Adam Cleal is an accidental lawyer. The new head of property at Allen & Overy says that he only began to enjoy law after the degree and law school finals.
“It was Slaughter and May that taught me to enjoy law,” he says of the firm he was with until 1990. “It is a high wattage firm. It works you pretty hard but I found I could cope with it. When you work at it you get the bigger deals. I didn’t enjoy law at university or law school.”
But Cleal certainly seems to be enjoying himself now. In fact from what he enthuses about A&O – admittedly in front of a PR woman – if he enjoyed it any more his job there would be classed as a hobby.
“I like property. I like my job and I work with a bunch of really great people. My clients are tremendous and A&O is a dynamic, amazing firm. I work long hours but it is a huge amount of fun,” he gushes.
So folks, if you’re on a quest to find eternal happiness, join A&O.
Cleal’s predecessor as head of property is Rod Brown, who, while we speak, is about to board a plane to Thailand where he will take a long holiday as part of his sabbatical.
As to whether he was lined up for the position for a long time or whether it came out of the blue, Cleal remains very tight-lipped.
Of course, he says, the position is really not that special. His mother will be delighted about having a piece on her son appear in The Lawyer but everything is down to the team of 10 partners in the department and being profiled is all a bit embarrassing really.
“I don’t really know how [the decision to make him head of the department] happened. I was minding my own business,” Cleal shrugs. “The decision is not the gift of any one person, it is a consensus view. It is a great honour. I am fiercely proud of A&O and they are a great bunch of people there.”
At this point I am feeling tempted to chuck in the journalistic towel and apply for a job at A&O, any job, just as long as I can join the big party.
However, whispers in the marketplace suggest that Cleal and his department may have a fight on their hands in their quest to increase the amount of stand-alone property work that they do.
The majority of the department’s workload is support work for other groups, most notably banking. However, Cleal wants the majority to be work sourced and completed by the property department. But is this merely down to egos in the department wanting to lead deals?
“We are not big on egos here,” says Cleal. “Every department has to stand on its own two feet, but egos are not even on my radar.
“We are lucky enough to have a dynamic and awesome banking group and lucky to be able to work with them. But we certainly feel as a group that we want to announce the pure property work.”
In fact, Cleal seems baffled by the suggestion that A&O is not known in the highest echelons of the profession for its property work.
Tony Briam, a senior partner in the property department at Clifford Chance, thinks that Cleal’s vision of positioning A&O’s property department as an autonomous force rather than an adjunct to other departments is a big undertaking.
Briam says: “I would suspect that the market perception of A&O’s property department places it behind Linklaters, us and Herbert Smith, because of the way it is placed with the finance practice.
“I think it is never too late. However, the longer you leave it the more difficult it becomes and it also depends on the size of the department.”
But Cleal is upbeat about the position of the firm in property and is ambitious in what he wants to achieve during his tenure.
“We can’t be profitable on run-of-the-mill retail lettings but we can do the bigger transactions,” he says, before name-dropping one of the firm’s largest property clients, Schroders.
Cleal is looking forward to the challenge and is clearly delighted that he has ended up becoming a partner at A&O, which was not in his game plan when he was younger. He wanted to be a veterinarian, but says that he “didn’t concentrate for long enough” due to his “fairly relaxed upbringing”.
So being a lawyer was something that he just fell into. Cleal does not even have the excuse that he came from a family of lawyers and that law was in his blood. His father was a fashion photographer who in his time shot album covers for The Who and the Rolling Stones.
Would Cleal have liked to follow in his footsteps?
“Oh yeah, that would have been great, but my father told me I would make a lousy photographer. He saw some of my photos,” he says.
Cleal recalls, almost with surprise at a forgotten version of himself, that he “used to be quite wacky” at law school. He was always accompanied by his dog Max who would sit, untethered, outside classes waiting for him to finish while Cleal was being bored by trust law.
He no longer has a dog, as another childhood ambition, to live in the country, has so far failed to materialise – Cleal lives in Clapham.
Head of property
Allen & Overy