A source at the firm affirmed the ambition to be the number one practice in terms of turnover for UK real estate work outside the magic circle. But measuring its progress may not be so clear cut.
He admitted: “I don't think anyone has particularly encapsulated how we will measure our progress, but from somebody who is at the coalface trying to achieve it, it obviously has to be in terms of turnover.”
Given that, according to last year's figures in The Lawyer 100, Clifford Chance tops the tree with a real estate turnover of £72m, followed by national giant Eversheds on £55m, magic circle powerhouse Linklaters on £50m and then four firms at around the £40m mark, Wragge's £20.2m property turnover seems paltry. By that benchmark, the pledge to be number one, even excepting Clifford Chance's considerable cross-border practice, looks either reckless or naive. To increase turnover by more than 150 per cent over three years would be nothing short of miraculous and would see real estate accounting for around 75 per cent of total turnover on today's figures.
Much of the growth would inevitably focus on the fledgling London real estate practice headed by Herbert Smith lateral hire Gerald Bland, currently the only real estate partner with a permanent London base. According to Bland, the plan is to increase staffing levels to four partners and 20-plus other fee-earners over the next three years. So far, the only recruit has been Anne Waltham, Lovells' highly regarded property litigator. She is relocating to Birmingham to become joint head of the property litigation team, but is also expected to spend a significant amount of time in London. The Birmingham office currently has 24 partners and more than 120 fee-earners.
The firm has already announced that it is to merge its two property teams – development and litigation – into one real estate practice from 1 May, with Bland as national chairman and former Eversheds' Birmingham chief Adrian Bland in a chief executive-style role. But if success for the real estate practice is to be measured by turnover growth, nobody has told Gerald Bland. “There's been some mixed messages coming across, which is unfortunate,” he said.
He believes that the aim is to be in the top six nationally for UK real estate work, including the magic circle firms, but that is top six according to reputation, not necessarily by turnover or size – an altogether more achievable target.
“In terms of who is ranked above us in property at the moment, you'd immediately think of Clifford Chance and Linklaters, two magic circle firms. Probably my former firm Herbert Smith and then two traditional big property players – Nabarro Nathanson and Berwin Leighton Paisner. To get Wragges talked about in the same breath as those firms is where I have the ambition to be,” said Gerald Bland.
“An awful lot of it is to do with perception, the work that you're doing and the people that are doing it. We want to be number one, yes, but I'm not making that link between being number one and having a turnover equivalent to Eversheds, for example,” he added.
The ambition is still there, but it's not quite the eye-popping ambition it first seemed, and with several magic circle firms downgrading their property practices, including Linklaters de-equitising a number of its property partners, who would bet against it?