Lovells needs to toughen up

There are strategic reviews, and there are strategic reviews. First, there’s SJ Berwin, which is currently riding high. It carried out its practice-level reviews a couple of years back, most notably in the real estate department, and it’s bounced back to an average profit per equity partner of £711,000. The silver circle firm’s version of global reach is still firmly rooted in its European operation, but with robust links to key emerging markets – in particular India.

As we report today, part of SJ Berwin’s review is its decision to pick a handful of US best friends and to turn its back on a transatlantic merger. This is in contrast to Olswang and Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP), two firms with similar cultures and practice profiles which opted for single alliance partners.

Olswang chief Jonathan Goldstein inevitably champions the one-firm approach, saying that his firm’s relationship with Greenberg Traurig has brought in millions from recognisable referrals. BLP’s links with Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel are lower key, but neither BLP’s Neville Eisenberg nor Goldstein want to spend much time constantly managing transatlantic relationships. That suits both Olswang and BLP, which have much more centralised leaderships. At SJ Berwin the control of key relationships is more diffuse.

Inevitably, Lovells’ decision to brand itself as a “top-quality international firm handling high-end work for major clients”, which wants to “capitalise on its global network, reputation and practice strengths” lays it open to the charges of vagueness.

In fact, what Lovells is best known for is having some of the nicest people in the City. But unfortunately this doesn’t show up on the balance sheet. Its recent history of departures has made the management focus disproportionately on the partner remuneration system, when what it needs most is a rigorous review of its business on a practice level.

It can be done. Simmons had a terrible time three years ago: profit plummeted, it was left trailing in the deals tables and it lost partners all over the place. Simmons, like Lovells now, was also known as one of those cosy workplaces where everyone bought each other birthday cakes. Under Mark Dawkins, however, Simmons has regained focus; its business is now characterised by strengths in financial services, hedge funds and litigation.

By contrast, Lovells’ exercise in repositioning seems less a business process and more a bout of therapy. It is, however, a much-needed start.