What's it all about?
Real estate is fancy speak for property law. Property is not just about bricks and mortar. Property forms an integral part of our daily lives.
From shopping centres to residential housing, from office blocks to agricultural farmland, people are always buying or selling, leasing or redeveloping the property around us, and that is where the lawyers fit in - helping to make this happen.
The variety of clients and transactions means life as a property lawyer is never dull. Although no day is ever the same, here is a taster of what life might be like.
In the morning you might draft a lease of a Birmingham shopping centre unit followed by donning a hard hat for a site visit on a redevelopment plot in the heart of London. The afternoon might bring preparation for a sale of a multi-let office block or the purchase of an industrial shed.
Whatever you do, it will undoubtedly involve drafting and negotiating with the other side to the transaction, but you will also have the opportunity to visit the buildings on which you are working and have a lot of face-to-face contact with your client.
One client may have different concerns and priorities to another. However, generally in property transactions, unlike in litigation, all parties are working towards the same outcome, making it a cooperative and satisfying sector to work in.
The working culture
There is a genuine team spirit among a group of property lawyers, with the recognition that everyone has a part to play in the development of the business. Real estate lawyers can become involved in deals however junior or senior they may be. A trainee may be responsible for their own file, for example, a licence for alterations, which may document works that need to be carried out by a tenant before they can start trading from their unit. This is a great way to take responsibility for a matter at an early stage and have direct client contact.
A trainee can also help on larger transactions, for example, the sale of a property, by collating all the relevant documents and leases affecting that property to send to the other side for review. Another task may involve a piece of research on a more technical point of law that is crucial to the redevelopment of a property, for example, whether a right of way exists over which the client intends to build.
By assisting at a junior level, trainee solicitors can see that they are making a valuable contribution to a wider team. As juniors move up the ranks and gain experience, they forge strong working relationships with their clients and colleagues.
The workload tends to be more steady than in other legal disciplines. However, a real estate lawyer must be prepared to put in long hours where necessary to complete a transaction in a tight timetable. If the deal comes off, a happy client and sometimes even a glass of champagne make all the hard work worthwhile.
A property lawyer needs to be organised. You can be responsible for many matters for different clients at the same time so it is crucial to keep on top of your work and to be good at time management. It is also important to be exact with your drafting in documents. There is no room for ambiguity in this job. The property industry is sociable and close-knit. An outgoing person who is interested in seeing their client’s business develop is a perfect fit.
The law of property is a rapidly developing field so it helps to read up on court decisions and keep up with government proposals for the future. Case law in recent months has shaped the law relating to rights to light. People are very possessive about the natural light that comes into their properties and when developers threaten to restrict this light by constructing new buildings matters can become heated. Recently, courts have looked at whether an individual could prevent a developer from constructing a building that reduced the natural light entering a flat in Brighton or whether a payment to the owner of the flat would be sufficient to compensate them for the loss of light. This is not only an interesting case but also a warning to bullish developers.
Another area to watch, particularly in a difficult market with many tenants experiencing the pain of the credit crunch, are landlord self-help remedies.
For centuries landlords have enjoyed the right to seize or ’distrain’ their tenants’ goods and to sell them to recover arrears of rent. It is a draconian remedy and, because it has evolved over a long period of time, the law of distress is complex and difficult to follow. The Tribunals Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 received royal assent in July 2007. Once in force, it will abolish distress and introduce a simplified ’commercial rent arrears recovery’ system. This remedy would apply to any lease of commercial premises but not if any part of the property is residential. The law is due to come into force some time in 2009 once regulations have been finalised to flesh out the detail of the procedures. The main changes to current law relate to restrictions on what debts a landlord may recover and when they may take possession of a tenant’s goods.
Friday Biddle, associate, Berwin Leighton Paisner