It sounds like a very lame excuse to go shopping and, indeed, Kathy Toon’s husband Martyn remains convinced that her career is one long market research project but now the property lawyer has achieved national recognition it is perhaps time to put her achievements into context. Andy Newman spoke to her about her career.
In the past, neither the worlds of law nor commercial property have been exactly female-friendly in career terms, but with her appointment as DLA Piper’s national head of retail Kathy has put her marker down.
Working for the second largest global law firm has its benefits but it is usually taken as read that national heads of departments are based in London.
Kathy’s appointment as national head of retail from her base in Birmingham is recognition of the reputation that she has built in this niche sector of the law since deciding to specialise in this area just ten years ago.
But her career could have taken a very different path after taking her law degree at Leicester Polytechnic and her final examination course at Bristol Polytechnic when she was diffident about a career in the law.
Having earlier taken a typing course she began temping at law firms and the day before her final results arrived was working for a sole practitioner in Bristol.
Hearing of her success Mark Griffiths, who was the sole partner in Henriques Griffiths & Co, offered her a training contract on the condition that she drafted her own articles!
So began what she describes as a “sink or swim” start to her career. Very soon she was handling all the firm’s trust and probate matters and just one month after qualifying she was transferred to the firm’s branch office in Keynsham which she ran single handed until she left. It was when she moved to Stone King & Wardle in Bath that she began to develop her interest in property.
And once again she was thrown in at the deep end. The day she arrived the senior partner Martyn Price went on holiday for two weeks – handing her all his files to deal with while he was away. “It was good for me because I enjoy a certain amount of pressure and luckily I swam rather than sank!” she says.
“It taught me to prioritise, focus and get things done.”
During her period there from 1986 to 1996 she rose through the ranks from assistant solicitor to associate and ultimately partner in the commercial department, dealing with all areas of business law but gradually leaning towards commercial and charity property matters.
This included all aspects of landlord and tenant law, investment, residential and commercial developments and self build housing. She also gained a great deal of experience in the acquisition and disposal of charity property including secured lending by and to charities.
From 1993 she also gained valuable experience with her involvement in the management of the firm – experience that was to prove invaluable in her rise to her new role with DLA Piper.
But first she had to arrive in Birmingham and like many couples who have considered moving a long way to further a career, she had a job on her hands persuading husband Martyn even to consider the Second City.
“Martyn’s initial reaction was ‘I don’t mind where we go as long as it isn’t Birmingham’ – now he loves the city!” she says.
And of course, as luck would have it, she was offered a job as senior assistant solicitor at the then Edge & Ellison (now known as Hammonds) in Birmingham.
It was when she moved to what was then one of Birmingham’s big name law firms that her career really started to move.
She teamed up with Anne Lamb, wife of Andy Lamb of commercial property agents Harris Lamb, specialising in retail property.
They enjoyed two years before Ann Lamb moved to the firm now known as DLA Piper.
Kathy says: “Digby Jones had left and I felt that Edge had lost its way but when the approach came from DLA Piper I was not thinking of moving,” she says.
So began a long period of mutual courtship.
“I wasn’t at all sure whether I wanted to move to DLA – the firm had a very robust reputation in the marketplace and was known as having something of a revolving door as far as staff were concerned. At that time it had a reputation for hiring and firing.
“But Chris Rawstron, now the office managing partner, whom I knew from my Edge days was there and during my five interviews it became clear that if you knew your stuff and had a commercial head and an ability to bring in the business, DLA was definitely the place to be.
“On the one hand Edge & Ellison was experiencing a bit of an exodus and on the other hand I was impressed with the people who were joining DLA.
“I felt that if you joined DLA Piper you had the opportunity to make a difference.”
So she joined DLA and started the process that has led to her latest appointment as National Head of Retail, along the way spending a year as Chairman of Women In Property, an organisation set up to provide networking opportunities for women in an industry which was, and still is, male dominated.
The culture at DLA Piper clearly suited Kathy Toon. “Anne Lamb and I had some common clients but we also knew who we wanted to work for and spent our time building contacts and targeting retailers we wanted to act for – registering a surprisingly high hit rate along the way. We wangled introductions to those that mattered in the retail marketplace and we went and saw them and told them exactly what we could do for them.
“Property is usually the second biggest cost after stock that most retailers have but by nature they are not property people. They are retailers, they run businesses and they need professional advisers who understand their business first and know their property law second.
“Retail is about shifting stock off shelves, not about trading and maintaining property stock, but then again, where you want to sell your goods, your location, is all important.”
Her department advises blue chip UK retailing names across the market range and with some having as many as 30 new store openings a year and others making similar numbers of disposals, there is clearly a great deal of activity in the retail arena. Then there is the professional side of the property business – management, rent reviews and so on.
“It means that we are almost always busy, whatever the state of the market. The range of work required gives us the span to do well in the good times and yet remain busy in the harder times.”
The onset of online retailing in recent years has brought out the harbingers of doom in their droves but Kathy remains confident about the High Street.
“We keep hearing about the death of the high street and it is true that retailers have a rollercoaster ride every Christmas – at least in recent years – but I think we are seeing the smart retailers learning to work both in the online and high street arena,” she says.
“For example, record stores have been badly hit by the internet and the download culture, nevertheless they have maintained their high street presence and many have prospered by utilising strong locations refocusing the goods they sell and vigorous online presence to build their business, rather than retreating.
“That’s where I think we can add value for our clients. We try to understand what the key drivers are in their business and we can then apply our legal knowledge to help them achieve their targets.
“We are not simply form fillers and legal box tickers. We have a real role to play in our retailing clients’ success and I think in my new role there is still work to be done to demonstrate just what DLA Piper can do for retailers.”
Kathy Toon is certainly a lady on the run – which brings us neatly to her main interest outside of family and her work.
There may have been a bit of drink involved a couple of years back when she had a bet with fellow DLA partner Peter Taylor that she could run the London Marathon.
A fairly brave statement considering that “at the time I couldn’t even run for a bus!”
“I thought I would run to the paper shop and back. It was only a mile away so how hard could it be? I couldn’t do it and this was something of a wake-up call, but I joined a local gym, got myself fitter and now I run for an hour and a half to two hours at the weekend – sometimes up to three hours when I am preparing for a marathon,” she says.
And later this year she reaches another landmark when she and Martyn will celebrate 25 years of marriage that has produced two children and seen Martyn take a back seat to her career.
“We both tried working at one time but it was very stressful and in my job you have to be flexible in the hours you work. Working in the top tier of law firms is not conducive to being able to make the school run with any certainty and I certainly would not have got where I have without Martyn’s support,” she says.
Marathons have a finishing line, but to nick a legal cliché, the jury is still out on where the finishing line is on Kathy Toon’s career.
In the meantime she will continue to maintain her diligent standards, especially when it comes to keeping abreast of developments in retail property.
“I feel a professional obligation to check out every new store that comes into town – I call it market research, Martyn calls it shopping even though it doesn’t mean I buy anything, but hey, we don’t do too badly out of it!”