Gerald Bland’s decision to leave Herbert Smith came as no great shock to his peers. He began chewing over a number of options after returning from his second sabbatical late last year with a nagging feeling that he needed a change.
A US firm seemed a likely scenario at first, and DJ Freeman was among the UK practices that made a bid for Bland’s profile-raising abilities. But Bland’s ultimate choice of accepting Wragge & Co’s mandate to launch a London property practice is one the market is still trying to make sense of.
This is neither a Jonathan Solomon-style leap – Norton Rose to Clifford Chance – nor a David Taylor-type transition – Berwin Leighton to Herbert Smith – and is certainly not in the same vein as Chris Edwards’ surprise move down a few rungs from Dechert to Charles Russell, which The Lawyer revealed last week.
Critics and former colleagues will mutter that at 54, Bland’s time at the coal face has come and gone. They have a point, but it is worth noting that as news of his move broke, Bland was putting in the hours on his latest deal for developer Carisbrooke.
Joining Wragges is hardly Bland’s way of winding down. He intends to go out on a high and has taken on a formidable challenge. He makes no bones about his seniority; he will give Wragges between three and five years before he retires or cuts back to a consultancy role.
So just what do they hope to achieve in that time? Bland is well-liked and respected. But competitors are asking why Wragges needs such a figure and what he will add apart from a good deal of confusion about the firm’s London motives.
Why allow property to upstage other practice areas in the push for a London presence? And couldn’t the firm have done so with a slightly lower-key approach, taking Bland on as a consultant, perhaps, rather than going large with a new national chairman of property role?
Clearly, a strong message is what Wragges wanted after months of a softly-softly approach in London. Wragges’ property partners have been trying to carve a shape in the London market for a while now. In fact they could be accused of taking their eye off the ball in the Midlands rather too much after losing out in recent panel reviews for two strategic public sector bodies, namely Birmingham City Council and regional development agency Advantage West Midland. Eversheds – Wragges’ most obvious property competitor- was reappointed to both.
In the past year, Mark Dakeyne, Robert Caddick and John Burns, among others, have spent an increasing amount of time in London, building relationships with new clients – it won work for the industrial portfolio of the Schroder Exempt Property Unit Trust, for example.
But it needed something more. Concern was mounting that Wragges’ lack of a real London presence was equating to missed opportunities with existing and potential clients.
For example, Mapeley – another new client in the last 12 months – has been instructing Wragges on existing portfolios, but not yet on the acquisitions themselves.
Enter Bland, replete with West End and City contacts, the ideal bait for Wragges to attract the quality players it will need to bulk up in London for a long-term haul.
Bland is very clear that he wants finance, tax and corporate expertise around him on the ground, notwithstanding the plan to push as much work as possible back to Wragges’ Birmingham powerhouse. The challenge will be to make London pay. If new clients buy into the idea of part of their work being shipped back to Birmingham, they are likely to start asking for a hefty discount on fees.
Wragges will have to make that sit comfortably with its need to raise profitability – profits per partner dropped some 10 per cent for 2001-2002. They will also have to battle with client preference for everything under one roof and concern that the idea of support just a few miles down the track is never as good as it sounds.