Go east! Mipim shows the way

The top story from the Mipim real estate conference last week? Well, there was the one with the Martineau Johnson lawyers finding a rat the size of a small dog in their apartment. Or perhaps DLA Piper‘s deep house choons pumping out from dawn to dusk from its pavilion (respect, innit). Or, best of all, Ashurst being gazumped out of its party venue by a bunch of Russians.

The Ashurst story – noted by our reporter Luke McLeod-Roberts, who wrote a warts-and-all twice-daily blog from Mipim on www.thelawyer.com last week – is hiliariously symbolic. Last year’s Mipim festival saw the beginning of a CIS invasion; this year the Russians and the Ukrainians were all over the place. They dominated the exhibition hall, and were marketing not only premium residential developments but major leisure and gambling projects. Last year’s emerging trend of firms targeting Ukraine – led by CMS Cameron McKenna and joined this month by Clifford Chance – no longer looks quirky; it looks entirely necessary.

What Mipim demonstrated last week is that real estate has come of age as an international business within law firms. Those firms which can demonstrate progress in the Middle East were understandably pretty smug in Mipim last week – witness Trowers & Hamlins sending over a Bahrain partner to Cannes, for example.

The US firms are considerably behind the pace in real estate. I’ve lost count of the number vowing to break into the European market, from Gibson Dunn & Crutcher to Paul Hastings, from King & Spalding to Shearman & Sterling. More pertinently, the US firms are lagging behind the Brits in the Middle East – one of the many by-products of the US’s unpopularity in the region. Even firms such as DLA Piper, with large US real estate practices, are developing their Middle East infrastructure practices with Brits – plus a smattering of Aussies.

The opportunities available internationally contrast strongly with what’s on offer domestically. Most UK law firms will be happy if their real estate departments manage to come within 10 per cent of last year’s figures. No wonder Russia and the Middle East look so enticing. It’s almost enough to dissipate that traditional Mipim hangover.