There are fashions in law firms. Travers Smith Braithwaite had a rotten time of it before its recent triumphant return to form; last year Olswang was the hot stock, though its throne is less burnished these days. Much rarer is the firm that can't seem to put a foot wrong. Macfarlanes is one; another is Wragge & Co.
On page 7 we report that Wragges now turns over £76.3m, up 40 per cent from last year. It now dominates the Midlands, having left its local competitors – Pinsent Curtis, Eversheds, DLA and Hammond Suddards Edge – scrambling for second place. There are, of course, distinct parallels with KPMG; indeed, the two talked seriously some years back about getting together. The difference is that when KPMG Birmingham started to move away from its local roots and integrated its profit-sharing arrangements, it began to lose ground to the likes of Ernst & Young and Andersens, which may help to explain Wragges' squeamishness towards expanding outside Birmingham. Unlike Addleshaw Booth & Co, it is not about to build up its London office to anything other than a City outpost.
What makes the firm so idiosyncratic is its partner profit-sharing policy. Plenty of firms (DLA and SJ Berwin being obvious examples) have entirely abandoned lockstep, but Wragges operates something like a workers' cooperative. It has a five-partner committee, with the senior and managing partners John Crabtree and Quentin Poole occupying permanent slots. The other three places are elected every year. As one Wragges partner says: “It's a clean sheet of paper and no rules.” Theoretically, the committee can change the terms every year, and anyone's profit share could halve or double from one year to the next.
You think that's radical? Then get this: partners are actually penalised financially if they bill too many hours. Indeed, as our report points out, Wragges partners are each expected to bill fewer than 1,000 hours per year, the idea being that they should be concentrating on relationship-building. (No wonder Wragges partners always act like they've taken a happy pill.) The result of this is that an all-equity partnership will this year enjoy a spread of roughly £100,000 to over £500,000 – all equity, mind, not with a vast layer of salaried partners to ramp up the profits. It is this emphasis on social skills that explains the firm's steady colonisation of the plc market in recent times.
No one is suggesting that this model would work for all other firms. But by some weird alchemy, Wragges appears to have got it right. Frankly, it's getting spooky.