A DAY IN THE LIFE OF: Chantal Thomas – legal counsel at Autoglass®... Real Estate: The life of an in-house lawyer.

Having always worked in the commercial property field, I, perhaps naively, assumed that when I started working in-house in November last year, it would be no different apart from the fact that the ‘client’ would be in the next office to me. That is not how it works....

I work for Autoglass® which is part of Belron® the world’s largest dedicated VGRR group. In the UK it trades as Autoglass® and Laddaw®.

As an in-house property lawyer, as well as getting on with the day to day legal work, I also spend time meeting other people in the UK business; the MD, FD, operations director, HR director and so on, and speak to them about what they are working on and their plans for the next two or three years. All these formal or informal conversations enable me to have some perspective on the property requirements for the future and what decisions we are likely to make with upcoming renewals or break clauses. I’ve also spent time listening to calls in the call centre and speaking to people in customer accounts and customer service. These people keep the business going so it’s so important to understand what they do and the company genuinely encourages us to spend time building up our internal network.

We have 105 properties in the UK of which the vast majority are leasehold. As we tend to favour short leases, in order that we have flexibility, my work is mostly lease renewals. The property team and the operations director have a three year plan in terms of footprint, but this can change depending on the requirements of the business. At present, we are interested in supercentres incorporating branches of both Autoglass® and Laddaw®. These tend to be new builds where we can get involved right at the planning stage to ensure that the building will be right for us. In these situations, generally because the Landlord needs a strong covenant pre-let before it can start construction, we take much longer leases.

Prior to my joining the company, the property work was sent out to a national firm but this meant that one of our lawyers still had to manage it. There are 10 lawyers in the UK, but as I am the only property lawyer I still use an outside firm for some types of work, and will continue to do so, particularly for specialist areas such as construction contracts and in the unlikely event we have any property litigation. My role also involves regular catch up meetings with the property manager and our agent to see where we are in terms of renewal and rent review negotiations, and any new sites we are interested in.

The work is pretty much as you would expect with lease renewals, break clauses and new agreements for lease and leases. What is different is the time spent developing my understanding of the business as a whole to put the property side into context. Unfortunately, due to high hourly rates this is an interesting part of the work which private practice lawyers miss out on. Also, as part of the property team and of the wider business, I am expected to take decisions on commercial matters which would usually be outside the remit of private practice lawyers.

Overall, I would say there is so much more to the role than carrying out the legal work. It is challenging at times but it is useful and interesting to be immersed in the business and understand the decisions being made, and to ensure that the legal team is seen as an integral part of the business helping it to run smoothly.