Cinderella, you shall go to the ball

All of a sudden property has become a fashionable practice area again. Long thought of as a backwater in City firms, and sniffly regarded by many corporate partners as a service function, property is suddenly a major part of City firms’ business plans.

First, A&O’s new head of property Adam Cleal declared that he wanted to increase the amount of “pure” property work handled by his firm. Then Ashursts’ managing partner Ian Nisse returned to its property department. Then Clifford Chance hired three property partners in one go. And finally, in a spectacular move, Herbert Smith signalled its aggressive ambitions by luring Berwin Leighton property head David Taylor.

How can this be? After all, property is still out of favour in the City; most listed property companies have been trading at a discount to net asset value for some time. Yet the smarter City firms have wised up to the fact that neglecting property would be a serious mistake. Certainly, it can continue to perform a valued service function, but property is increasingly seen as an asset class with potential.

Yet although there is a growing crossover between property and structured finance, even the larger City firms are now aware that for a property practice (increasingly dubbed “real estate” after the US fashion) to have any credibility in the industry, it must not focus on property finance to the exclusion of all else.

The likes of Berwin Leighton and Nabarro Nathanson are not under siege yet. But with “pure” property lawyers across the City suddenly in demand, there may be more moves yet.