University: University of Cambridge
Commercial property (or real estate) lawyers act for a variety of domestic and international clients – including investors and developers, governments, landowners and public sector bodies – on a wide range of transactions, involving everything from offices to greenfield and retail developments, infrastructure projects and the management of shopping malls. The work itself focuses on the sale, purchase and lease of land; development; investment; and leasehold management. This touches on a range of other legal disciplines, including planning, environmental, construction, litigation and tax law. Property may also be a key component of other projects, including mergers and acquisitions, property finance and commercial projects. It crosses most sectors: investment, banking, insolvency, education, hotels, health, transport, agriculture, charities and private wealth.
Describing her journey into commercial real estate, Mills & Reeve associate Chloe Gibson laughs, explaining that “I was in the minority at university because I really enjoyed land law! I knew I wanted to do a real estate seat during my training contract, and it came at a really good time – it was my third seat, so the beginner nerves had subsided and I had started building up my confidence.” It’s this confidence that has continued growing throughout Chloe’s career as her experience in the sector has developed, meaning that while her expertise primarily lies in landlord/tenant work and asset management, she has been increasingly involved in acquisition and disposal work, with a particular focus on the life sciences sector.
Detailing her role as a commercial real estate lawyer, Chloe says some of her day-to-day tasks include “liaising with managing agents about tenant requests or client issues and suggesting practical solutions, as well as reviewing heads of terms and identifying points that need clarifying before the transaction can progress”. Like all lawyers, a lot of Chloe’s time is focussed on drafting legal documents such as leases, asset management licences and tenant concessions. When dealing with an acquisition case, Chloe says “due diligence is always a vital component – it involves reviewing title and property searches, identifying what the main issues are in the context of a particular transaction and then drafting a report for the client to consider and refer back to in future if needed.”
Solicitor versus barrister
For Chloe, work experience was key to deciding between the solicitor and barrister routes. Although she undertook two mini-pupillages while at university, it was doing work experience at a law firm that confirmed this was the path for her. “I found my skill set was better suited to the solicitor side,” she says. “I liked the idea of working in a collaborative way with others and learning through hearing different people’s perspectives.”
“I quicky identified that I was a non-contentious lawyer,” she continues. “I didn’t like the idea of going into the office and having an argument with the other side every day! Working in real estate also offers the chance to dip your toes into other practice areas too. For example, you might need real estate finance advice from a banking lawyer or to get the opinion of a litigation colleague.”
“I quickly identified that I was a non-contentious lawyer”
Another element of working in commercial real estate that Chloe enjoys is the fact you’re always learning something new. While similar matters are bound to come through the door, “each one tends to have a nuance to it that warrants specific consideration in the context of the client or transaction at hand”. For this reason, Chloe describes her work as “varied and interesting”.
The importance of soft skills
In terms of the skills to develop, Chloe neatly summarises a crucial part of being a lawyer: “As you become more experienced, you realise that soft skills are just as important as legal skills. You need to have the ability to communicate effectively with clients and break down what could be a complex problem into a format they can understand. It can be easy to forget that your clients don’t necessarily have the same understanding of the law that you do. Communicating with them in an accessible way is therefore vital when it comes to building rapport and successful long-term relationships.”
Another soft skill that Choe believes shouldn’t be overlooked is emotional intelligence. “Being able to identify when and how to approach someone to offer or seek support is as much of a key skill as identifying a legal issue,” she explains. That means judging when someone is too busy to help you immediately, or when someone more junior than you is struggling and might need help. “Being mindful of others and the pressures they are under makes for a more supportive workplace environment,” Chloe confirms.
Science parks and sustainability
A career highlight for Chloe was acting for Kadans Science Partner on its acquisition of the science quadrant at Abingdon Science Park for just under £13.5 million. She describes how this deal “really demonstrated the strong investor appetite for life sciences assets” with the covid-19 pandemic having pushed this sector into the spotlight.
“As a key member of the life sciences team at Mills & Reeve it was a great way to build on the experience I already had in science-park-related matters and to showcase the firm’s expertise in that area. I’ve gone on to maintain that relationship with the client by doing a lot of the asset management work at the quadrant after the transaction completed.”
Another area under the spotlight at the moment is sustainability. Chloe explains that her job “increasingly involves discussing and negotiating green lease clauses on behalf of investors and landlord/tenant clients”. There are plenty of plans for making buildings more energy efficient, but the big question is: who will bear the cost of this? “It ultimately comes down to what the lease says,” Chloe says. “But in new deals it’s increasingly being factored into conversations at the heads of terms stage and is at the forefront of client’s minds.”
With the real estate sector contributing to nearly 40% of global carbon dioxide emissions, Chloe concludes that “it’s certainly a sector that’s going to be under pressure to deliver on results as we head towards the 2050 targets for carbon net zero”.
“it’s certainly a sector that’s going to be under pressure to deliver on results as we head towards the 2050 targets for carbon net zero”
Willingness to learn
As demonstrated by Chloe’s rationale for choosing this career, self-awareness is a skill that she has honed and would advise others to do the same. “You should have the ability to reflect on your own experiences and identify where the gaps in your own knowledge are,” she says. “I do this on a rolling basis by seeking out opportunities which will help broaden my skill set.” Demonstrating initiative and taking responsibility for your own career development is something she recommends to all aspiring lawyers.
What else does Chloe advise for students interested in a legal career? Inquisitiveness and a willingness to learn is certainly at the top of her list. “Asking questions and being willing to push yourself out of your comfort zone is important at any stage of your career. On your training contract, try to keep an open mind as you may end up pleasantly surprised by a practice area you didn’t think you’d enjoy – the great thing about the training contract is that you learn so many transferable skills that will be relevant to wherever you qualify into.”
Chloe’s final piece of advice comes from her own experiences of training at Mills & Reeve. “During my real estate seat, I asked my supervisor if I could be involved with something from the beginning to the end,” she says, urging others to do the same where possible. “That experience gave me a much better understanding of the practice area and offered an invaluable insight into the commercial aspects that were driving the transaction; something which can sometimes be difficult to obtain when carrying out discreet tasks as a trainee.”