My life as a real estate lawyer

If you can master land law a potentially great career lies ahead, writes Pinsent Masons’ real estate chief James Crookes

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Property law is a bit like maths, in the sense that some people love it and others absolutely hate it. Fortunately as a student I found myself in the former category and have been lucky enough to practise in this field throughout my career.

On one hand, it’s a very technical area in which the intricacies of the rules require a sound legal knowledge. But it also sees the law nicely balanced with the practical. As a property lawyer you are constantly advising clients and doing deals. What you do is firmly rooted in the real world. And, of course, what you are contributing towards is very tangible. It’s nice to point to a particular building and say, ‘I helped build or buy or refurbish that!’

Another great thing about property law is that right from that start you are advising clients and negotiating documents — even as a trainee. Take the example of a shopping centre. If you handle the purchase of a centre for a client, a partner leads, supported by lawyers of various levels of seniority. But, once the client owns the shopping centre, there is a constant flow of mini-deals — where, for example, a new tenant wants to take a lease, or a tenant wants alterations carried out. All those management transactions require consent and negotiating by lawyers. So there is an opportunity for trainees and junior lawyers to be involved directly right from the start. Pretty quickly they begin to understand how it all works. Soon enough, they’ll be moving up the ladder, while constantly providing commercial and strategic advice in addition to legal advice.

Property is an area in which business development is incredibly important. Again, there are opportunities for young lawyers to get involved at a very early stage. Returning to that shopping centre example — there will be clients, managing agents, letting agents and other parties. And some of those parties will be 25, just like you. You will work with them on a daily basis, and that presents an opportunity to start building a network. Some of the junior surveyors I knew when I was two or three years qualified are now directors in major surveying practices — I still meet them regularly and we introduce each other to work opportunities. So, in real estate, you have the opportunity to be building your own practice.

As you do so, one of the challenges is to keep an eye out for the next new thing. Currently, there are some interesting developments on the horizon in infrastructure and real estate, which will throw up a host of opportunities for property lawyers, for example as the government implements major schemes like HS2 and encourage investment in the Northern Powerhouse. Other potentially hot areas include housing (we need more of it!), retirement living, student accommodation, and hotels and other tourism-related projects.

Growth in these new areas mitigates cyclical ups and downs in the core commercial property market, where we represent a host of clients, from individual investors and major developers to large investment funds. Since taking a major hit in the financial crisis in 2007-08, the market has been rising, but now following the Brexit vote we seem to be encountering a drop-off again, albeit a relatively gentle one. Having said that, a lot of larger projects that had been placed on hold seem to be coming back on line, and we have been seeing inflows of money into cities like Leeds and Manchester. There’s also a currency play going on with the weak Sterling, which is bringing more international money into the country. The bottom line is that the market can be hard to predict!

Where you have more control is over your methods of delivery. This is one of the reasons that innovation is so important to Pinsent Masons, which was named as the Most Innovative Firm in Europe at the Financial Times’ Innovative Lawyer Awards last year. It’s not just techy stuff that we are investing in, but innovative methods of providing service and information to clients, and alternative pricing models. When I was a trainee, I spent a significant amount of my time photocopying and arranging documents. Now our trainees do no photocopying at all and are able to focus on advising on deals and learning about top-notch service delivery to clients. That means they develop more quickly and ultimately become better lawyers. But those core skills of legal excellence and commerciality remain the same.

James Crookes is the head of Pinsent Masons’ global real estate sector. In the run-up to the firm’s 8 January vacation scheme application deadline, you can find out more about Pinsent Masons here.

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