Parallel borderlines

Oh, the charm of symmetries. In the magic circle there’s the competitive dialectic of Linklaters and Freshfields competing for the same FTSE clients, the same banks and the same profitability.

In the silver circle Macfarlanes and Travers Smith vie for the choice independent firm referrals. And two Scottish-headquartered firms that have been in head-on combat for over a decade are both facing up to some pretty tough decisions.

Dundas & Wilson and McGrigors may be dominant north of the border, but growth outside Scotland has been a struggle – and it can only get trickier with the end of the RBS-HBOS gravy train. Dundas’s London turnover stands at £24m and it isn’t increasing, despite the firm’s la-di-dah City pretensions. By contrast, McGrigors’ acquisition of L’Estrange & Brett in Belfast and London litigation boutique Reid Minty may not have shifted the dial, but its Qatar and Aberdeen offices have made it an attractive merger target for any national firm.

The badge of independence both firms have habitually sported was always bogus given that both signed up with accountants a decade ago – before Sarbanes-Oxley and the Andersen collapse put paid to that particular big idea.

McGrigors’ projected deal with Pinsent Masons comes at a price, since it loses its name. On the upside, at least its London lawyers are inured
to open-plan working (see Feature, page 22). It’s not a gamechanging merger in market terms, but McGrigors’ streak of quirkiness teamed with Pinsents’ worthy solidity is a pleasing prospect.

By contrast, Dundas has difficult issues to sort out. A merger with Bircham Dyson Bell would have taken turnover to over £100m, but would not have addressed the concerns over management style. Is it really healthy that one man – managing partner Donald Shaw – decides all partners’ profit shares? What’s more, Shaw’s reign is characterised by conservatism; management has only just noticed that Aberdeen might be a good place to launch, eight years after McGrigors opened there. It suggests a firm that is not overburdened with vision, and one in which partners are not asking the management enough tough questions.