Senior associate, Ipswich

Rebecca Cleal

I always knew that I wanted to be a lawyer from a very young age. I absolutely loved The Merchant of Venice when we studied it at school and I was fascinated by Portia’s character and how she used her legal skills to essentially save a man’s life. Nothing as dramatic has arisen in my career to date, but I always take contract and lease negotiations very seriously!

I studied for both my undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Kent at Canterbury. I settled there and ended up doing my training contract for a wonderful high-street firm called Mowll & Mowll in Dover. They had such a fantastic approach to training in that it wasn’t all about billing, they wanted me to learn the proper skills. They also had a proactive approach to client care which I have carried throughout my career. By the end of my training contract I was running a full residential and commercial conveyancing caseload. I have such fond memories of my time there.

I have always been a little bit of an academic at heart and the intricacies of property law just appealed to me. While residential transactions can be interesting, the commercial property area is just so diverse and challenging. Sometimes you have to play the negotiator and at other times you have to play the property ‘detective’ – assessing risks and rights which might affect your client’s title or future use of the property. I particularly love the dynamic of landlord and tenant law, because the relationship is ongoing (unlike a straight sale or purchase), so while it is about getting the best deal for your client you have to be mindful that you need to foster relationships for the future. 

I was fortunate enough to become the first in-house solicitor for CVS Group in 2009, just after the financial crisis. I came on board to manage their leasehold portfolio of veterinary practices and to undertake property due diligence on their veterinary acquisitions. When I started they had 185 sites and by the time I left in 2019 the company had more than 500 practice sites and had expanded into the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland. My role in the company was varied and I even had the opportunity to sit on the board as company secretary and manage all the group’s insurances. Every day was different; you never knew what was going to land on your desk.

'I once had to have a very delicate conversation with a staff member to let them know that they couldn’t keep all of their 17 cats in a one-bedroom flat'

The in-house culture is very holistic – you help out with what you can where you can and you can’t be too niche. Having a good understanding of the commercial focus of the business helps you to be a more effective lawyer and strategic business adviser. Any property you acquire, or lease you complete, will be your responsibility, so you have to look at the whole picture – it doesn’t just end once the legal work is done. I have brought this approach to my private practice work – taking the time to understand my client’s commercial objectives so I can properly advise on the best course of action, not just provide a list of risks and options.

While I now mainly focus on commercial property work, CVS had a portfolio of residential properties occupied by its staff which was always challenging. I once had to have a very delicate conversation with a staff member to let them know that they couldn’t keep all of their 17 cats in a one-bedroom flat. I think the key difference is in your approach – a residential property is someone’s home, and so has a special importance for them. Commercial properties are, for the most part, a business asset and the transactions are far less personal.

We have seen a stop on the usual high street shop leases from the beginning of March, which has been a challenge. But I have a number of clients who are seeing this as an opportunity to secure a commercially advantageous deal or to tidy up miscellaneous property issues which they have been ‘meaning to get around to’.

I anticipate that we’ll see a number of property disputes over rent deferment arrangements, if they haven’t been properly formalised, and possibly an increase in auction sales if assets need to be liquidated quickly. I also think that the landscape of the traditional landlord and tenant lease will also change, with companies realising that they can work smarter and more effectively using less space. Some property agents are even trialling ‘pay as you go’ style rental structures. I think we are in for some interesting times ahead.