Marsha, along with Whitehead Monckton rural team colleagues Sadie Webb and Vicky Stoodley, is a regular at ploughing matches and is more likely to turn up at a client meeting in wellies than a business suit.
The Kent law firm, with offices in Maidstone, Tenterden and Canterbury, specialises in all aspects of rural practice, from inheritance planning to land and property sales and family businesses – all across the whole of the South East.
And while other practices may provide advice in similar areas, few of them have a team that is so determined to immerse itself fully in the farming way of life.
The three women describe themselves as “passionate about rural business” and have gone to great lengths to make sure they understand their subject and can bring experience as well as knowledge to their work.
Their focus on rural business as a specific sector within the Whitehead Monckton operation has had an additional spin-off in leading the way for a sectoral approach within the firm, which now has teams supporting the property and investment, charity and education sectors.
Marsha, an associate based in Whitehead Monckton’s Canterbury office, which opened almost two years ago, joined the firm in 2004 after working in London.
She had a commercial background and had worked with companies including Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s, but when she arrived in Kent she quickly found that it was rural work which most appealed to her.
“I could see that there were new opportunities in the rural sector which the firm could benefit from and so I decided I would like to focus on this area,” she recalled.
And she was serious about the focus. Marsha, who has a particular interest in top fruit, joined the Marden Fruit Show Society and began taking part in other rural activities and events.
“I wanted to know as much about the subject as possible and I found it fascinating to talk to landowners on a social basis as well as working with them professionally,” she commented. “Farmers and landowners value personal contact and they like to get to know and trust the people they work with.”
Marsha attends various meetings including the Marden Fruit Show committee and Canterbury Farmers’ Club and even found herself at the wheel of a tractor during a recent ploughing match. “You can’t talk about farming if you don’t know anything about it,” she pointed out.
As the rural team developed, Marsha was joined by Vicky, an associate director and planning specialist – a rare in-house benefit in South East law firms – and by Sadie, who trained with Whitehead Monckton and qualified as a solicitor in 2013.
While Sadie is the only one of the three to come from farming stock – grandparents William and Kathleen Webb own Cobb House Farm on Romney Marsh – Vicky is also a keen countrywoman.
“I worked on a turkey farm when I was 15, I learned to drive on a tractor and I ride, attend point-to-points and enjoy beagling,” she commented. “I have worked in Kent since 1998 and I have spent my professional career since then specialising in planning and doing rural work.”
Sadie keeps two horses and is keen on eventing, which gives her useful background knowledge when talking about livery and grazing agreements. “When you are involved in a sale or purchase and a landowner starts talking about a sand school, it helps if you don’t have to ask what he is talking about,” she pointed out.
Sadie also advises on residential development and the whole team does a wide variety of work. They also have other specialists within Whitehead Monckton who can be asked for their input in a particularly complex situation.
Marsha said the team was always keen to visit farmers on site in order to understand the operation and be able to offer advice. “Farmers are passionate about farming and about their land and we like to get out there and share that passion,” she said.
“It means that if they phone up to discuss planning or diversification issues and mention a particular piece of land or a certain building, we generally know exactly what they are talking about because we have walked the farm.”
As Sadie explained: “We offer a personal service and we make the effort to go the extra mile” – which means that if they do need to come into ‘the office’, the client can choose the closest of the three, Maidstone, Canterbury or Tenterden.
Vicky’s role as a planning specialist is currently proving useful in helping farmers looking for planning permission to turn farmland into residential land and for those who want to take advantage of the change in permitted development rights for farm buildings. She also advises on agricultural occupancy conditions.
Many of Whitehead Monckton’s clients are now the third generation of farming families that have been loyal customers of the firm – established 230 years – through the generations.
While family ties are generally an important part of farming life, when things go wrong it can be particularly difficult, which is where Whitehead Monckton’s experience of family and dispute resolution comes into play. The firm has experts that are trained in the newest areas of collaboration and mediation, to avoid too much conflict and keep costs down.
“We love the countryside and we enjoy working with farmers and finding out more about their businesses,” said Vicky. “At the same time we ensure we provide good legal advice that supports our clients in all their endeavours.”