Soft property market entices law firms to improve their lot

Law firms continued to ride the property market wave in the first quarter of 2005, with a raft of firms taking advantage of the soft market to secure new space at bargain rates.

According to research by Jones Lang LaSalle, law firms accounted for 10 of the 62 new lettings in the first quarter, with five firms signing significant deals for more than 20,000sq ft in space.

After a protracted seven-year search that at times bordered on the comical, Dechert finally secured 55,000sq ft of space at the brand new Times Square site. The firm negotiated the largest law firm deal of the quarter, paying £35 per sq ft on a 15-year lease, with a 10-year break and a 27-month rent-free period.

Addleshaw Goddard, meanwhile, signed up for 45,000sq ft at Alder Castle on Noble Street, also at £35 per sq ft, while Morrison & Forster (MoFo) will pay £39.50 for 27,000sq ft of space at Citipoint.

DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary bagged a bargain 21,000sq ft at One London Wall, negotiating an initial rent of £41 per sq ft over a fourteen and a half-year term with a three-year rent-free period. DLA’s upstream, HR and regulatory groups will occupy the space just downstairs from Osborne Clarke at the new site. Last year, the Bristol-based firm signed 35,000sq ft with an initial rent of £42.50 per sq ft and a 26-month rent-free period.

Salans scored the cheapest deal of the quarter, signing a lease at the rock-bottom rate of £30 per sq ft. It will occupy 26,000sq ft at the former UBS offices at Millennium Bridge House in Lambeth Hill. However, property consultants described the space somewhat disparagingly as “a big slab in a massive backwater” and “unattractive Grade B space”. The properties secured by Addleshaws, Dechert, DLA and MoFo, though, are all regarded as Grade A space.

Matthew Hammond, City director at Jones Lang LaSalle, said professional services firms were a key driver in the soft City property market, as property take-up by the financial sector slumped. “During the last two downturns, lawyers have actively looked to upgrade their accommodation. They’re astute market players,” he said.

Top market rents in the City currently sit at around £48 per sq ft, and it is rare for a law firm to pay more than £45 per sq ft for its office space. Hammond commented: “Lawyers are generally very cautious when they acquire space and are careful over the last 50p.”

A notable exception is Allen & Overy, which is splashing out around £46.50 per sq ft for its lavish new Spitalfields offices.

A raft of US firms is also understood to be eyeing the property market in search of 20,000sq ft or more. They include Arnold & Porter, LeBoeuf Lamb Greene & MacRae, Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson, Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy and Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe.