Andrew Farmery joined solicitors Blake Morgan in August to lead its Thames Valley real estate team. Here, he explains why he’s excited about the region’s vibrant commercial property market and the opportunities this presents for his firm.
Blake Morgan is putting serious commitment and investment behind its Thames Valley real estate team. The firm now has 16 commercial property advisers based in Reading and Oxford, with a further six legal advisers in the construction practice, two in planning law, six in residential development and three in property litigation.
Partner Andrew Farmery relishes the challenge of building the Thames Valley real estate team. “I was looking to continue growing a customer base in the Thames Valley,” he said. “The timing of my move couldn’t have been better for the firm or me.”
Farmery spent the first 10 years of his legal career in Birmingham before moving to Reading in 2005. He also spent a year working in London. He moved from Shoosmiths in Reading to Blake Morgan in August.
“My background and training has always been in real estate and I’ve always loved it. Reading is an exciting place to work – we’re in the heart of a buoyant property market and strong regional economy,” he said.
“While London’s legal sector is a massive pull for talent from across the UK, I’m seeing a growing number of lawyers looking for a better work/life balance who view the Thames Valley as a natural choice for furthering their careers,” he observed.
Farmery’s first objective on arriving at Blake Morgan was to entice two lawyers from in-house roles at major businesses. Senior associate George Panteli was senior counsel at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, responsible for the computer giant’s property portfolio across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Senior solicitor Sophie Boswell joined from national courier and logistics company, DX Group plc, where she was property legal counsel. The trio had previously worked together at Shoosmiths in Reading.
Farmery said: “George and Sophie brought HP and DX Group with them as new clients for the firm, so this was a significant advance for us. I think it’s fairly uncommon for lawyers to leave corporate in-house roles and return to private practice. The benefit for our clients is that the pair give the firm a deeper understanding of business requirements from the ‘other side of the fence’.”
A third new recruit, senior solicitor Jannicke Brar, joined the Reading office from Blandy & Blandy. In another significant coup, the Oxford office lured senior associate Dominic Jones from London ‘magic circle’ law firm Freshfields.
Blake Morgan takes a hands-on approach with clients – Farmery says his team is always willing to roll up its collective sleeves to get jobs done. “As a group of real estate lawyers, we are at a point in our careers where we are young enough to be dynamic in the way we push on and grow the practice area, and senior enough to have the experience and clout to lead that change,” he said.
Blake Morgan’s Oxford office has an established client base, particularly in the education and charity sectors. As well as the university, the firm acts for the Red Cross and Oxfam, advising on their national property portfolios of retail outlets and depots. The Reading office focuses mainly on major corporate occupiers, owner-managed businesses and institutional investors.
“Our real estate team in Oxford is a major player in its local market,” said Farmery. “The two offices complement each other, with Reading concentrating on a different set of clients.”
Farmery hasn’t set a target for the size of the Reading team’s client portfolio or taking on more recruits. He said attaining revenue growth doesn’t mean adding new clients as fast as it can. “Our first priority is to make sure we have sufficient people in the team to continue delivering an excellent service to our clients. We will look for new client opportunities when they arise.”
National support network
Outside the Thames Valley, Blake Morgan has offices in Portsmouth, Southampton, London and Cardiff that the real estate team can call on to support its clients. “We are the number one law firm in Cardiff, Southampton and Oxford. It’s our intention to achieve the same position in Reading,” said Farmery.
He added: “Non-national firms in local markets might be limited to only one or two specialists in each property discipline, which can affect the type and amount of work they are able to take on. Through our national network, we can usually answer whatever our real estate customers ask us to do.”
Positive about Reading
Reading faces well-documented transport challenges that hamper business and residential development, but Farmery is confident new infrastructure developments will overcome many of these issues. “Crossrail, Heathrow’s third runway and the western access to the airport are all coming. The Government has given the green light to the ‘R&D corridor’ linking Oxford and Cambridge and that should also have a positive impact on Thames Valley businesses,” he observed.
He believes Reading is approaching a tipping point regarding transport, when things have to change. “People used to feel that Reading was small enough to drive in to. I think a change in people’s attitude is coming which should speed up infrastructure improvements and increase Reading’s appeal as a place to live and work. After all, you are unlikely to drive into the centre of cities like Oxford, Birmingham or London.”
Reading’s recently refurbished Thames Tower and redevelopment around the railway station and Forbury are all close to Blake Morgan’s Apex Plaza office, so the real estate team is close to the action. Although newer office space tends to be more expensive, Farmery doesn’t think Reading risks outpricing itself compared with London. “It’s not just about cost,” he said. “The quality of life is better in Reading and the Thames Valley and I think that this is increasingly driving decisions on business location.”
Blake Morgan’s investment in the Reading real estate team is further proof of the town’s positive prospects, believes Farmery. “I think we created a real buzz by expanding the real estate team and increasing the amount of legal support available for local and international businesses,” he said.
Farmery also thinks the Thames Valley ‘brand’ is strong enough to compete for business and government funding from other UK regions. “There is constant hand-wringing about the Thames Valley’s identity, but I think we already have a strong identity that’s underpinned by our proximity to Heathrow. Multinational businesses want to be located in and around Reading. There is real strength in commerce and inward investment,” he noted.
New project and cost management service
In a further sign of its intentions, Blake Morgan launched a new service in June for the construction and development industry that it believes is the first of its kind in the UK. Its project and cost management consultancy’s surveyors operate alongside real estate legal experts. The firm believes this will help it look after clients’ interests and put in place rigorous project governance during all stages of a development’s lifecycle.
“Bringing in non-lawyers represents another stage in the firm’s evolution and that of the legal sector. It’s an innovative way to best serve clients who expect a more complete service from a single source,” said Farmery. “And it highlights how Blake Morgan thinks outside the box.”