second-biggest chemical park in Europe - and we should be investing in them.”

One reason why there is still work to be done on presenting a united front to investors is the chequered history of the regional agencies and the instinctive bias some of them had when it came to backing the whole region.

That potentially cost millions and created a fracture that the two ends of this region are only just healing.

At the moment that means the south is coming to terms with it by becoming financially independent and being clearly delighted about that and the north is coming to terms with it by welcoming that growth, but then being very wary of the tables being turned and them being overtaken, which is already happening in terms of the political spotlight.

The solution? Cool heads, calm advice and a thought-out strategy to make the most of every opportunity whichever door it uses to get into our region.

Peter says: “There was a lot of frustration with the regional development agencies like One North East competing with Yorkshire Forward, who were competing with others around the country.

“It should have simply been a matter of getting the investment into the UK first and then we'll decide where it sits. That’s the right approach.

“Whether it was justified or not, One North East invested heavily into the north of the region and didn't in the south, so some feel some levelling up within our own region is required.

“Teesside has done a fantastic job in grabbing the spotlight and leading the march, so why would you give up that sort of pole position lightly? But what we have around Newcastle and Sunderland builds the picture and complements what we have on Teesside.

The Northern Echo: Nigel and Peter at the WBD officesNigel and Peter at the WBD offices


"Having centres of excellence in one location or another is a good thing. We don't need to replicate them everywhere.

“If you travel on the A19 every morning the traffic is going both ways, with people living on Teesside and working on Tyneside and vice versa. 

"We are one small region and we need to play to our strengths. It makes sense for Newcastle to be our professional services centre. Equally, the north of the region, in common with many parts of the world, cannot offer advanced manufacturers the kind of benefits which Teesside can boast. I am not suggesting we shouldn't see a blend across the region. Of course we should, but we are stronger if we pull together.  

Nigel flags up a generational issue that has haunted our region for too long – that we are so used to being downtrodden we have sometimes forgotten how to celebrate success.

He said: “The region is on the cusp of great things and we see it as part of our role to talk up the area.  Whilst there are still endemic issues which require government support, we need to build on the positivity and tell everyone why this is a great place to work, live and invest.

“Now that I'm going back to London again people are actually asking about everything happening up here ‘what’s all this about Carbon Capture, British Volt, Envision…?’

“People are aware like never before – I’ve certainly never had it like this in 30 years where people want to know so much about what's going on because we are a region that is working together.”

The freeport announcement is the perfect test of that. As Peter Snaith says, the perfect answer would have been to have two or even three in the region and he admits to being “genuinely disappointed - and still am” that when Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced eight freeports, only one was in the North East.

“But Tyne and Blyth and Sunderland and Teesside need to all work together and, yes, you do have to compete sometimes, but they are only 45 minutes or an hour away from each other. So it's close enough for the benefits at one site to spread across the wider region,” he says.

“If we can have only one freeport locally, I feel it's the right decision even though I live in Newcastle, but most of my work is done on Teesside so I know the impact a freeport can make is definitely greater down on Teesside given everything that is happening around it.”

Of all those things happening right across our region, it is perhaps clean energy that has the most potential to be a long-term world leader - a true changer of economies.

The ability of the North East, even at this relatively early stage, to be ‘the Aberdeen of renewable energy’ is unavoidable, and fundamental to driving success.

Peter says: “For us, it is not only clean and renewable energy, but clean growth across so many sectors that will make us the place to turn to.

“This region can lead the world once again in decarbonisation and a circular recycling economy for plastics and other materials we all depend on, so the east coast becomes vital for access to wind farms, carbon capture and storage so manufacturers of polymers for lightweight cars, planes and packaging, batteries, wind turbines, vegan foods and medicines can continue to operate in a sustainable way.

“ICI doesn't exist anymore, but it created a lot of the technology we use today and the infrastructure which is still the melting pot within which we develop the technologies for the future.”

So what of that future? We would all follow a map drawn by Womble Bond Dickinson that guided us towards levelling up, because they know their way, they understand the terrain and when you should turn left or right.

But what would be the landmarks along the way, so that we know we are on the right road?

Nigel says the freeport and that change to housebuilding priorities are both essentials, with a new way forward for infrastructure really vital as our way of living, working, shopping and relaxing changes.

For them both it is always a matter of fighting for what we need and then building on what we’ve got, so Peter says the freeport doesn’t stop at just being a freeport.

“The freeport on its own is not that exciting,” he says.

“It could be just an enterprise zone with customs opportunities which are as yet unclear. It’s everything else that can be built around the freeport zones that is vital, for example, how we use it as a catalyst for how we enhance skills and have housing built and infrastructure, like a better broadband service and Industrial 5G.

“The freeport can create the attraction for that, linked with government funding and the tax breaks you get. So if that's how it starts, then the momentum should carry on.

“But if people sit back and wait and see what all this activity brings, it won’t bring very much. On the other hand, if everyone dives in there to get involved it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“As business leaders, we all need to step up because that is how we do things here, putting the region on the map, so inward investors as well as future generations of North Easterners are less inclined to default to London and the South East.  

"Levelling up has the potential to bring fresh investment and money into the region, but it's the people who matter.

"Wanting to be here and being passionate about being part of the region and what it has to offer is really important."

I only spent one Wednesday morning with them, but the whole team here moves as one, from the reception greeting to the valued insights of two players at the top of their game.

The depth of expertise at St Anns Wharf (and soon to be at Newcastle’s flagship Helix development) is staggering, with sought-after insights and reports on everything from Energy to Insurance, Government to Manufacturing and Real Estate to Technology.

The ties that this company has to the region – north, south, east or west – are clear and inspiring. Peter and Nigel choose their words carefully to make sure what they contribute is constructive and moves the debate forward, but they have no intention of keeping the passion out of it.

Some things have been done really well in the region, and some have been done very badly and both need to be acknowledged.

But for them this isn’t a history lesson, it’s economics and there are campaigns to be fought and arguments to be won to bring investment to every corner. The whole region has Womble Bond Dickinson on its side, and it is a better place and a better proposition because of that.


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