Big six accountants Ernst & Young has drawn up a short list of top City lawyers to head its new legal practice and is likely to make an appointment next summer.
The firm, which last week published its annual accounts for the first time, has been planning to set up a separate legal practice for at least a year and a half but it is believed to have had trouble finding the right person to head it.
Nick Land, E&Y's senior partner, told The Lawyer that he had yet to interview anyone but said: "The headhunters have drawn up a short list."
The firm seems to have virtually ruled out the option of forming an alliance with a City law firm. Land said it was "more likely" E&Y would grow its own practice and pointed to Price Waterhouse's legal arm Arnheim & Co as an example he would like to follow.
Land claimed several medium-sized City firms had approached him about an alliance. He said he expected multi-disciplinary practices would eventually be allowed and when that happened a home-grown law firm, while it might be more expensive to build, would be easier to merge into the general E&Y practice than an allied law firm with its own culture.
One of the problems for the accountancy firms is being able to pay the sort of salary a top City lawyer might expect.
Ernst & Young's 1996accounts show that its 412 partners are paid an average of £200,000 each a year; Land himself, the highest paid partner, takes £427,000.
A top City lawyer heading a new practice would expect remuneration comparable to or greater than Land's.
The accounts also show that of E&Y's £456m gross fees, a greater proportion than ever this year has come from consulting practices and tax advice. These are areas that overlap with the work of law firms.
Fees from statutory audit had increased only slightly compared with last year, said Land, but there had been growth in other kinds of "business assurance" such as forensic investigations and internal and systems audits.
Meanwhile, revenue from management consultancy services had soared by 40 per cent to £77.4m and corporate finance fees had also increased by 20 per cent to £38.3m. Only insolvency and corporate recovery fees had declined, to £31.2m.