Kent is a fragmented county, hit hard by the ravages of the recession.
There is no one legal centre. To the north of the county the Medway towns of Rochester, Gillingham and Chatham were hit the hardest. Closed dockyards created high unemployment and little industry, although the region is trying to attract industrial development. The area is also exploiting the Charles Dickens connection in a bid to win tourist trade. Rochester is described as the 'City of Great Expectations'.
The legal market was devastated by the conveyancing crash, perhaps more so than the rest of the region.
To work economically, a solicitor should charge at least u65 an hour and a mortgage transaction should take around five hours.
Local Law Society president John Holder says some local firms are charging under u200 for a typical conveyancing job and that they would not be prepared to agree economical rates – something which is unlawful but which has happened in other parts of the country.
“The firms that are willing to do it at that price wouldn't be party to such a move, not that it's even a possibility,” he says.
Another local lawyer says competition is tough with another practice in the vicinity charging u180 for a conveyancing job. “It's frustrating,” he says. “We want to keep our standards up, but we are having to bring our prices down.”
North Kent has no major firms. “There aren't any practices here which are going to set the world alight,” says another local lawyer.
The south could be another country. Tunbridge Wells is home to a number of well-regarded and successful commercial practices such as Buss Murton and Thomson Snell & Passmore. Buss Murton is strong on agricultural work. But all are mixed private and company commercial, rather than solely business work.
The largest firm in the town is Cripps Harries Hall, which has a hinterland stretching to Maidstone (home of niche agricultural practice Brachers), into London and Crawley. The firm is well-known for its commercial property and investment work.
Senior partner Christopher Hall says the firm is benefiting from a shift by its clients away from London. “London rates are prohibitive, unless it's for something with a lot of money involved,” he says. “We are getting asked to quote for London clients much more often now.”
Besides the large practices, the town is a mass of small general firms which rely heavily on private client work. Ten-partner firm Berry & Berry is well-regarded for criminal work and claims to be the oldest practice in the town. It has a strong civil base and employs an in-house chartered accountant. Partner Anthony Kiernan says the region has been hit hard by cuts in legal aid rates and work.