Building for the future

Susan Hall, head of property at DJ Freeman, has seen a good handful of her fellow partners leave recently, but it does not seem to have got her down.

This year alone, five have gone from the property group – Jonathan Barnes to Lewis Silkin, Stephen Koehne to Stephenson Harwood, Richard Max to Olswang, and Christopher Comyn and Jonathan Martyn to Watson Farley & Williams. This leaves 17 partners, but Hall shrugs off the departures with a philosophical, “People come and go – we’re a big department with 65 fee-earners.”

Some onlookers have blamed the firm’s multidisciplinary system, which groups lawyers around industries rather than specialisms, meaning the property group also has tax, litigation and corporate lawyers. But Hall is a great advocate of the system. “Young people like having the focus, because it allows them to get to know clients quite well,” she says in a way that implies the older lawyer might find it a bit more difficult. “But other people don’t want to specialise to that extent. Some people it suits and others would prefer not to have such a narrow focus.”

While the system was put into place seven years ago, Hall says that over the last year or so the firm has tried to get people more closely aligned to the business. “[Moving to a multidisciplinary structure] is a cultural change, and cultural changes are difficult to effect. You have to have a critical mass before it gets going,” she explains.

With the increase in stamp duty, the traditional property lawyers at DJ Freeman have found that they are not doing as much straightforward buying and selling of property. Instead, property deals are now being carried out for tax reasons, in a corporate structure or for offshore trusts. “Clients are now very sophisticated,” says Hall. “Some of them have made the leap from the 19th century to the 21st century in one go.”

Hall believes that here is an increasing need for lawyers to grasp the bigger picture and understand where they fit into a transaction. Along with the new structure also comes a need for better team workers and those who can project manage a good handful of different lawyers from different disciplines coming together in one deal.

Again, she says, younger people find it easier because they have been brought up with more complicated transactions. Are you getting a hint here of why the five partners decided to move on? Whatever Hall’s underlying message, I don’t think it is too far away from the ‘old dog, new tricks’ adage.

By being a smaller firm, says Hall, DJ Freeman is better able to get different disciplines truly working together to form a network of support where there is no hiatus between jobs. The property client will usually deal with the property lawyer (or investment lawyers, as they are known at DJ Freeman) as the firm has found that clients prefer their first point of contact to be someone who knows about the property world; but then that contact lawyer will also remain in the event of work that goes outside their area of knowledge in a project management role.

Hall doesn’t explain why the title ‘investment’ lawyer has been chosen over ‘property’, but I am sure that some marketing maestro advised it, along with a sort of fern green, which as part of DJ Freeman’s recent rebranding has been chosen to represent all that is property linked. The firm has also dropped the quill and pot from its logo in favour of a box-like blob.

To replace some of the older dogs, DJ Freeman is about to bring in some new faces from Clifford Chance, Berwin Leighton Paisner and Baker & McKenzie, plus a barrister. But only one of them is joining as a partner, and a salaried one at that.

“We actually have more assistants and fewer partners for this year, but this is what we wanted to achieve,” says Hall. “Profitability is an issue for every department in every firm. We’ve got a number of partners in the department who are at the end of their careers, me included. We want to bring in a lot of bright young things who in a few years time will be the partners.”

Hall herself has a young approach that I can imagine going down better with the junior lawyers than the doyens of the property world. I can tell that I am going to like her when she acknowledges the man who comes in to pour the coffee, recognising that he is new and asking how he is liking the job. “Fantastic,” is the reply. I know you’re thinking that my guidelines for liking people are very low, but you would not believe how many big cheeses do not acknowledge the ‘serfs’. Actually, you probably would as you work alongside them – Lord only knows who dragged them up.

Anyway, back to the subject: DJ Freeman gained Hall in 1984 thanks to the unbelievable stinginess of the Coal Board.
She was working as a property lawyer for the Coal Board and at the time had been working flat out on a development in Wigan. A signing ceremony had been arranged, but while the deal was completed just in time, the typing was not. Hall’s secretary was willing to work late to complete the documents in time for the ceremony, but Hall’s boss refused to pay for the electricity after 5pm. So the signing ceremony was faked and Hall decided that enough was enough when her boss, after listening to her furious complaints, said to her: “What you have to realise is that we’re very lucky to have jobs at the moment.”

Of course, the timing of her departure coincided with the miners’ strike and the end of the coal industry as a national force. So she was charmed by Jonathan Soloman over to DJ Freeman, where she has been ever since.

Among her clients now are Axa and, much more interestingly, the Kingsway International Christian Centre, a large lively church in Hackney, North London. Kingsway wants to build the biggest church in the UK and Hall says that it has a good chance of doing so.

Client and lawyer found each other after Hall’s husband’s client recommended her, knowing her to be both a property lawyer and a Christian who was likely to be sympathetic to the church’s way of working.

The work is not done pro bono – Hall says the church is a sophisticated client doing quite big transactions – but the approach is certainly at odds with the ‘normal’ way of working.

“Because the perspective they have on things is completely different from other clients, it makes it much more interesting,” says Hall. “When you ask them where the money’s coming from, they’ll reply that they’re having a prayer meeting, so you see their way of working is quite different.” And, says Hall, they always find the money.

The other difference is that the church is looking for different things in a property to most clients, as well as not doing anything in a deal that they feel falls outside what they believe is right.

I bet that has the banking lawyers sweating.
Susan Hall
Head of property
DJ Freeman