Scottish firms are known for their conservative approach to expansion and the legal market north of the border is divided between those that have opened in England and those that are staunchly opposed to it.
When they do it tends to be in London, with a view to targeting a City client base without having to jump on the sleeper service from Edinburgh to King’s Cross.
So why did Semple Fraser ditch plans for a City launch in favour of opening in Manchester when it decided to extend into England 15 months ago?
The answer lies partly in its relationship with Tesco. The firm has a longstanding relationship with the supermarket giant, which it handles out of its bases in Manchester and Glasgow.
The firm has been handling Tesco’s English law requirements since 2004, but that has been focused on North East England.
It is understood that Semple Fraser saw a Manchester launch as an opportunity to win new work from the retail chain.
Ewan Thomson, one of five client relationship partners for the supermarket (the others are Elspeth Carson, Paul Haniford, June Gilles and Ken Carruthers), who now spends part of his time in Manchester, says: “It’s been said that the Tesco relationship was a clinching factor [in the launch] – although not by me.”
He says that “although no formal discussions took place”, the firm thought that the “proximity of the relationship would give us a good platform to move into the English market”.
Keen to emphasise that nothing can be taken for granted with a discerning major client that has multiple advisers to choose from, managing partner Alister Fraser says: “Tesco’s never favoured us. They’re just a big professional business.”
However, he adds: “Our thinking about the way we could serve Tesco was behind our decision [to launch in Manchester]. It was a decision about the way we deliver in locations in which our clients are based.”
With a place on Tesco’s panel for real estate work, Semple Fraser has advised on new store programmes, including site acquisitions, and has covered the spectrum of real estate and planning work, including conveyancing, development and associated tax and environmental advice.
But with nothing guaranteed as far as Tesco is concerned, where does the £11m firm go from here?
“We’ve got a full commercial service in Edinburgh and Glasgow,” says Thomson. “The intention is to replicate this in Manchester in size, style and form.”
Edinburgh and Glasgow have around 50 lawyers apiece and cover the core sectors of real estate, construction, finance, life sciences, waste, digital economy, renewables and energy.
One year in and Manchester has some 10 fee-earners, three of whom are partners. The firm recently hired real estate partner John Hyde from DLA Piper and Simon Wallwork, who was head of corporate at Pannone.
But to reach the size and scope of the Scottish offices in the desired timeframe of three years, it is clear that the firm needs to acquire some teams. An obvious opportunity came when former Manchester giant Halliwells collapsed last year. But Fraser explains that it did not provide an appropriate fit.
“The people we might have been interested in speaking to weren’t interested in us,” he explains. “If you’ve just come out of a maelstrom the last thing you want is to go into something that might be perceived as a start-up. The people who tend to chime with us are people who are in established businesses who are looking at themselves and considering, ’What do I fancy doing next?’”
As for a City launch, it is not inconceivable at some point.
“We’d look at [another] launch as a lower hurdle than we did before,” states Fraser.