University: Durham University
Degree: Theology and philosophy
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.
At university Annabel Ersser delved into the world of Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, while studying theology and philosophy and relished the opportunity to spend time exploring subjects she was passionate about. After graduating she then began to embark on the path towards a career in law. When weighing up the question faced by all law students of whether she wanted to become a solicitor or a barrister, Annabel says that the decision was fairly straightforward: “I liked the structure of being employed as a solicitor as opposed to being self-employed as a barrister and the fact that you have a lot of interaction with clients who are seeking out technical advice was appealing.”
The role of being a client-facing adviser is something that has been a prominent theme in Annabel’s career thus far. While completing her training contract at Mayer Brown, she says that she enjoyed having “a lot of responsibility and access to clients from day one and the chance to do a lot of good work”. For her, the hard work she put in during her time as a trainee has changed the direction of her legal career and she is keen to emphasise that it is crucial that trainees throw themselves into every seat, even if it is in a department that may not be immediately appealing: “I was never really interested in finance but I loved it”.
After being surprised by how much she enjoyed the real estate finance work she took on during her traineeship, Annabel went on to specialise in this field. Working on deals for sprawling real estate projects that indelibly change our physical environment is a unique position to be in, as she explains: “In my role I do a lot of work dealing with actual physical buildings and in this way I can see first hand how London and the wider world around me is changing.”
As a prime example of this, Annabel explains how a particular career highlight was acting for Crosstree and AEG in their development of the O2 in Greenwich. When looking back on the experience of facilitating the joint venture and financing agreement for the new designer village and outlet at the iconic South London landmark, she describes it as being an “incredibly interesting and exciting project” and despite its difficulties and stresses, “it was great to bring the O2 to life”.
“You have a high level of interaction with clients, most of whom you have known for a long time and have built up a rapport with, so being able to oversee a project from start to finish is very rewarding”
Getting the deal through
When grappling with the details for such projects, the downsides of working in real estate law become more prominent as it can be stressful to work on “time-pressured and time-sensitive deals, particularly when it comes to refinancing and acquisition financing, which often means that there are very tight deadlines by which to get a deal through”. However, Annabel is keen to highlight that the pace at which deals move is also thrilling, especially when this is combined with the fact that “you have a high level of interaction with clients, most of whom you have known for a long time and have built up a rapport with, so being able to oversee a project from start to finish is very rewarding”.
When looking at the wider picture, Annabel and her Mayer Brown real estate colleagues are keeping a close eye on the development of technology and AI. Another big issue in the legal field – and across the country – is the ongoing uncertainty regarding Brexit, which has been compounded by the fact that “things are difficult for the real estate market at the moment, many companies are going into administration and selling-on premises”. The question of what replaces the London Inter-band Offered Rate (LIBOR) is another topic that is causing some consternation among finance professionals: “There has been a lot of discussion about LIBOR as it is likely to be discontinued by 2021 and floating rate financing is going to be affected. Working out and implementing the new provisions that will replace LIBOR is going to be a mammoth exercise.”
So, what are the traits and characteristics that make a great real estate lawyer? Annabel stresses that the need for a high level of commercial awareness is paramount, but the ability to understand technical concepts and arguments and to work under pressure are also vital. Taking a logical approach is also important: “Being able to work through things systematically is really key; every day I have to approach things in an organised way and always make myself lists of things to get done each morning.”
If Annabel could offer one piece of advice to budding solicitors, it would be to “truly make the most of your training contract. While you might enjoy one seat more than others, make the most out of all them. Building relationships is key, as transactional seats work across departments.” While you may not initially be attracted to the idea of a specific work area, Annabel advises: “Who knows what you might enjoy? I think it is key to break down misconceived preconceptions about areas of law.”
While there is no golden nugget in terms of information Annabel wishes she had known before she became a solicitor, she reiterates the fact that she did not appreciate just how much of her time she would spend liaising with clients, which has become one of the most enjoyable aspects of her job: “I did not expect to be offering my whole view and opinion on a project or idea. I have found that in real estate, a lot of my clients really want to get my opinion on things and it is great to serve as a trusted adviser to a variety of businesses.”