Difficult terrain to navigate

11th May 2021

The future of the property market and legal profession

Richard Jobes, partner and head of our property litigation team, sat down with Leeds & Yorkshire Lawyer, the official journal of Leeds Law Society, to discuss the future of the property market and the legal profession in Yorkshire.

First of all, how are you and everyone at Schofield Sweeney? What’s the outlook for the firm?

I am really well, thank you. I trained at Schofield Sweeney – before spending some time at Eversheds Sutherland and Gordons – and it feels really good to be back. There is a great culture at the firm. It’s very friendly and down to earth.

Lockdown has been quite challenging for many of us for a variety of reasons, but the firm has really pulled together and there has been a significant focus on wellbeing. One day whilst working from home I received a small parcel from work, including a tea bag and some coffee, inviting me to an online team get together. It is those small details that make all the difference.

As for the outlook for the firm, activity levels are high across the board. We have had some really great people join the firm in recent months, such as Amanda Beresford in planning, so the future feels bright. There are a lot of opportunities available to us at the moment, we just have to make the most of them. As long as restrictions continue to ease, I think we are all looking forward to spending some face-to-face time with colleagues, clients and contacts.

How have you had to adapt your own property litigation practice over the past year and since joining Schofield Sweeney?

It goes without saying that the pandemic has had a huge impact on the property market. The Government has effectively suspended many of the enforcement options once available to landlords, such as forfeiture for none payment of rent and winding-up proceedings. Effectively landlords have been left with court proceedings as the only option to recover arrears.

We have had to become quite adept at using debt recovery tools to manage arrears. I have ended up working very closely with our excellent debt recovery team, led by Andy Howard, which is not something I could have imagined saying at the beginning of 2020. The important thing is that we have been able to deliver results for our landlord clients, many of whom are desperate to keep some rents coming in. It is a difficult terrain to navigate. There are some tenants that genuinely cannot pay. In those instances, it is a case of finding a solution that is manageable. At the same time, there are a number of large retailers that have traded throughout the pandemic and have used it as an opportunity to withhold rents. Those we have to push quite hard. The skill is discerning which is which.

What are the major concerns for landlords and tenants right now? Are the pandemic and its effects front and centre, or are there other significant challenges?

In many respects it is quite an exciting time, even if it is very unsettling for many. Effectively we have seen a decade’s worth of change squeezed into a single year. We have obviously seen a number of major household names leave the high street, such as Debenhams and Thorntons. It has been very bleak for many in the hospitality sector. Equally, we has been a real boom time for online retailers and delivery businesses, such as Hermes.

I think we are going to see a massive change in the make-up of our urban centres. Rather than just rows of retail units, landlords and tenants are going to have to think quite creatively about how some of that space is redeployed for other uses, such as childcare, food and beverage outlets and even residential. I’d like to think we will see our urban spaces become more focused on offering ‘experiences’. This is clearly part of the Government’s agenda, with greater flexibility around planning use classes. There is even talk about radical reform to the lease renewal process, but I suspect it will be many years before we see anything like that.

It is however impossible to know what sort of impact this will all have on land values and rent yields. For many landlords and banks, it might be quite difficult to navigate the transition, but I think there are a lot of possibilities we should make the most of.

Going forward, what do you think the legal profession in Yorkshire needs to do to support colleagues and clients during the current crisis and beyond?

It is going to be fascinating to see how the profession adapts as pandemic restrictions lift and people start to return to their offices. The pressures of home schooling aside, I think many people have been rather excited to discover how easily they have adapted to more flexible patterns of working. At the same time, a lot of people are naturally eager to see colleagues again and mix with other professionals face-to-face.

The real challenge for all professionals will be trying to adapt to a new model that absorbs some of the things we have learnt. I don’t think many want to see a return to spending everyday in the office. There are benefits to avoiding the grind of the daily commute, both mentally and environmentally. For those with young families, the prospect of being able to work from home more frequently has real appeal. If this is not managed well however, you could see those that spend time in the office progressing up the ranks more quickly. Given that it might be female colleagues that want to work from home more, how do we avoid them being penalised for this? At the moment I think we are all a bit fatigued with Team and Zoom calls, but perhaps we will return to a healthier mix of real world encounters and virtual ones. Maybe that might be the key to making a more adaptable office culture.

Finally, how content are you with the wider profession right now? Are there any changes you want to see for routes into the profession, for example?

Over the past decade we have seen a greater diversity of people entering the profession and there remains a lot to do in that regard. My greatest concern however is how that diversity is retained as careers progress. The vast majority of trainee solicitors are female, but is that mirrored amongst the partners in many firms? I am afraid it is not. We still see far too many tired white males around the top table.

A major challenge remains for those that want to start a family. I think the culture is changing around that, but too slowly. We need to see more fathers picking up the slack when it comes to dealing with family commitments, that is why I am such a fan of shared parental leave.

Greater diversity at the top will be beneficial for all. There remains an unhealthy working culture in too many places, where stress and businesses are worn as a badge of pride. Often it is just the result of poor time-management. We really need to get to a point where people are able to operate productively when at work and feel sufficiently supported that they are able to turn-off when they are not.

Richard was speaking with Mark Dugdale, editor at Leeds & Yorkshire Lawyer in their latest edition.

If you wish to speak with Richard about anything property related, he’s here to help – get in touch.

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