It’s time property lawyers played their part in the big debates that will shape our built environment, argues Suzanne Gill.

Property professionals of all varieties, including solicitors, were at the recent MIPIM UK conference. From speakers through sponsors to stall-holders, our profession was out in force. But why were we there? To build or maintain reputation, to meet old clients and (hopefully) new ones, certainly.

Contrast that with the other professions, especially developers and architects. They were at MIPIM to discuss their vision of the future and sometimes to sell it. Listening to debates, I was struck by how reactive many of us seem to have become in the profession. Are we real estate lawyers such slaves to the six-minute unit that we cannot pause for a moment to work out where we are going?

I wouldn’t for a moment want to belittle recent innovations from property lawyers. The model form of commercial lease, for example, will benefit clients by cutting costs and transaction times. It should benefit solicitors too, curiously, by reducing repetitive and ultimately predictable lease negotiations.  

It’s a great idea. But it has come as a reaction to economic developments. The recession brought shorter lease lengths. Clients tend to assume that shorter leases should cost less, and in a recession fees are under pressure in any event.  

The model commercial lease is the answer to a problem. We do need to answer problems. Can we also find answers to predictable problems as well as to manifest ones?

The World Health Organisation estimates that by 2030, over 60% of the world’s population will live in cities. Tomorrow’s city brings challenges today, not least legal ones.  

Does a successful city need a strong executive, or a charismatic mayor? As buildings and spaces are put to different uses, how we can change planning laws and lease terms so they act as an enabler rather than a blocker? In the internet of things, when a (purchased) weather forecast tells a private water company that a storm is coming, causing the sewer flow to be altered, what happens when the storm is heavier than predicted?

We need legal voices in the debates that shape our future. Even solicitors who feel enslaved by chargeable time can benefit from this. Such non-billable future gazing is thought leadership.

A proactive, even visionary, discussion of challenging issues with clients and contacts should shift their perception of you from someone who merely implements instructions to a trusted business adviser.  

You don’t have to spend too long with management consultants to learn that trusted business advisers can charge more for their services. Our efforts might even benefit society. 

To quote Oscar Wilde: ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’

Suzanne Gill is a commercial property partner at Wedlake Bell