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Last week Italy, next week Sweden: Osborne Clarke (OC) is barrelling around Europe with all the grace of a gap-year backpacker.
Here’s a box ticked in Italy with Abbatescianni e Associati, and we’re already looking forward to the rows and flouncing in two years’ time. And here’s a box almost ticked in Sweden – another one of those client-led things, no doubt – if talks with ex-Landwell outfit Hellström come off.
It hasn’t been easy for OC in the past couple of years, and it’s been particularly tough in London. But the firm also took its eye off the ball in Bristol, which didn’t endear it to its heartland. Meanwhile, in Germany, it’s now left with a pretty lacklustre office in Cologne after the Frankfurt operation jumped ship en masse to that other corporate tech player Taylor Wessing.
With an upturn in tech and corporate work, OC partners are hoping to see a decent return this year. Yet if tails are now up, it seems perverse that its management wants to airbrush out the fact that more than 25 partners have left in the past couple of years. Isn’t leadership about overcoming the difficult times? Isn’t constructing a redemption narrative, on the whole, a good thing? And isn’t implying that most of those partners were managed out an insult – not just to our intelligence, but to many of the people who left?
Unfortunately, a dog-eared string of foreign names on the notepaper won’t necessarily be the answer to OC’s predicament. It’s so stretched between London, Bristol and Reading that rivals joke that its partners spend most of their time on the train. Costs per lawyer are low, but it hasn’t sorted out back-office strategy, unlike DLA or Wragges; OC’s clients are still uneasy at being shunted between operations.
The smarter money is on Burges Salmon, which is shaping up to be the Macfarlanes of the West. Astutely, it has positioned itself as a regional firm with the intellectual capital to work on transactions which are usually regarded as City-only.
By contrast, OC’s management team has a bunker mentality so strong it would need a JCB to dig them out. Since the elevation of Leslie Perrin to senior partner, external communication has deteriorated to the clownishly inept. Simon Beswick’s regime is good on detail, say insiders, but not so hot on the vision thing. But if you can’t communicate to outsiders, then how do you keep a half-stitched alliance together? Articulating the vision still counts for something, even in law firms.