The trouble with Hammonds…

A decade after opening in London, Hammonds still hasn’t got it right.

That’s not just The Lawyer’s, view, but the opinion of a group of influential Yorkshire partners who this summer made their concerns very, very clear to the firm’s management.

But is the management listening? It can’t have been comfortable for Richard Burns, Chris Jones and Peter Crossley – Hammonds loyalists, one and all – to hear such disaffection from senior figures in the firm’s Leeds heartland. The protests were less about unseating the current regime than a profound unhappiness at the lack of progress in London and the drain on the firm as a whole.

The wonder is that Burns and co didn’t see it coming. Hammonds’ London strategy has always been characterised by dilettantism. The firm opened in the City with a sustained period of scattergun hiring with an eye to immediate impact rather than long-term business case. It was always baffling, for example, that a northern firm with a predominantly industrial client base would want a derivatives capability.

Compare Hammonds with DLA or Addleshaws. There are two differences. The first is that both DLA and Addleshaws did smart mergers, which delivered them City brand names and strong slugs of institutional business. The second difference is a clarity of vision. The takeover of Edge Ellison was never going to deliver what Chris Jones wanted, which was to be on a par with Macfarlanes in London. This ranked, by the way, among the top two delusional statements by any law firm manager, the other being Clifford Chance’s fond declaration five years ago that it would be in the New York magic circle in half a decade.

Perhaps Hammonds was dazzled by the possibility of getting WPP onto its client roster, but Edge was never a major corporate player. Hammonds’ more vulnerable transactional model now means that it has to drum up corporate business from a highly disparate set of clients, and with apparently few rainmakers to lead the charge.

You can’t fault the Addleshaws or DLA management in communicating their ambitions to the partners. You didn’t hear a peep out of Addleshaws partners before the Theodore Goddard merger about London costing them £100,000 each in profits, because the buy-in to the management vision was absolute. Hammonds’ leadership works on more of a need-to-know basis. But it had better take heed of the disquiet in the North. It can’t afford to alienate its core constituency.