Despite an ongoing debt crisis and recession-battered U.K. real estate values, David Merson '01 is beating all projections and proving the naysayers wrong. After forming their London law firm JD Law LLP two years ago during a severe economic downturn, Merson and his three founding partners tripled the size of their legal staff and grew their business dramatically since 2010.
“People were saying we were crazy to be starting this firm in the worst post-war recession in history and specializing in real estate when the bottom had fallen out,” Merson recalled. “We believe that since we’ve survived and even thrived when the economy is at rock bottom, we’ll be really ready to soar when things pick up.”
Their practice has already taken flight working with clients on the acquisition, development and disposal of a range of properties, including mixed-use developments, hotels, restaurants, office buildings and industrial estates. Merson is currently working on a large-scale property transaction worth about $50 million that includes a landmark building in one of London’s most well-known districts. His firm is also working with a client developing a project with 270 apartments and a hotel near the 2012 Olympic site in Stratford outside London. Although most of their work is based in the U.K., Merson has represented clients on projects in Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia.
“We’re lucky that many of our clients are cash clients so we don’t have to wait around for bank financing. That makes it very attractive for sellers of distressed properties who want to move quickly and deal with our clients,” Merson said.
Merson’s success in real estate law rests upon a foundation of classes in New York Practice, Real Property Tax and others taught by Professors Patrick Connors, David Siegel and Timothy Tippins. “I wasn’t interested in the esoteric or theoretical parts of the law. Those professors taught me the practical things and explained how the law worked in practice,” Merson said. “I put that practical knowledge in my pocket when I left law school and I look back on my time there with fond memories.”
Merson, who grew up in Rockland County, had his sights set on a legal career at a young age. He worked as a part-time paralegal at Nixon Peabody while an undergraduate majoring in political science at George Washington University. He accepted a full-time position in Nixon Peabody’s New York City office on the public finance team and met Albany Law School alumni, including Frank Penski, Connie Boland and David Fernandez. “They were all good ambassadors for the law school,” Merson said. On their recommendations, he applied to Albany Law and after graduation joined the small Rockland County firm where he had worked during high school. “I liked being able to do a lot of different things and understanding the day-to-day management of the practice,” Merson said.
He worked there until his wife, Nicky, who grew up in London, convinced him to relocate to her hometown in 2003. He’s fully immersed in British culture now, speaking in clipped sentences and spelling words like color in the English fashion of colour. “My friends back in New York like to give me a hard time about it,” he said of his Anglicization. “It felt slightly foreign originally, but I consider it home now. I did have to get used to the fact that the pace in London is quite a bit slower than in New York City.” Merson and his wife, an accountant and internal finance director for a private U.K. firm, have a four-year-old son.
Before launching JD Law – the name comes from one Jeremy and three Davids who are the founders – Merson worked in the London office of SJ Berwin, a large international law firm. “Although a brilliant firm with many amazing lawyers, it was too big for me and wasn’t a good fit,” he said.
As a transactional lawyer, Merson is a solicitor. That means he represents clients but does not go to court. He is not a barrister. “Barristers wear the white powdered wigs and black robes,” he said. “I assure my friends I don’t have a wig and hope I won’t need one for a long time.”
By Paul Grondahl