The Swinburne Maddison Property team is our firm’s largest team, working on both commercial and residential property transactions throughout the North East and beyond.
In 2018, property solicitor Chris Ross was promoted to the position of Managing Associate within the team. In this interview he discusses the opportunities available in property law, what the role of managing associate entails and his experience of working with one of the firms’ clients as part of a secondment.
Why did you choose to work in property law?
When I joined the profession I wasn’t quite sure what area of law I wanted to work in. I had gained experience from a number of work placements which gave me an insight to several areas of law, but I must say it is difficult to decide which one you prefer or are suited to based upon a few days or weeks in a particular area.
I was certain that, whatever I decided to specialise in, it would involve contentious work and it was simply by chance that I went into property law. The first matter I undertook had both commercial and residential aspects and over time, my path headed more towards residential. 10 years in, my career has again changed direction; this time towards commercial, in particular development work.
Is there much difference between commercial and residential property work?
There are some similarities between the two but there are also key differences, the most significant of which, I believe, is client expectations.
With residential work, your client could be buying their dream home or upsizing due to family expansion – their motivations and expectations are usually quite straightforward, even if the legal work itself can be as complex as a commercial transaction. For commercial matters, it tends to be more cash flow orientated and it is important to understand what your clients future plans are for the property or land in question as this could impact their decision on whether to acquire the property. For example, the costs of rectifying a title issue to allow for a particular type of development could outweigh the potential profit for the client, rendering the investment a much less attractive proposition.
The corporate and property teams often work on collaborative cases. How is this managed?
Here at Swinburne Maddison all matters are partner-led and it is essential that there is clear and consistent communication between different departments. Depending upon the nature of the transaction, the more dominate area of the matter will lead.
For example a client may be developing a site, but they may need to create a management company to deal with the day to day activities and to oversee the maintenance of the communal areas. This transaction would be led by the property team, but the corporate department would become involved to create the management company and structure it according to the clients needs.
Our offices are open planned, which allows each team to work closely together, regularly communicating and updating each other as to progress.
How has the law changed over the years?
Throughout my career I have seen positive changes in the profession itself in the form of tighter regulations.
In respect to my area of work, a decade ago the government introduced the Home Information Pack (HIP) developed to provide key information by seller to assist the buyer. By the time the legislation came into force, the initial concept was diluted and faces criticism throughout the industry as it was a greater cost to seller to obtain the information required. In principal the HIP was a good idea but lacked general thought as to how it would work in practice. The legislation was later repealed and the only aspect of the pack retained today is the Energy Performance Certificate.
At present there is only a requirement for sellers to obtain an EPC, however I do believe that there is work to be done from a legislative perspective to provide greater consistency and security for buyers before a property is placed on the market. This could be further consultations with solicitors and estate agents and screens with third parties(e.g. GAS Safe and FENSA) to check that certificates have been issued.
You have recently been promoted to Managing Associate, What does this entail?
I joined the firm in 2016 and I was promoted to Managing Associate in 2018. In this role I have greater responsibility in terms of setting an example and supporting junior members of the firm as well as my involvement in management activity. The role is challenging, but very rewarding.
Aside from my day-to-day role of fee earning work, I am involved in a sub-committee. We have a number of these within the firm designed to help make a difference in terms of staff wellbeing, our Corporate and Social Responsibility activities and general business operations.
We strive to provide consistent approaches when developing or shaping the firms policies. It is great to see the results of such policies which I have been involved in implementing and how they have made a difference to staff engagement.
One thing to bear in mind is that solicitors are often encouraged to proactively look for work and to engage with the firm’s business development strategy; something which is not usually mentioned in the typical “job description” of a solicitor. Business development can range from making connections on Linked In, meeting a new contact through an existing client or attending seminars and networking events. There are loads of great ones to attend in the region. When solicitors move into more senior positions greater emphasis is given on building your network as well as supporting your colleagues in developing their network.
You are also currently on a part-time secondment to a key client of the firm. What does this involve?
Over the years I have undertaken a variety of secondments. I am currently working in-house for one of the firms’ developer clients to assist with infrastructure agreements and the disposal of residential units.
In a secondment you will usually work from the clients’ premises acting as a member of their team, however you are still employed by the firm. The length of a secondment can vary; it could be one day per week or even full time.
Being in the clients offices is beneficial for both parties. As a solicitor it allows me to gain a commercial understanding as to how thing s work ‘behind the scenes’ and discover what is important to our client. For our client, it means they can have on site expertise and if any issues are raised they can be dealt with face to face. Clients will often feel more comfortable approaching you in-house with a query.
Some of the work in which I do for the client could be completed at the firm, however when on secondment you can give your full attention to these matters.
What advice would you give to a young law student?
Advice given largely depends on where the law student is currently at in terms of their education. Following completion of A-level law at college or sixth form, my advice would be for students to arm themselves with as much information as possible and to be fully committed in terms of university fees and the length of time it takes to qualify from undergraduate, postgraduate and then completion ofyour training contract. There are of course other routes to qualify into law such as the CiLEX route which Kelly mentioned in her National Careers Week interview.
For university students, my guidance would be to try and gain experience at a law firm, even if it’s one day a week or a summer placement. I do appreciate that is difficult to manage, alongside studies, working to support yourself (and, of course, maintaining a social life!), but in the long run this will help to decide which area of law you wish to practice or are best suited to and will also put you in the best possible position when applying for training contracts.