Hot 100 alumni: Keith Barnett, Taylor Wessing

Keith Barnett was named in the first edition of The Lawyer’s Hot 100 in 2000, while he was head of real estate at now-defunct Garretts. A lot has changed for Barnett in the16 years since, as he has seen the collapse of his firm and a merger with Taylor Wessing.

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Garretts was the UK arm of the legal network set up by accountant Andersen. By the time Andersen Legal “hit the fan” in 2002 the firm had 200 lawyers and five offices, Barnett explains.

“It was the most terrifying of moments for a lawyer,” he says. “It was announced that Andersens was going to fold and the accounting practice was going to Deloitte. They had no desire to take over the law firm and we were given six weeks’ notice that the firm was going to dissolve and we had to find new homes.”

Barnett says it was a “testament to the people at the firm” that all but two managed to find roles in that short time.

Around 20 lawyers in practices including real estate, employment and hotels banded together to join legacy Taylor Joynson Garrett (TJG), then planning a merger with Wessing. In the transition, Barnett lost his management privileges.

“We could have done our own thing but we thought a firm beginning to expand and with solid roots in tech and private wealth was a great platform for us,” Barnett explains. “People thrived. I continued to build my practice, acting for a wide range of clients.”

In 2007 Barnett regained the title of head of real estate at his new firm, taking over from Adam Marks, now senior partner, at what he describes as “a tough time”.

“Many law firms had coasted along assuming that if you did something last week it would come in next week,” he says. “We spotted the recession early, prepared early and rebuilt early. We emerged with a strong department. We kept on our trainees which a lot of firms didn’t. We hired strategically and looked for synergies. Real estate today makes up some 17.5 per cent of UK turnover.”

So what did he bring from his role at Garretts?

“There’s nothing like learning humility,” he comments. “When everything feels solid one day and disappears the next, it’s devastating and you learn something. It strengthens you.

“I learned how to build a group and look at the quality of people. It’s the only thing that matters.”

The success of the real estate practice was thanks to Taylor Wessing’s internal structure, Barnett claims. This allowed the team to take referrals from clients and build up a roster of institutions, property companies and institutional investors, all driven through the rest of the practice.

“We wouldn’t have the credibility to do that if we’d said we do corporate quite well, we do litigation quite well and we do real estate quite well,” he explains. “That just doesn’t get you there.”

After filling the role for six years Barnett was made one of three business group directors at Taylor Wessing, responsible for a third of the firm’s performance and sitting on the board alongside managing partner Tim Eyles and the business services directors.

“Being head of real estate is granular – being on the board is a broader, but everybody has a different style of management,” he says. “If you’ve got the right people more people will come to you and you’ll make a profit. We have given enormous thought to how we retain talent.”

In the past 16 years Barnett has worked on many real estate projects. Perhaps most significant is the London base that houses Taylor Wessing, a 132,096sq ft space in 5 New Street Square. He is also the client relationship partner acting for Heron International, Cain Hoy, EQT Partners and a number of Middle Eastern pension funds.

Since his time in the Hot 100, the legal world has been transformed. Barnett argues that the use of artificial intelligence and internationalisation of law firms are the two biggest changes, but most firms’ client bases have changed too.

“The work was once dominated by UK-based clients,” he says. “Now, work is driven out of the international private wealth arena. Deals I have done this year have been for international pension funds, unit trusts, or international families in the UK, Hong Kong, the Middle East or Brazil. For the investment community it’s been – where is it safe? And the answer’s been London.”

Does he think the London market is saturated?

“There’s a lot of sentiment that London is overheated,” he says. “That presents an opportunity – what we’ve lacked in London is a market, a diverse view, buyers and sellers.”

The Lawyer Hot 100 2000

Garretts real estate head Keith Barnett won a place on The Lawyer’s first ever Hot 100 list having acted on the first major acquisition of a £200m property fund set up for Scottish Widows – a portfolio of 33 properties sub-purchased from Green Properties as part of P&O’s recent sale to Green of its £440m estate. The deal came at the expense of Freshfields, which handled the bulk of Scottish Widows’ work.

Garretts, which was at its peak  performance at the time and under ownership of accountancy firm Andersen Legal, provided one of the first examples of a conversation that still continues today about whether the accountants are taking over the legal profession.