For a man who has just been poached by a very large US firm to head its new London-based property practice, Nigel Heilpern is doing a lot of worrying. He does not want this interview to reflect badly on the firm he is leaving behind after 15 years, Nabarro Nathanson. Neither does the property finance partner wish to surmise as to why Paul Hastings has chosen him to become UK head of property in London.
A lot of what is said is almost negotiated out of Heilpern who, although he is trying to be as helpful as he can, is not blessed with natural bravado.
To be fair, he is currently in a delicate position as he is still trying to negotiate his leaving date with Nabarros. Hopefully, by the time this article comes out, that matter will have been settled, but Joel Simon, chair of Paul Hastings’ London office says that from his point of view the move was finalised in May.
The Nabarros partnership deed demands a 12-month notice period. One imagines that the Paul Hastings partnership is currently sitting round scratching its head at the idea of a partner being forced to stay for months on end after handing in his resignation. The idea of gardening leave and restrictive covenants are an anathema to the great free market of the US where partners leave fairly much when they want to leave. Can you imagine – there’d be chaos and rioting in the streets.
So anyway, why did Heilpern want to leave Nabarros where he has spent his entire career since qualifying at Gray’s Inn firm May May & Merriman?
Heilpern has obviously had plenty of practice at vocalising his feelings on this issue as his answer trips out almost before the question is asked.
“I have been at Nabarros for 15 years and have had a tremendous time there gaining huge experience of all sorts of things. I have two reasons for the move: firstly to give myself a new challenge and to build something myself; and the more I get to know Paul Hastings the more I like them.”
That last bit strikes me as quite sweet. After 15 years in the same firm, Heilpern has obviously forgotten the first rule of moving jobs. This is that when you move jobs to escape all the weirdos, saddos and psychos of your current job, your future colleagues will all appear to be angels individually tailored to meet your optimum requirements from human beings. Then within weeks of moving your novelty mouse mat and family pictures, you discover that all the characters you left behind are with you once more, just with different faces. Apart from, of course, anyone moving to work at The Lawyer. And Heilpern is not moving to escape anyone at Nabarros. Quite the opposite, as he will remain friends with many there and stresses that in no way is his move a comment on Nabarros.
But the move will give him much closer knowledge of what is going on in the US property market which, says Heilpern, pre-empts the UK scene by around five years. With 30 property partners and 150 property lawyers in total, Paul Hastings is the pre-eminent property law firm in the States.
And while Heilpern accepts that many will laugh at his next statement, he professes that he likes doing things that he has not done before, despite his long tenure at Nabarros.
Like working on the mega deal that was the Inland Revenue’s Steps (strategic transfer of the estate to the private sector) that Heilpern worked on for Mapeley, the George Soros-led consortium. The deal followed the groundbreaking Prime deal which saw all of the Department of Social Security property portfolio pass to a private company and took almost two years to put together.
For reasons that Heilpern will not comment on, Mapeley decided soon after that deal was completed to use Linklaters for legal advice. Whether Heilpern will try to win the company back again once at Paul Hastings remains to be seen.
If the US firm was looking for someone who is enthusiastic about property finance then it has chosen the right person. Heilpern, a quietish man, bubbles over when talking about different structures and becomes especially animated when he comes to the property finance “Holy Grail” as he calls it.
As I am sure you are all aware, Heilpern is talking about a tax transparent, closed ended, floated, property investment vehicle equivalent to Reits (real estate investment trusts) in the States and unit trusts in Australia.
It is as Heilpern launches enthusiastically into why the UK should look at starting such a structure, that I begin to feel myself drowning in a sea of property finance. From the way he is talking, I feel I would find it interesting if only I could swim into the same current that is whisking
him along, but just cannot find it.
Periodically, Heilpern urges me to stop him if he is talking too much, but that would seem cruel. There is, he explains, already the limited partnership structure which is closed ended and tax transparent but not floated which works as a very good vehicle for a small group of investors but has limitations beyond that.
Recently, he tells me he was in a group with the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors that was trying to persuade the Treasury to allow the formation of such structures as a way of getting investment into regeneration schemes. Arthur Andersen drew up a 150-page report which disappeared into the Treasury and was never seen again.
In the past, Heilpern has worked on Reits deals, but obviously his move will mean many more such transactions and he wants to work out a way to carry on working with Nabarros.
“While I am going to a competitor, in many ways its practice is quite complementary. I don’t see the Paul Hastings team as being a rival to the Nabarros department. We have started discussing with the Nabarros management and we want to keep [my departure] on a friendly basis.”
Because, Heilpern tells me, again, he is very sad to leave the firm that has been so good to him since joining in 1986 when he worked with now senior partner David Bramson.
During his time there he worked on projects such as the redevelopment of King’s Cross when he acted for the British Railways Board. That deal was fascinating, he says, because it involved reading conveyancing deeds drawn up in the 1850s. Heilpern also went to the House of Lords to carry out research into evidence given in background to the 1846 Railways Act given by one Mr Wilde of Wilde Sapte. The deal had the added benefit that he helped carry the Nabarros property team through the doldrums of the early 1990s.
Heilpern decided at the age of 12 that he was going to enter the law, although at that stage he thought he would follow in the footsteps of two family friends to the bar. He later decided that his personality was more suited to becoming a solicitor: “I have become more extrovert as I get older,” shrugs Heilpern.
Property seems to have slotted in quite nicely with his love of history and also, given the immense changes that have occurred in the market over the past 16 years, his love of change. Even if Heilpern does express it rather more quietly than other legal flibbertigibbets.
UK head of property