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In business, geography is destiny. And in the legal business a flourishing West End firm looks increasingly like a contradiction in terms.
Our cover story about Howard Kennedy facing a long overdue shake-up is at the same time an obituary for a particular type of legal practice.
A decade ago West End firms were doing well; they were not reliant on the caprices of big institutions and enjoyed an apparently loyal personal client base. But two recessions later and the traditional diet of property development and SME corporate work yields slim pickings for any firm within walking distance of Wigmore Hall. Outside a hardy band of media and entertainment boutiques, the West End firm is a shaky institution. Unlike Fladgate, which has just made a symbolic move to Covent Garden, Howard Kennedy - which still maintains a decent enough property client list in particular - wants to hang on to its West End brand.
The problem lies in what a West End brand actually is. In Howard Kennedy’s case, it certainly doesn’t connote a sparkling office building - its premises are easily the worst of any firm in The Lawyer’s top 100.
That lack of investment in the building is at the same time a lack of investment in people. Indeed, Howard Kennedy’s West End brand is currently shorthand for an idiosyncratic partnership with an opaque career structure and incoherent hiring strategy. Virtually every recruiter you speak to will tell you that Howard Kennedy is one of the hardest firms in London to sell to candidates. Those rejecting a life in the City are no longer looking for a commercial alternative in the West End but telecommuting or joining funky new boutiques that understand the value of transparency, such as Radiant.law and Enyo Law, to name just two firms recently formed by ex-City lawyers.
On 22 November last year the then head of family Ursula Danagher blasted the firm for its lack of transparency, claiming there had not been a single partnership meeting since May 2008. That the firm is even considering converting to LLP status is a big change. Howard Kennedy needs a revolution: if new chief executive Mark Dembowsky manages to impose some clarity, few will mourn the old ways.