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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

City's Color Brings Back Boomerang Lawyer

MTXavier Hunter prefers working in Moscow to what he calls "one-dimensional" London.
Lawyer Xavier Hunter likens his Russian career to a boomerang: Along with many other Westerners he quit town after the 1998 crisis, but now he's back, more confident than ever of the opportunities.

Hunter, 38, a partner at Linklaters Moscow office, started the international law firm's real estate practice in 1995, left Moscow for a dizzying spell of huge transactions in Europe in the first years of the new millennium, and returned at the beginning of this year.

A Londoner, who said he became a lawyer "because the rest of my family were accountants," Hunter came to Russia after a busy time in the British capital.

"I qualified in 1991, which was the depths of the British recession for real estate, but the City of London was very busy working with German investment into real estate, particularly in London," he said. "I think we [Linklaters] did about half of it to a value of about ?350 million ($560 million)."

In 1995 he arrived at Linklaters Moscow office, planning to scout the market and stay for a couple of weeks.

"I then thought: 'Why don't I stay for another 18 months?' It was so much more fun. I found it completely liberating; it's very exciting."

London had been a mature market with clear rules and Hunter had found handling investment deals and the people who did them "one-dimensional."

In Moscow, the people he deals with come from all walks of life.

"I enjoy the colorful characters, the entrepreneurial flair."

Not only had he to deal with a quite different legal system to those he was familiar with in Western Europe, but many of his clients found developing and investing in Russia virgin territory.

While his clients wanted to achieve similar results to their real estate projects elsewhere, he would caution them that Russia is a different country and the goal posts might have to be shifted.

Hunter will not name projects due to client confidentiality, but Linklaters is one of the most active law firms in real estate. One client is Turkish developer Enka, the biggest landlord of commercial office space in Moscow.

Hunter has worked on dozens of deals involving first offices, retail centers and logistics projects and, while the majority have been based mainly in Moscow, some projects have also been in Nizhny Novgorod and St. Petersburg. He was once called for some legal advice on a construction project in Nakhodka: "I thought that was hilarious."

Gren Carr-Jones, a director of Invesco Investor Real Estate Ltd., has been doing business with Hunter since 1995. Speaking in a telephone interview from London, he said Hunter is an exceptional lawyer.

"He has a great understanding of what the client is looking for."

Andrew Stainer, vice president of real estate for the European division of J.P Morgan, who has dealt with Hunter in his West European deals and is working on developing a real estate fund to invest in Moscow, also picked up on Hunter's service to clients.

"Professionally he combines two very important traits for a successful commercial lawyer. The first is to identify and analyze issues clearly and flag them for his clients," Stainer said.

"Secondly, what is not always the case for lawyers, he is able to take all the issues he has identified and present his clients with what he believes to be the most appropriate commercial course of action to take."

When the 1998 crisis hit, it set the market back three to four years. Hunter stuck it out for some time, but then left in mid-2000 "because nothing was happening."

His timing was fortunate because huge amounts of money were flowing into Europe to be invested. His first deal was a sale and leaseback valued at more than 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) for Swiss telecom operator Swisscom.

"That 2 1/2 years gave me my expertise in major market cross-border deals, which is experience I just would not have got had I stayed here."

Nevertheless he sees Russia as a real estate market that is just about to take off with numerous foreign investors ready to join in.

"The expectation and the hope is that the market will make a quantum leap and go up a gear and will justify the allocation of resource of someone at my level. There's an awful lot of interest and I hope that interest is going to convert into check writing."

This year he has noticed the market maturing.

"When I first came here you used to see lease contracts written under U.S. and English law. That may have had a place then, but it clearly has no place today. That speaks for the progression of the country as a whole."

When the progress goes too far, Moscow may no longer have the attraction it does now, he said.

"I may have to head for the Urals in a couple of years when my work is done," he chuckled.