Browell Smith & Co

North-East firm Browell Smith & Co specialises in personal injury (PI) and industrial disease cases, predominantly for claimants and trade union clients.
The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has recently paid £789m in compensation to sufferers of coal-related diseases; £65m was paid directly to sufferers' law firms, with Browell Smith receiving £7.8m (The Lawyer, 8 April). The firm has just four partners across four offices and expects a turnover of £5.7m for the year ending June 2002. Turnover last year was £4.6m.
Browell Smith was founded less than seven years ago in October 1995. It does not cover commercial work and does not act for claims-handling companies or employers. It was founded following the demerger of three of Watson Burton's branch offices, with just six people in the Newcastle office; there are now 180. Many of the trade union clients accompanied partner Philip Browell and then senior solicitor Brian Freeman to the firm. They include the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), NUM-COSA (Colliery Officials and Staff Association), the Transport and General Workers' Union and the GMB (Britain's General Union).
According to managing partner Philip Browell, the low number of partners at the firm has made no difference to its success. “We have a well-integrated and highly structured firm. It's not like an old-fashioned firm where you have to have a partner in charge of everything,” he says. “I think what the client likes is the ability to be reactive and proactive, which they find refreshing. If the firm is successful and aggressive and you're producing the results and winning cases, that's what they want. We're handling an increasing volume of PI work with foreign components and we've been instructed by a number of people in connection with the Las Vegas bus crash.”
The firm is also handling a number of pending appeals concerning jurisdiction at the moment. The key issue concerns the nature of the contract of insurance, which is due to be heard in California early next year.
“We also had a very important limitation decision in the Edward Duke of Windsor case, handled by solicitor Kate Virica,” Browell says. “Our client was Douglas Sweet. It was a claim governed by the Merchant Shipping Act.
“Our client developed a recognisable psychiatric illness as a result of a collision. The collision was more than two years before, but the development of the psychiatric injury was less than two years. The court held that it was from the date from when the injury was suffered rather than when the collision occurred. It is an important case and sets up a number of principles that could be equally well applied elsewhere.” The decision was reached earlier this year on 22 January.
Browell has a legal services outreach office offering advice to trade union members and the elderly, despite the low pay. “Many of those who need the best advice are those who have very little,” he says. “There aren't enough who offer this kind of advice. We do representation at tribunal even though under the Legal Services Commission we don't get paid.”
Eighty-five per cent of the firm's work is PI. Private client is growing well, as is criminal and employment work. Wills, trust and probate is looked after by partner Lillian Clarke, who joined the firm two years ago. A new immigration department has grown to a team of six since human rights specialist Katherine Henderson joined last year from David Gray Solicitors.