The legal press has devoted acres of column inches to what are euphemistically called the “cultural problems” of the law firm merger. But when it comes to taking the plunge, one firm in the East Midlands has shown no reservations. Four years ago Nelsons embarked on an ambitious journey from a modest Nottingham general practice with 26 partners, to a regional heavyweight with, at one point, almost 60 partners via six ‘mergers’.
“It might seem difficult to resist the judgment that we were cynically asset-stripping, but we didn’t feel that we were,” says Tim Hastings, chief executive, on that frenetic period of acquisition. According to Hastings, the firm’s best achievement has been increasing turnover from £7m to £17m and, as he puts it, “to have done that in a way that has meant we are now much leaner and slimmer”.
Nelsons was founded by Hastings and two partners from Freeth Cartwright, the other big local player, in 1983. The firm began as a general practice located in central Nottingham, but through the 1980s and 1990s the firm grew, and by 1998 it had 26 partners and almost 200 staff.
Nelsons then “saw the wind of change blow through the legal profession”. As Hastings explains, there were a “whole host of reforms” – from the radical restyling of legal aid work and introduction of conditional fees, the ongoing attack from non-lawyers on staple core areas of work, such as conveyancing and personal injury, and the accompanying “sometimes more perceived than real” fears that go with change.
“It all created a unique era,” continues Hastings. “We certainly thought there was a distinct opportunity for us to acquire market share in certain locations. There were a lot of benefits for us by acquiring the traditional, long-established goodwill that was concentrated in small-to-medium sized practices – and those firms were anxious about their futures in an era of reform.”
During 1999 the firm grew through three mergers, first in Nottingham with Trumans’ bolstering and then with Alfred Sevier & Sons and Gadsbys to establish a Derby presence. The following year it was at it again, this time merging with three Leicester firms: Ironsides, Tollers and Greene Deavin. “There was a window of opportunity where we had to do it. All or nothing,” Hasting says.
Prior to the mergers Nelsons was 60 per cent reliant on legal aid, compared with today where only one-fifth of its turnover comes from publicly funded work. Now the firm is focusing on the big regional commercial clients as well as building on its high net private client work.
As for the future, Hastings says: “We don’t need to go out there and acquire market share by acquisition. We have the critical mass, both regionally and in each of the target cities, and we think we have a base from which we can do a lot of organic growth.”
|Chief executive||Tim Hastings|
|Number of partners||37|
|Total number of fee-earners||172|
|Main practice areas||Business services and non-contentious commercial work, commercial litigation, private client, family, personal injury and crime|
|Key clients||Bowmer & Kirkland Group, Barratt East Midlands and Miller Homes, Giant UK and Merida, and the National Space Centre in Leicester|