Move On Up: Osborne Clarke

Internal promotions have been thin on the ground as the Bristol firm’s European drive has seen a glut of laterals and an impressive retention rate

It is no secret that Bristol-based firm Osborne Clarke has big ambitions. Fresh from a lateral hiring programme involving 15 lawyers, seven of whom are based in London, the firm announced plans to transform itself into a European outfit, merging with Spanish and Italian alliance partners Osborne Clarke Spain and SLA Studio Legale Associato. The proposed tie-up will give the firmwide partnership a boost, with 21 new partners by July, taking the total number to 145.

However, should any of the firm’s UK associates be concerned that ­Osborne Clarke is losing its focus on its home jurisdiction, the firm has confirmed that it will expand the size and scale of its London office at the same pace as in 2011-12 – a year that saw almost 50 per cent of global lateral partner hires and 70 per cent of UK lateral hires aimed at the capital.

If the firm’s predictions ring true, the City office will overtake Bristol in terms of partner numbers by the end of 2012. But the growth in London
to date has been overwhelmingly through lateral hiring rather than ­organic growth. Seven new partners were recruited to the office in 2011-12, including Taylor Wessing finance partners Dominic Ross and Akmal Ghauri, as well as Berwin Leighton Paisner banking partner Madeleine Clark; but there was only one internal promotion, in the shape of property lawyer Gary Lawrenson.

In comparison, the Bristol office had a glut of partner promotions in the same year at five, compared with just two laterals. But this came after a dry period of three years, 2007-08 to 2009-10, when there were no promotions at the firm’s headquarters.

The lateral hiring spree in London, which has resulted in a number of lawyers being poached from magic or silver circle firms, points to the core of the firm’s new strategy: to transform itself from a domestic firm into a European one. This means it needs to hike its City presence faster than it would by internal promotions alone.

While Osborne Clarke is bulking up quickly, lawyers outside the firm’s key industry sectors – real estate and infrastructure, energy and natural resources, digital business, and financial services – should not hold their breath for imminent promotions.

The list of promotions and hires from the past five years confirms Osborne Clarke’s pin-sharp focus, with the last wave of lateral hires bringing in lawyers who have substantial experience in real estate, infrastructure and financial services. The trend continues outside the UK, with new partners in Germany and Spain ­providing the firm with strength in ­financial services and energy.

The list of partner departures over the past five years suggests that few have been put off the firm’s new ­international push. Just two partners, one leaving for further education purposes and the other for ­private practice, have left the firm in the past 12 months, representing the lowest number of exits in five years.

For the first time in those five years, neither partner came from the Bristol or London offices. Compare this with 2007-08, when Osborne Clarke pulled in a record £95.3m, but lost three partners in banking, ­construction and real estate to other firms. In total the firm has said ­goodbye to 20 partners in five years against 40 hired and 15 promoted.

Osborne Clarke is clearly doing something right. While acting quickly to expand through a combination of laterals, mergers and ­organic growth, it has also improved partner retention and maintained a long-term focus on the future – that future being a more diverse workforce.

“We want to demystify the City,” says real estate partner Nadine Strahl when asked about the London office’s three-year social mobility programme. “It’s not just about finding great lawyers, it’s about raising career aspirations and creating the kind of City networks those from wealthier backgrounds take for granted.”

Promotions and senior hires

Madeline Clark, banking/finance
Clark is one of the few female lawyers to have been made up in London in recent years

Gary Lawrenson, real estate
Lawrenson was the only partner promoted in the City last year and now heads real estate litigation

Tim Simmonds, financial services
One of Bristol’s most recent hires, Simmonds joined from Berwin Leighton Paisner

UK Headcount

Equity partners
59

Partners
94

Associates
93

Trainees
32

Fee-earners
183

Staff
162