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Family law covers a broad practice range, from the divorce of Mr and Mrs Average to international child abduction. But judging by the competition for work, the sexiest area is big-money settlements.
A large chunk of this work is divided between the magic circle family lawyers, an elite group who are distinguished, says one member, by their experience of big and very complex cases.
Looking at firms as a whole, Manches and Withers are at the top of the pile, each claiming to be the best. Charles Russell believes it also ranks in this league, although rivals tend to place it a rung lower.
Charles Russell's family department will have seven partners when the Rooks Rider team, including well-known divorce lawyer Erica Shelton, joins it in a few months. In terms of numbers, that puts it on a par with Withers.
Charles Russell managing partner and family lawyer Grant Howell says: "There are extremely good lawyers in other firms, but they haven't got the depth that Manches, Withers or Charles Russell have."
Gordon Dadds, for one, would disagree. The firm also ranks itself as one of the top three family firms in central London. Its family department was hit by the departure of two partners to Withers three years ago, but has now bounced back.
The department has just doubled in size by taking on Druces & Attlee's family group, including head of family Kathryn Peat, and Penningtons' head of law Susan Philipps and her two assistants.
One family lawyer points out that Peat is not a magic circle lawyer, but her recruitment is a significant coup that clearly strengthens the firm and goes quite a way towards redressing the balance. Gordon Dadds family partner Susan Bland says the six-partner department is bedding down but expects to expand at junior assistant level.
Other firms which are doing well are the relatively new band of niche family practices such as Miles Preston & Co, Levison Meltzer Pigott and the Family Law Consortium.
One reason for this is that, to a large extent, family law is dominated by key individuals. Miles Preston and Jeremy Levison are both leading lawyers in the family field and so their names virtually guarantee a healthy client-base.
Gill Doran, a partner in Withers' family team, estimates that about 70 per cent of clients come to the firm because a named individual has been recommended to them. About 20 per cent will have been recommended the firm generally.
Many family lawyers say there has been a trend away from practising in mid-sized general practice firms. The most successful family teams, it appears, are either large departments in big firms or niche family practices.
Doran says: "What has clearly happened is that there are specialist niches which have pulled out of general practice. Miles Preston is one example, but these are not tiny one-man bands.
"Whether the team is in a big building or a boutique practice, it has to be of a reasonable size to undertake big divorce work. It has to have enough people to handle emergencies."
Levison Meltzer Pigott was set up by three former Collyer-Bristow partners 14 months ago. Levison says the firm's first year has exceeded all expectations.
Levison puts the trend away from medium-sized firms down to the personality of family lawyers. "Divorce lawyers are a bit of an oddity in the legal profession because the individuals who do that type of work tend to be more eclectic and zany than other lawyers," he says.
"These individuals have found that medium-sized firms do not work for them. If you are a partner in a mid-sized firm, you have to spend a lot of time running the firm and not working. Family lawyers prefer to work.
"So either they go to a niche firm where the admin is totally straightforward or a big firm where it is done for you by a substantial admin department."
Which is the better option is still open to debate. Solicitors in large firms point to the advantage of being able to cross-refer work and have, for example, a tax department to hand.
Family lawyer Nigel Shepherd, past national chairman of the Solicitors Family Law Association, moved from insurance litigation firm Berrymans Lace Mawer to Addleshaw Booth & Co earlier this year.
Addleshaws' private client group covers trusts and tax and family work.
"The support of other experts was one of the factors that attracted me to Addleshaws," says Shepherd. "Undoubtedly you can carve a niche in a specialist firm that does nothing else, but the major players are large departments in large firms, which benefit from access to clients and support from other departments."
Large regional firms such as Addleshaws have also set their sights on the high net-worth market and claim to be competing with the big London family firms.
Addleshaws ranks itself as one of the top 10 firms nationally for family work. Its private client department increased in turnover by 50 per cent in the last year and plans to expand.
"We are certainly a leading player in the market and we are attracting more and more clients who traditionally might have gone to top London firms," says Shepherd.
Manchester firm Pannone & Partners also claims to be up there at the top. "We are regularly dealing with all the big names such as Manches and Withers," says Beth Wilkins, a partner in the family department.
Bournemouth firm Lester Aldridge has announced a three-year target to rank with the magic circle firms.
Stephen Foster, head of the family unit, says: "I am not suggesting that within three years it will be Manches and Withers and Lester Aldridge, but if you look down after Manches and Withers, we are already in that group."
Foster says his department regularly handles cases worth over £10m and that 25 per cent of its caseload is London-based. He says the firm is also building a referral network from City firms such as Slaughter and May and Freshfields and has had five referrals from Tokyo in the last year.
Its regional base means the firm can afford to charge less than City rivals. "Our campaign, if you like, is to offer a service comparable with the London firms, but at regional prices," says Foster.
City lawyers counter that London firms justify their high rates by offering experience, effectiveness and expertise, particularly in complex cases.
But Susan Bland, a partner in Gordon Dadds' family law group, says the market in family law is growing more competitive. "Clients now are much more aware of who they want to see, both in terms of the firm and also of the individual. Beauty parades are becoming quite common," she says.
Yet despite the ambitions of firms such as Lester Aldridge, it is difficult to imagine the magic circle lawyers quaking in their boots.
As one of them says: "It doesn't really affect the magic circle. After all, none of us are short of work."
Nobody agrees on who its current members are, but here is a list of the names most frequently mentioned, along with some up-and-coming potential members. And when this exclusive band talks about up-and-coming, they mean seriously experienced.
Helen Ward, Richard Sax and Jane Simpson from Manches. Rival Withers boasts Gill Doran, James Harcus, Andrew Gerry, Diana Parker and, as a consultant, Charles Doughty.
Other initiates include Douglas Alexiou of Gordon Dadds, Jeremy Levison of Levison Meltzer Pigott, Miles Preston of Miles Preston & Co, Ray Tooth of Sears Tooth, Fiona Shackleton from Farrer & Co and Sandra Davis of Mishcon de Reya.
Among the numerous up-and-coming names are Jeremy Fisher of Gordon Dadds, William Massey at Manches, Grant Howell, David Davidson, William Longrigg and Maryly La Follette, all from Charles Russell, Michael Drake and Geoffrey Rutter of Collyer-Bristow, David Hodson, James Pirrie and Philippa Pearson at the Family Law Consortium, Simon Pigott of Levison Meltzer Pigott, Miranda Baker and Jane Keir at Kingsley Napley, Maggie Rae at Clintons, Frances Hughes of Bates Wells & Braithwaite and John Cornwall of Dawson Cornwall & Co.
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