The South West & Wales: the quiet life?

Those who have made the move from the City are overwhelmingly positive about their experience in the regions. Perhaps you would expect as much, but their evidence is convincing nonetheless.

Michelle Thomas left Freshfields in London for Eversheds‘ Cardiff office in October. Besides returning home, she had made a conscious decision to change her lifestyle. She became a corporate partner in the process.

“In terms of quality of work, I’ve been incredibly surprised,” she says. Thomas knew the work would be different, comprising more small-scale private MBO and M&A work than she was used to. “But what’s been great has been the large number of overseas corporates we’ve worked with,” she says, fresh from managing a $10bn (£6.84bn) supply agreement and a $900m (£6.16bn) European acquisition for the Silicon Valley-based Selectron Corporation.

As clients increasingly realise that large City firms are not their only option, Eversheds’ Cardiff corporate practice has grown to house six partners. “We’re now in a position where we’re successful in getting work which historically would have gone straight to the City,” says Thomas. And while 80 per cent of her clients are local, the fastest growing chunk of outside work has been sourced from overseas, which has been given a boost by the appeal of the M4 Corridor.

The biggest difference Thomas has experienced is that clients in Wales expect their lawyers to be more commercial and better able to understand their businesses on a day-to-day basis. Those who make the move will be expected to roll up their shirtsleeves.

But for some the doubts linger on concerning the need to reinvent themselves if they leave the City. In May, Simmons & Simmons banking partner Helen Hancock made a dramatic about-turn when she decided not to join Bevan Ashford’s Bristol projects team, after her move had already been announced. Simmons persuaded Hancock to stay by setting up a fully functional office at her home, from which she has been working full-time since June. Hancock wanted to leave London for personal reasons, but decided that the jump from banking to projects work was not for her.

For those considering a move at an earlier stage in their careers, the type and quality of work is also a major concern. But, unsurprisingly, it is the question of salary that is initially thrown at regional recruitment consultants like Kirsty McLeod of Hays Richard Owen.

One of the main recruitment issues that McLeod now faces is that salaries have not risen as quickly as property prices in the South West. “Some firms at the top end have boosted salaries, but a lot haven’t, making it more difficult to sell a career in the South West,” says McLeod.

Market leader Osborne Clarke introduced a base salary of £30,000 for newly qualifieds this year. Managing partner Leslie Perrin says that justifying a big differential between London and the South West was “very difficult”. The firm’s Bristol office, which completed 199 corporate deals last year with a total value of £907.5m, is in the enviable position of being able to take a shot at most commercial lawyers who consider moving to the region. Burges Salmon is also a highly attractive option with base salary believed to be at around £28-29,000 for assistants.

Others are gradually wising up to the competition. McLeod explains: “Firms at every level are realising that they’re losing out on people. They aren’t losing out to firms in other areas, but to firms here in Bristol.”

In this intensely competitive market, other selling points are also crucial. At 30-partner TLT, corporate partner David Pester says the firm’s novelty factor (it is the product of a merger between Lawrence Tucketts and Trumps, which took place in May) is proving a major selling point as it actively seeks to recruit. “We don’t want to replicate other firms. We want to do something different,” he says. “People want to come somewhere new.”

Firms across the board can at least take heart in the so-called ‘Bristol factor’. “Trying to get someone to go to Birmingham is a nightmare,” says another consultant. “There is definitely a North-South divide.”