Brief encounter: WILSONS

Seven weeks ago 18-partner Salisbury firm Wilsons was facing a £135,000 negligence claim from the National Rifle Association (NRA). The NRA claimed that the firm had given incompetent advice when it sought National Lottery funding (The Lawyer, 8 October). Richard Taylor at Stringer Saul acted for the NRA – he says a settlement has been agreed for £100,000 plus costs. It is the result of an early offer that the NRA was happy to accept.
On a brighter note, in July 2001 the firm won a case acting against the Earl of Cardigan. The Earl had instructed a resident to stop walking his dogs along the path into Savernake Forest, the 4,500-acre estate owned by his family. Mr Justice Pumfrey ruled that the 31st hereditary warden of Savernake Forest must allow right of way to the resident and pay costs of £80,000.
Andrew Wiltshire has been at Wilsons for 30 years and was appointed as the firm's first full-time managing partner in March. He intends to promote the commercial side of the firm. The current turnover is £6.3m, nearly half of which comes from private client work. Wiltshire hopes to grow the turnover to around £10m in just two years.
Such ambitions will not be satisfied by organic growth alone, but Wiltshire would not share his plans just yet, saying only that the growth will come predominantly from bolt-ons.
“When I joined the firm it had ground along in its own sweet way for the previous 200 years – pretty Victorian in its outlook,” says Wiltshire. “The catalyst for change came in 1974, when Anthony Edwards was recruited from Farrers. He had the right connections and for the next 15 years drove the firm ruthlessly forward.”

“Private client isn&#39t seen as very sexy so you do tend to come up against the same firms with monotonous regularity”
Andrew Wiltshire, Wilsons

Through the 1990s the firm added to its private client practice, with hires from, among others, McKenna & Co (now Cameron McKenna) and Fladgate Fielder. The decision to balance out the private client work with commercial business came a few years ago and has already yielded some profitable deals.
The firm recently acted for Nicholas & Harris on the £6m sale of its celebration cakes division to Interlink Foods. It also acted for West Country Fine Foods in acquiring share capital of Western Food Brokers. The firm is also advising a major Jersey trust company on all of its operating procedures relating to UK trust and tax issues.
Wilsons' recent recruits are associate Justin Moss, who started in September from Payne Hicks Beach, associate Michael Parker, who joined in August from Clarke Willmott & Clarke, and barrister Sandra Gamble, who was returning to practice and who joined in April. Alison McKenna is due to join in January 2002 from the Charity Commission.
And the competition? Wiltshire says: “Private client isn't seen as very sexy, so you do tend to come up against the same firms with monotonous regularity – Macfarlanes, Withers, Farrers, Burges Salmon and Clarke Willmott & Clarke.” But, despite this list, Wiltshire describes the firm as acting within the first division, rather than the premiership. “Our underlying philosophy is stick to what you know well; don't fiddle about in areas that are outside your expertise.”