Commercial property/real estate

Commercial property/real estate

Tom Newborough


University: University of Leeds
Degree: Psychology

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.

Working out how best to convert the experience he had gained in the financial services sector saw Tom Newborough consider life as a lawyer, as he explains: “A couple of years after I graduated, I was working in a senior customer services role in a financial company. I enjoyed it, but wondered how I could use the skills I had developed in a more challenging setting, so I decided to take the plunge in to law.” Still focused on skills, being a solicitor made the most sense: “Going to the Bar was never something that I really considered because I thought that my skills leant themselves more to the solicitor route. I also had the – possibly wrong – impression that becoming a barrister was less accessible for someone with no prior legal background.”

Tom describes his year doing the GDL as predictably tough. “I was working part time at the same time as studying full time, and the pressure really kicked in in the last couple of months, with exams and my dissertation due in,” he recalls, “but it was the same for everyone. And it’s a good test of what to expect as a lawyer – you need to be able to manage your time well.”

A training contract at Shoosmiths beckoned, where Tom was happy to be thrown in at the deep end: “I was given responsibility where I asked for it and showed that I was capable. It was a very focused training contract, where I realised quite early on that transactional work was my preferred option.” After a stint first in property litigation, followed by corporate, he spent his two final seats in commercial property, where he went on to qualify.

Retail heaven

The wide-ranging nature of this practice area – due in part to the many different types of client that the firm serves – is one of the things that Tom particularly values about his career: “The work you do is often dependent on the type of client. For example, we currently deal with lots of retail clients, including a number of household names in relation to tenancy leases. We also act for institutional landlords and investors. One example is a client who owns a large shopping centre which requires a lot of asset management work, including new leases, lease variations or granting licences. You very rarely get the same sort of work, and retail leasehold work has built my experience up quickly and keeps me on my toes!”

Tom identifies a few of the key developments from the past couple of years in commercial property: “In city centres, the rise of trendy retail and leisure spaces continues, such as gastro pubs, craft ale bars and pop-up shops and restaurants. Distribution warehouses are also a big thing, with ever more demand for online shopping. In Nottingham there is increased investment in infrastructure, particularly around transport hubs, that is linked to the general rejuvenation of the city centre.”

A career highlight centred on being part of the team selling a large property portfolio on behalf of an investment client. “It coincided with my starting as a third-seat trainee and finished near the end of my fourth seat,” explains Tom. “Being involved with all the elements and seeing the first large-scale project all the way through was great, especially seeing it all come together.” But it’s not just the headline, big-deal work that makes it mark: “I got as much satisfaction from the first time I negotiated a lease over the phone with a solicitor or explained some complicated legal issues to a client in a conference call. Although these matters are smaller scale for the firm, they’re big for a trainee or NQ as they can be daunting to contemplate at the outset.”

“Commerciality is really important; clients want to get stuff done and it’s your job as their lawyer to assess the risks and work out how to do things in the best possible way.”

This feeds into the point that you continue to grow as a professional, even beyond the point of qualification: “This is a challenging role and you’re always learning; every day there is something new, you feel your expertise growing and that is very rewarding.”

One of the downsides to such a challenging – and rewarding – job is the obvious demands it can make on life beyond the office, as Tom explains: “Especially in real estate, you never feel that you’re completely in control of your workload. There is always something more you could be doing, so it can be a challenge to decide when to go home! It comes down to prioritising the urgent work, but also finding time to fit in everything else that’s required of you. That can be difficult and stressful, and you need to become comfortable with not being able to tick everything off your to-do list each day!”

The full implications of Brexit remain a mystery (to us all!), but it is the one thing that Tom and his colleagues are keeping the closest eye on, especially in terms of their investor clients: “It’s mostly about what decision making is going on during the negotiation process – for example, are clients holding back until they know what the outcome of the UK deal? Will they move their head offices elsewhere? From a property perspective, it’s about those clients potentially being less active in the market.”

Commercial experience

So what do clients need from their lawyers right now? Tom thinks there are several key skills: “Commerciality is really important; clients want to get stuff done and it’s your job as their lawyer to assess the risks and work out how to do things in the best possible way. Also important are soft skills such as time management and an ability to deal with pressure. Both your verbal and written communication skills need to be strong; the worst thing you can do is give an ambiguous response. You have to be very clear, even down to the way you structure your emails and present information; you could reel off all the legal issues to a client, but they only really care what the outcome is. Anything superfluous should be left out.”

In terms of getting ahead of the pack at training contract application time, work experience is non-negotiable. Tom explains: “It can be hard when applying for a training contract, having come straight from university, to provide practical examples to go with your application. Don’t get hung up on it having to be legal experience; any work experience, even in shops or restaurants, is great if you’re learning about the commercial aspect of the job.” If you can get legal experience, all the better: “I did a placement at a criminal firm with a solicitor specialising in mental health; it wasn’t my preferred type of law, but having got something on my CV, it set the ball rolling. Also, don’t panic if you’re not hired straightaway – I was 25 when I received my training contract offer, so keep trying.”

Remain open to what working in a law firm is going to be like: “My preconception was perhaps that law firms were fairly stuffy and people were likely to be unapproachable; the reality is of course completely different. I felt relaxed here from the very beginning. You are learning quickly and you don’t need to have all the answers straightaway. It is better to say that you don’t know and go and check. Ask questions as often as you need to, as everyone wants you to learn and progress.”

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