MIPIM: Building bridges

Every year Mipim, the annual property festival that this year has attracted some 25,000 official delegates and many more unofficial visitors hanging on in the cafés and bars of Cannes, has a theme.

For the 2007 instalment the theme was environmental sustainability of development, but lawyers are divided as to whether this is in fact of relevance to them.

Very few of the property lawyers attending Mipim to whom The Lawyer spoke attended any of the conferences or talks on the issue this year, but it was heavily discussed over coffee Americano or poisson et legumes last week.

“The problem with the rhetoric that we hear spoken by the politicians is that the reality of the technology and ability to actually implement these things is often light years behind,” says Max Wieliczko, construction partner at the soon to be merged Maxwell Winward. “It’s not so much an issue for the lawyers as for the developers.”

Mipim is not the place where fortunes in the property industry are won and lost, despite what the promoters will tell you. It is a dating service, where those with the grand dreams can meet those who have the resources to make it happen. Often these introductions are made by lawyers.

“Mipim’s a great opportunity for lawyers to add value for their clients,” says Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer global head of real estate Chris Morris. “If you can put together the matching parts so you have a seller and a buyer, then clearly you’re going to be in an excellent position to pick up the work.”

But Morris also hastens to add: “I’d not say that we pick up new clients by being at Mipim alone, but if we can be instrumental in that type of introduction then we have a real chance of picking up the subsequent deal.”

But of course, the lawyers cannot neglect the issues affecting the property industry. “We’re here because our clients are here,” concedes DLA Piper co-global head of real estate David Taylor. “Otherwise how would we know what’s going on in the sector and what’s important to our clients?”Issues such as right to light, energy transfer and efficiencies in the heating and cooling systems of commercial developments will grow in importance and be at the forefront of property developers’ minds following this conference.

The challenge for the lawyers will be how to incorporate those aspects into their construction contracts and how to negotiate those stumbling blocks on the acquisition and disposal of older buildings.

Mipim can have that effect. Last year there was more of an emphasis on opportunities in real estate in the developing regions of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Now there are City partners, such as SJ Berwin‘s Rob Thompson, who make their living from advising on investment into Russia and Eastern Europe.

“One of the challenges we have as a practice is how we advise those clients looking to invest in those emerging markets,” says Thompson. “We’ve been involved in Russia a lot recently [and] the challenge is to ensure we don’t devalue the service we’re offering out of London in any way.”

SJ Berwin does not have a presence in Moscow, and those firms that do are not focusing on real estate in that market. However, Mipim gives them all an insight into the opportunities and issues for the market.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean you need to have an office in Moscow,” says Thompson, “but it does mean you need to make a significant investment in time to ensure your local due diligence is being done to the highest possible standard.”

Finding that balance is a fine line the lawyers have to tread. And with US firms realising that money is to be made in real estate, it has become an even more tricky game. The move of Graham Prentice from Freshfields to LeBoeuf Lamb Greene & MacRae to head its European real estate function has not gone unnoticed by the property investment and development world.

Prentice extended his stay in Cannes to attend a sideline forum specifically for Russian investors (who in many ways still prefer the US way of doing things) looking to capitalise on the UK markets. It is a tangled web the property industry weaves for itself, but the myriad opportunities are what Mipim is all about.