Leading real estate practices shrink by 18 per cent as recession bites

The combined turnover of the top 20 UK real estate practices fell by 18 per cent in the last financial year, down from £977m in 2007-08 to £804m, research by The Lawyer has revealed.

The firm that experienced the largest drop in real estate turnover was Eversheds, whose property revenues fell by £24m. The firm also reduced its total number of real estate partners by eight, down to 74.

That said, the firm managed to hold onto the honour of having the second-largest real estate practice, citing investment, social housing and regeneration work as contributing towards the group’s £70m turnover.

Eversheds head of real estate investment Bruce Dear said: “Activity levels are estimated to be 75 per cent down in 2009 across the real estate sector as compared with 2007. Obviously we can’t defy gravity.”

Clifford Chance has held onto the top real estate spot for another year, despite an estimated fall in revenues of 12 per cent to £94m.

While the firm did not disclose its figures, a source with knowledge of the Clifford Chance real estate practice commented: “Clifford Chance has suffered the greatest exposure because it’s so dependent on private equity houses and banking and finance. It’s not as well-hedged as Linklaters or Freshfields [Bruckhaus Deringer].”

Turnover in Freshfields’ real estate practice has dropped by around 27 per cent to £51m, accounting for four per cent of the firm’s total turnover of £1.287bn. Last year the practice group made up six per cent of turnover.

Freshfields global head of real estate Chris Morris said: “The lack of debt in the marketplace meant significant change in the level of large deals across Europe. It was pretty unusual to see anything over €100m (£85m) and the number of those deals was very much reduced.”

Some magic circle firms maintained the total number of real estate partners despite having carried out widespread restructurings. Linklaters, for example, has a total of 34 this year – one more than the previous year.

One City recruiter explained: “The axe hasn’t fallen on real estate as much as finance, private equity or mainstream corporate because as an asset class it may not take as long to come back.”

Only four of the top 20 real estate experienced any growth at all. They are Ashurst, Lovells, Pinsent Masons and Trowers & Hamlins, although not one of this group expanded by more than five per cent.

For further analysis on the performance of real estate practices and other major sectors see The Lawyer UK 200 Annual Report 2009, which is published on 7 September.