Real estate

It seems like only yesterday that the property partners of CMS Cameron McKenna were feeling carefree and partying hard aboard a crowded yacht at the industry's bash of the year in Cannes.
They had bounced back from the loss of big industry name Jon Vivian a year earlier and with him property company Brixton Estates. The budget had to be adjusted in Vivian's wake, but the team could be forgiven for feeling a little smug after contributing £26m of the firm's £175m turnover for the year, beating its target. Big billers included relatively new client Hutchison and longstanding client Taylor Woodrow.
But things have turned sour again. By all accounts the resignation of equity partner David Saunders came as a shock to many of his colleagues. As did his choice of new firm, Olswang (see news, page 5). The timing isn't great for clients either. Saunders is in the thick of development work for clients such as St George, work which The Lawyer understands had already been handed over before when Robert Porter left two years ago for the bright lights of Clifford Chance.
On the face of it, Saunders' resignation seems to continue a disturbing trend at the department. He is the fifth property partner to leave in the past two years, the sixth if you include construction star Ann Minogue, who went to Linklaters, and the seventh if you count property-based financing specialist Richard Goodman, who as we speak is desperately trying to tie up loose ends before making the break to KLegal. In pure property, there are now just eight partners – a massive reduction for a firm which grew two mid-tier property practices into the major success story of its merger.
Its subsequent partner losses to the magic circle say more about the way the property market has been moving than about Camerons. But Vivian's departure to SJ Berwin – along with key client Brixton Estates – was different and far more damaging to Camerons itself.
Needless to say, Saunders' addition to this long list adds much credence to the idea that Camerons is now de-emphasising property, something Vivian was certainly known to feel strongly about. The fact that none of this year's six partner promotions fell in the property group, despite the departures, seems to back up that interpretation.
Of course, there's a strong counter argument, too. Edward Benzecry, who took up the reins as head of department late last year, says that Camerons' renewed emphasis on the more profitable areas of corporate and banking doesn't translate into a de-emphasis on other areas; real estate is increasingly integrated with other practice areas to service sophisticated client needs, and cutting-edge property work is where the department sees its future.
But whichever way you read it, the last thing Camerons needed right now was to lose another property partner. Saunders' decision muddies the clean slate that the affable and talented Benzecry had in his favour.
In his early 40s, Saunders belongs to a generation of partners which Camerons' property department can ill-afford to lose if it is to achieve long-term growth. A partner since 1995, he has built up a reputation as an accomplished marketeer, capable of pulling in a lot of work. The assistant he headhunted to the firm will also be moving to Olswang. All of which makes Saunders the kind of person you would want to hold on to, not least after a string of departures.
So Camerons will have to hold its nerve and keep reminding itself of the successes of the past year in the dark days ahead. A number of associates are pencilled in for partnership and at least the latest departure opens things up in that regard. It is also paramount that the firm takes good care of big billers like Mark Heighton, another of its younger development partners, who closed a string of deals for Taylor Woodrow and Henderson Investors during the course of the year. Above all, it will have to reassure those in the department that all is well and convince the outside world that Camerons still holds property dear.