Confidence up at top end of market

James Swift, reporter, The Lawyer

real estate

Real estate departments, the sick men of commercial law firms, are at last showing signs of convalescence, with most of the top 20 firms showing growth in the sector, but given that the year before was close to Armageddon for real estate lawyers, the bar for improvement was set pretty low.

“The year before was flat,” says Eversheds real estate head Julie Stobart, “but this year [2010-11] we saw the investor market coming back.”

It is not just lawyers hailing the return of investors. According to data from Real Capital Analytics, in the first six months of 2011 around $12.3bn (£7.82bn) was invested in offices, shops and homes in London – more than in any other city in the world.

Of course, more activity in London’s prime real estate ­market was already being talked about a year ago – but its impact on law firms’ top lines is only just becoming visible.

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer client Almacantar, co-established by ­former Land Securities director Mike Hussey, is a good example of an investor targeting prime assets. In April the firm advised Almacantar on its £100m purchase of London’s Centre Point tower, then in June advised on its £80m purchase of the Marble Arch Tower.

A big driver behind the growth in the Central London market has been the influx of foreign investors, mainly from Asia and the Middle East but also from the US and some European countries such as Germany.

“It’s been another challenging year but I think the market has improved and we’re seeing more confidence from investors,” says Clifford Chance real estate partner Mark Payne.

But not even joint ventures are enough to convince anyone to invest in anything that is not top quality. Once you drop down and look at secondary and tertiary properties, activity in the sector falls dramatically.

“This is the biggest regional division I’ve ever seen and the driver is international investors that are only looking at certain locations,” says Lindsay Morgan, head of real estate for Europe and the Middle East at Norton Rose.

The economic woes of Greece and the downgrading of US debt have also created a lot of uncertainty.

“In the past three or four weeks banks have gone backwards, regardless of what they say,” one real estate partner said.

In short, the figures for real estate teams this year took a turn for the better on the back of some exciting deals in the capital and abroad, but they do not herald a return to the glory days. The sector is in for a long, slow recovery.