The strong levels of activity in the NSW property market perhaps needs no further coverage and while things haven’t been quite as robust for Sydney’s property lawyers as it has been for their clients the majority of firms reported better than expected years.
Perhaps the most distinct aspect of this year’s research was the thinning in number of firms and individuals at the top of our rankings. As a guide, in 2014 nine firms sat in our top two tiers, in 2015 only six firms do. In our Peer Research the gap between the firms in our First and Second Tiers was quite narrow however the gap between the Second and Third Tiers was significant with the bottom firm in the Second Tier receiving almost twice as much support as the top firm in the Third Tier. This pattern was even more pronounced in our Client Research.
There’s no shortage of speculation as to the just what shape, if any, the property practices at large global firms are likely to take. The majority view is that the commitment of such firms to an area such as real estate is extremely limited and that these firms will, in turn either disappear from the property market or have a property practice that exists only to provide “corporate support”. While we’re not discounting that viewpoint we are disagreeing with it. Yes there have been departures from real estate practices at many of the global firms and perhaps in the longer-term the real estate practices at such firm will be reduced in size but, on the evidence to date, it’s difficult to take any other view than that the global firms will have a major role to play in the Australian real estate market. As an example look at the NSW Property practices at Herbert Smith Freehills and King & Wood Mallesons. HSF’s NSW real estate group has dealt with personnel departures, figurehead retirements and a comparatively limited commitment to associated areas such as construction and planning to still sit comfortably in our First Tier. At KWM there’s a fair argument to say that the firm’s NSW Real Estate practice is strong now than it was before the firm established global ties and that’s amidst personnel departures and key figures assuming managerial roles.
In our view the questions should be less about where global firms view their real estate practice and more about what local firms can do outside of competitive pricing to genuinely compete moving forward.
There are also questions on just what the short-term holds for the traditionally strong mid-tier property practices i.e. the likes of CBP Lawyers, Gadens and HWL Ebsworth. Certainly these firms are still active and well regarded but despite their best efforts, these firms now look more likely to act for a broader range of quality clients but less likely to creep up the food chain and work on larger matters.
There’s also a host of firms with keen ambitions on making their presence felt in the NSW property market, Gilbert + Tobin’s strong brand has seen it rise in standing in recent times, Holman Fenwick Willan’s efforts to lure Carolyn Chudleigh and a bunch of construction partners has gained it attention and McCullough Robertson’s Sydney presence is making waves across a number of areas with property leading the way.