Land of opportunity?

British Land wants thoroughly modern relationships with its advisers

Julian Long
Julian Long

British Land (BL) has frequently come under scrutiny for being run in an old-fashioned way, a criticism that its legal function has not been immune to. But things may be changing as the property giant finally moves into the 21st century.

Lucinda Bell, formerly head of tax at the company, joined the board as finance director in March 2011 and has been given the brief to review the real estate developer’s relationships with outside law firms.

Bell is understood to have ruled out a formal panel, despite rumblings that BL might look to follow the market’s lead by introducing a roster in the mould of rival Hammerson’s (The Lawyer, 23 May 2011).

BL used to give the bulk its work to SJ Berwin, where Jonathan and Michael Metliss, the sons of former BL board member Cyril Metliss, were partners. There is no hint of improper practice, but even insiders admit that it was once a family relationship for a firm that breathed and bled BL. Now the company’s management has largely changed – and both of the Metliss brothers have left SJ Berwin.

Details of Bell’s review are unclear, but Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer is expected to keep hold of the primary corporate role, which it carries out through London corporate head and relationship partner Julian Long.

How the bricks and mortar real estate work will be shared out, however, is slightly less set in stone.

SJ Berwin has a strong chance of continuing to win retail property work, which it does at present thanks to real estate partner Edward Page’s links with a senior figure in the corresponding team at BL.

Office work is a more competitive field. SJ Berwin is historically a leading firm here, but Ashurst has won more work recently, notably on the acquisition of a Baker Street site in early 2010 and the purchase and redevelopment of Marble Arch House at the start of 2011. The relationship has been passed from Adrian Dear to fellow partner Martin Wright. Mayer Brown has also won office mandates.

How Bell, herself the daughter of a former BL CEO, will take the company into the new world is a matter that property lawyers across the City will be watching carefully.