The Top 5

Insolvency work is dominated by five firms, with others building their reputations by recruiting big hitters, says Mike Yuille.

There may be many solicitors who can competently handle insolvency work, but few are specialists.

At the peak of the last recession many banking, litigation, and corporate lawyers acted for medium to small corporate failures, but over the past 18 months most of the significant work has gone to the leading firms, leaving the competent part-timers to concentrate on their main areas of practice.

Although insolvency is dominated by a handful of firms, it is also true that, as in other niche practices, high-profile individuals are an immense asset for attracting work. As with accountancy firms, clients tend to follow the big hitters. Importantly, these players are usually also qualified as licensed insolvency practitioners.

While most would decline to act in the big receiverships or liquidations, insolvency practitioners' specialist status gives them a credibility akin to that of silk at the bar.

As a result, second-tier firms sought to recruit big names or up-and-coming junior partners from the main insolvency practices over the past year in preparation for the next economic downturn. Some think that could be just around the corner.

By common consent, there are five firms with teams at the top of the business. All five have strengths in banking, which is usually a huge source of insolvency work.

Allen & Overy, the top firm for banking work, probably has the largest team of insolvency big hitters.

Led by Gordon Stewart, the former president of the Society of Practitioners of Insolvency and considered the leader in the field, the team includes three other top partners: Peter Totty, Judith Naylor and Peter Segal. Work has included Leyland DAF, Canary Wharf, Ferranti International, and the Maxwell private companies.

Lovell White Durrant, the main solicitor to Barclays, has Peter Horrocks, Christopher Hanson and a long list of much sought after junior partners and assistants. Horrocks, who set up the Insolvency Lawyers Association with James Lingard of Norton Rose (now retired), is a marketing department's dream. His stature in the eyes of the financial press matches that of the top insolvency practitioners in the Big Six accountants. However, Horrocks is planning a career change next year after more than 30 years in practice.

Lovells' work for the liquidators of BCCI is the crowning glory of a team whose work includes British & Commonwealth, the National Union of Mineworkers, and the Wickes rescue plan.

Wilde Sapte, the National Westminster Bank's main firm, is a close third in terms of strength and reputation. Senior partner Mark Andrews, formerly head of the 15-partner team, is as big a name as Horrocks or Stewart. The firm's casebook is formidable, including Paramount Airways, Leyland DAF, Resort Hotels, BCCI, Heron Group, Dunne & Co and Facia.

Cameron McKenna enjoys the insolvency and banking strength of pre-merger Cameron Markby Hewitt – the favourites for Lloyds Bank. John White heads a glittering cast which has acted in rescue work for Lloyds, Royal Bank of Scotland and Credit Lyonnais, as well as in cases like the Vestey empire, Heritage, Anglo Technology, and Thornton Asian Emerging Markets Investment Trust.

Clifford Chance is on a par with Cameron McKenna. It has strong banking contacts and a big reputation in insurance insolvency work.

Andrew Wilkinson, a big hitter in this field, has recently moved to Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft, leaving outstanding individuals such as Mark Hyde and Ashley Booker to carry the Clifford Chance torch.

Cases the firm has worked on include Lowndes Queensway, the Mountleigh Group and bondholders in Barings BV, and it is also involved in the colossal Bermuda Fire & Marine Insurance case, which rumbles on.

Beyond the top five, firms with smaller teams but individuals of equal note include Nabarro Nathanson, whose team is led by Michael Prior. It handled most of the enormous Facia and Millwall Football and Athletic Club cases along with several middle-sized firms.

Most of the top 20 firms have good teams, particularly Norton Rose, while kings among the regionals include Dibb Lupton Alsop and Hammond Suddards. Linklaters, Biddle and Nicholson Graham & Jones will be hoping to gain high profiles in the next recession with newly recruited big hitters.