Talking shop: Leon Shelley, Westfield Shoppingtowns

As corporate counsel at retail centre operator Westfield Shoppingtowns, Leon Shelley remains optimistic about the sector’s future. Tom Phillips reports

Talking shop For those who worship shopping, Westfield in London’s Shepherd’s Bush is a cathedral. Opened in October last year, it is the largest shopping centre in Europe, home to some 49 acres of shops from luxury boutiques such as Tiffany & Co, Louis Vuitton and De Beers to high-street brands such as Marks & Spencer and Topshop, and with dozens of restaurants dotted around the site.

It cost around £1.7bn to build and even included a new underground station to bring the hordes of ­shoppers direct to the door.

“It felt like we were working on something special,” says a proud Leon Shelley, corporate counsel at Westfield Shoppingtowns, the UK arm of Australian company ­Westfield Group.

Westfield Group owns 119 ­shopping centres across the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand and recently ;posted ;earnings ;of AU$1.94bn (£880m) in 2007-08, up 10 per cent on the previous year.

Despite the much-hyped opening of the Shepherd’s Bush centre being somewhat deflated by the recession, Shelley counters the idea that it is a bad time to be in retail.

“Westfield opened 99 per cent leased, with those leases lasting upwards from one year,” he says. “It’s a long-term asset and I’m sure it’ll go through many cycles, but London is still a strong retail environment.”

Shelley arrived at Westfield from the other side as a former Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom lawyer, having worked on Westfield’s ­integration of real estate investor Chelsfield Group in 2004. It was the £1.4bn Chelsfield acquisition that sealed the company’s ownership of the Westfield site.

When Shelley started at the ­company he was immediately faced with the complicated integration of the new addition to the Westfield family. Westfield replaced all of the contractors, changed the design of the building and added a new ­underground station, taking control of all aspects of the project.

To help simplify the process on the legal side, Shelley streamlined the external help into a “flexible” panel that includes Ashurst, Denton Wilde Sapte, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, SJ Berwin and his previous employer Skadden, and brought some work in-house, expanding the legal team to seven.

“We were spending too much on external help, although there’ll never come a time when we’ll be ­exclusively internal,” explains Shelley. “Chelsfield was a very complicated structure. It helped that I wasn’t coming into it blind – I just changed my email address and got involved from the other side.”

He now oversees an external law-firm war chest of around £10m a year. A healthy amount of that will go towards the company’s latest ­project, a huge £1.4bn centre near the Olympic site at Stratford, where ­Shelley can be found in his hard hat from time-to-time. The company’s Holborn HQ sits equidistant from the two sites and Shelley is keen to view the object of the legal team’s work first hand.

“It’s a legacy and a fantastic ­opportunity to be part of the East London regeneration,” he says. “The great thing about going in-house is that you get to see a product that we can all be proud of.”

Shelley admits he is a demanding client who constantly questions the advice he receives, but he also has plenty of praise for his external lawyers, not least Hugh Lumby at Ashurst, whom Shelley counts as a key adviser.

“Our panel must understand our business,” he explains. “The thing I hate most is a ‘two-handed’ lawyer, one who says ‘you could do this, but on the other hand… .’ I want a lawyer who understands what I need and has a point of view that helps me come to a conclusion. I’m not ­looking for more problems.”

Name: Leon Shelley
Organisation: Westfield Shoppingtowns
Position: Corporate counsel
Industry: Retail
Reporting to: Managing director UK/Europe Michael Gutman
Company turnover: AU$1.94bn (£880m)
Total number of employees: 700
Total legal capacity: Seven
Main external law firms: Ashurst, Denton Wilde Sapte, Freshfields
Bruckhaus Deringer, SJ Berwin, Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom
Total legal spend: £7m-£10m

1990-93: University of Leeds
1996-98: College Of Law, London

Work history:
1998-2000: Trainee, Herbert Smith
2000-01: M&A associate, UBS Warburg
2001-05: Associate, Skadden
2005 -06: Corporate solicitor, Westfield Shoppingtowns
2006-present: Corporate counsel, Westfield Shoppingtowns