For a firm as successful as Clifford Chance, the 2019 “Law Firm of the Year” winner in Germany for its real estate practice, it might be tempting for its lawyers to rest on their laurels. Not Cornelia Thaler. In an interview with Best Lawyers CEO Phillip Greer, she calls Complacency “dangerous,” and highlights her firm’s unique mentorship structure.
What inspired you to focus on real estate law in this market?
I didn’t enjoy my studies at university, so I was looking for a job. I was fortunate to find work for a real estate firm, which bought high rises, then turned them into condominiums and sold them. That, really, was my entry into the real estate world.
What led you to join Clifford Chance? Why this firm?
I wanted to do M&A in commercial corporate law, which is what a lot of people wanted to do at that time. So, I was applying for jobs in that direction and when I came across a job advert to become a real estate lawyer, I realized how well it matched up to my earlier work I found so rewarding.
What achievements are you most proud of from this past year?
What I am most proud of is the amount of innovative client work we did in a unique team approach. I am thinking for example of the IPO on the Singapore stock exchange, which financed a $1.5 billion transaction that closed coincidentally, which was something we really hadn't done before. Our work this year showed that we continue to get better; that all our efforts and the innovation we have put into our business are paying off.
We had a twofold focus in our work: Firstly we wanted to further increase our client work, which we managed again this year, secondly, we are concentrating on improving our knowledge base, mentorship, and thus retaining and developing excellent the lawyers in our teams. And we did all this while at the same time maintaining our KPI, the key performance indicator, both on a financial level and on a metric of accomplishment level. I’m truly proud of what we have achieved in the commercial arena.
It's not always easy to keep a team happy when there is a lot of work to do. We are constantly trying to figure out what is that tipping point, if you will, where people are enthusiastic to work efficiently and with commitment. Generational differences, as well, pose a unique set of challenges.
Working in a people business such as legal advice, you constantly have to manage these team issues. Our clients want teams who are motivated, agile, and full of positive energy. Bringing this energy, these ideas to the clients, that’s one more thing our firm does well.
Can you tell me about one or two landmark cases that really stand out to you?
I am actually quite proud of one case, as it was handled in the midst of the real estate recession. The deal was a $5 billion residential privatization transaction. The deal was most prestigious at the time and steered us safely out of the recession phase. But beyond the favourate timing, the case had a highly complex technical structure and was in no way an easy win. This case very much helped to establish the particular profile and reputation that our real estate group has today.
Another case about three years ago was the $1.5 billion acquisition of the Potsdamer Platz property in Berlin for Brookfield. We helped our client to transact in a very short time frame. Berlin has become a spectacular real estate market in the meantime, prices have gone up by 20 to 30 percent since then.
Can you talk a little bit about what kind of mentorship programs your firm has?
In Germany, legal studies have not changed much over the past 50 years. To become a lawyer you don't have to to go abroad, you don't need to learn English or other foreign languages, you don't learn how to use legal technology, you don't learn anything about Excel at university: in essence you don't get an idea of what lawyers will need for the future.
On of our response to this: our firm started a cooperation with Frankfurt university, with the intention of developing an educational program for “the lawyer of the future.”
Mentorship starts for us at an early stage, when our potential future associates work as trainees with us. We and they can find out how it is to work in our team. Of course, we offer those junior people a lot of training opportunities inhouse. That's why we have set up the Clifford Chance Academy, which has been a market brand for years now and really offers outstanding education for postgraduates or trainees in Germany. In this system, a partner or counsel acts as a senior mentor, and we also have our junior associates act as junior mentors. This latter role is crucial to the program, as the trainees are more comfortable to speak to someone closer to their own age and status about their worries and the concerns. The program also covers the less attractive but highly relevant realities and details of legal practice. We believe that you have to be able to also deal with this nitty gritty stuff in order to be as complete and successful an advisor as you need to be in order to master the most high-level areas of practice as well.
How does your firm stay agile against competitors in this practice?
Don’t get complacent. Always be better and work harder than the rest. Don't let success lull you. Keep taking stock of tomorrow’s issues, be ahead of the curve, go the extra mile. This may not sound very specific, but it's the simple truth. We are the undisputed number one legal advisor in the real estate market, and have been for years. Keeping that lead and the energy to maintain it and to convince our clients again and again to trust us with their most vital work is very, very difficult. If you don't keep working harder than the others, then you will soon have lost this lead. Do celebrate your success by all means, but then do ask yourself: Okay, what's next to stay ahead of the curve?