“Then he told me he had an axe,” recounts Mike Edge matter-of-factly across the table of one of the “cosy” meeting rooms at Halliwell Landau. I grip my tea cup, waiting for the bloody consequences. “He didn't threaten me with it though, he just kind of mentioned it. And he said he was taping our chat for a book he was writing.” Who said property law wasn't exciting?
Edge is remembering one of his more colourful client meetings as a trainee solicitor. Thankfully for him, as the newly-appointed head of property at Halliwells he is unlikely to encounter many more axe men in the course of a day's work. Although it is possible that some of the partners at rival Manchester firms may have other ideas.
A self-confessed fan of the 1970s TV show Crown Court, Edge, originally from Buxton, has been with the firm for only two years, after spending 14 years with the now defunct Slater Heelis. Previous property head Stephen Goodman's decision to return to full-time fee-earning in December opened the door for Edge, and it was not an opportunity he was ever going to refuse. “There were discussions and I was asked if I'd be prepared to do it, and I said I'd very much like to. It's a new challenge for me, I've never been head of department before,” he says.
Edge has always practised in the North. Articled at Barlow Parkin & Co in Manchester, the axe man incident sent Edge back to the safety of Buxton, where he practised for one year at Bennett Brooke-Taylor & Wright, working alongside the brother of The Goodies' Tim Brooke-Taylor. After an approach from a former tutor, he returned to law school for three years to lecture at the College of Law in Chester. “I was pleasantly surprised at being approached,” he says. “Apparently they have a policy of approaching former students who they've identified as potential lecturers. I always used to speak a lot in tutorials and they'd identified me as outgoing and communicative. It was a useful period to sharpen up my knowledge and good fun as well – like being a student but without having to do the exams.” While contemporaries headed for the bright lights and bigger bucks on offer in London, Edge decided to stay in the North West for his return to practice. “I was never really tempted to go to London. I think I would've been successful had I done so, but I made a decision to stay and only applied to North West firms,” he says.
Slater Heelis followed and 14 years later when the partners there went their separate ways, Edge took his files and one assistant solicitor round the corner to join Halliwells, the only partner to do so. Two years down the line and Edge is aware that the ladder to success at his new firm may seem remarkably short – “a meteoric rise,” he says – but it was the opportunity to make a quick impact that initially led him there. Having previously met Stephen Goodman informally, the deal was struck very quickly. “I did speak to other firms and I got offers from other firms, but at Halliwells I saw an opportunity to excel and impress quite quickly. It was a much more commercial and dynamic approach, a starkly different way of managing things. I knew I was a good lawyer and wanted to see how that could work in a more commercial and outgoing environment.”
The premature conclusion of Goodman's brief and undoubtedly successful tenure as head of property at Halliwells raised a few eyebrows in Manchester's legal circles. With the presumed heir apparent Paul Conroy having already announced that he was joining Addleshaw Booth & Co, Edge was the obvious successor, although he is dismissive of any rumours of internal politics. “It wasn't a case of Stephen being removed as head of department and me coming in,” he says. “It was a decision taken by Stephen really.” Goodman is indeed on record as saying he did not enjoy the management side of his role. It is an aspect that Edge is only too eager to explore. “I was managing a small team before, and it's something I really enjoy,” he says.
With clients such as Bruntwood Estates, owners of around 20 per cent of the office accommodation in central Manchester, Aldi Stores and the recently secured Focus Do It All, Edge has taken over a commercial property department that has expanded considerably in the past two years, with three new partners already appointed in 2001: two promotions in Manchester and Colin Sturge, ex-Norton Rose, recruited to the firm's fledgling London office.
While not planning any major organisational changes to the department, Edge does have his own plans on how to take it forward. “The department grew tremendously over the period that Stephen was in charge, and it's for me to continue that success and improve on it,” he says. “I want to expand in construction law – we're looking for construction lawyers at the moment – and to expand the development work.” Halliwells' development team, led by Goodman, is regarded as one of the strongest in the North West, and Edge believes that Goodman “ought to be doing the development work and continuing the success of that team rather than being distracted by management”. He is looking forward to continued expansion. “I think I'm a good manager as well as a good lawyer. Having taught, and also having been an examiner for the Law Society, I'm quite a well-known figure in Manchester. I think people know me, respect me, and would hopefully want to work with me. Attracting staff should perhaps be easier than for some of our clients.”
With the regeneration and redevelopment of Manchester showing no signs of slowing, the leading firms are tripping over development work, and Halliwells is no exception: it was instrumental in the regeneration of the city's neglected northern quarter, acting for the Bank of Scotland in a £9m redevelopment of a dilapidated old tex
tile mill into penthouses and apartments for the burgeoning city centre population. It marked the first development in this part of the city. “I think it's difficult not to be involved in regeneration in Manchester these days,” says Edge. “Especially as it's so much easier to get planning permission for brownfield sites.”
One of the brownfield sites he is currently working on is the £100m Snow World development in Salford, a stone's throw across the River Irwell from the prestigious Castlefield area that spearheaded the inner-city regeneration of Manchester. Snow World itself will be a mixed leisure, retail and office project, with a small amount of residential. As the name suggests, the focus of the development will be the largest indoor snow dome in the world, similar to another project in Tamworth by the same developer, Valley and Vale Properties. “It's a very big scheme and a great site – it will definitely be the place to be,” says Edge, who is himself a keen skier. The first phase is due for completion in early 2002, with the opening planned for that autumn.
More work, though, means more competition, but Edge has strong ideas on how to market the firm's property capabilities. As a former lecturer, he is eager to educate and inform prospective clients of his department's expertise. “Giving seminars, getting through the door, getting our face in front of people – that's an area I want to expand. If you can get through the door and talk to prospects technically and socially, then you can have some success. It's a long process, though, and I'm realistic about it. You can't just give a seminar to somebody and expect the next day that you're going to get their business.”
The personal approach is something Edge is very keen on. You get the feeling that, unlike some more conservative firms in Manchester and elsewhere, client care and customer relationship management has never been an issue for Edge. He is very down-to-earth and his sense of humour and ability to raise a smile belie the professionalism of a workaholic, happily coming into the office for an extra few hours on most Saturday mornings with Samantha, his dog, in tow. “The dog is probably quite a skilful lawyer actually,” he jokes, “although she sometimes hides biscuits in people's files, but I'm not too sure that clients would like hearing that.” Saturday afternoons, though, are definitely not for working – they are for walking, or rather, “walkies”. After a morning in the office, Samantha enjoys a good two-hour walk in the afternoon. “It's excellent thinking time,” says Edge, but I'm not quite sure if he means for himself or the dog.