Legion in the regions

All eyes will be on London this summer, as this Olympics issue illustrates, but when it comes to legal market action, you’d best watch the regions.

Over the past year a number of firms have been reshaping themselves and the competitive environment in the regional mid-tier, and they’ve done it without any grandiloquent plans of conquering London. To take two examples, Shakespeares is bulking up in the Midlands through merger and TLT took over Anderson Fyfe and opened in Northern Ireland. But dwarfing them both is DWF, which is clearly modelling itself on DLA Piper, right down to the acronyms.

DWF’s breakneck trajectory has mimicked DLA Piper’s in the 1990s and has been extraordinary by any standards: between 2006-07 and 2010-11 it made 62 lateral hires and 51 promotions, it opened in Birmingham last July, took over Crutes in Newcastle in January this year and bolted on Coventry firm Buller Jeffries in April. It may not have pulled off the Cobbetts talks, but with the Biggart Baillie merger DWF will gross £120m – large enough to be in the top 25 in The Lawyer’s UK 200. What’s so intriguing is that not all of its growth has been by way of acquisition – in the 2010-11 financial year its turnover rose from £71.5m to £83m.

Managing partner Andrew Leaitherland has clearly worked out that there are deals to be made in the space increasingly vacated by larger national firms such as Eversheds and Pinsent Masons. Taking over a Scottish practice isn’t that tricky given that half the firms north of the border are on the market at the moment. But you’ve got to applaud his execution. In these circumstances, having a tiny equity partnership helps when you’re building a firm. But as the example of DLA Piper shows, having a highly centralised management brings its own issues further down the line.

In fact, I rather wonder if DWF and DLA might collide in a different way. Tony Angel’s current review of DLA Piper’s national network in the UK will no doubt reach unsentimental conclusions. There’s plenty of speculation internally that the Glasgow, Sheffield and Liverpool offices are at risk. If the partners in those cities would prefer to jump first, they could do worse than get Leaitherland’s direct dial. I’m guessing he’d take the calls.