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The legal market in the North East has had a good 12 months. Most major firms reported an increased turnover last year, with Dickinson Dees up 26 per cent, Ward Hadaway up 20 per cent and Watson Burton up 22 per cent. (Eversheds does not release regional figures.) "It's a sign that there's some good firms up here and that we're all making healthy progress," says Michael Spriggs, head of corporate and senior partner at Eversheds in Newcastle.
Dickinson Dees is the elder statesman of the region, long-time law firm to the local gentry and more recently home to one of the highest-profile corporate departments in the area. While many middle-tier London firms in the early 1990s found that combining a successful private client practice at the same time as a dynamic corporate/commercial practice is a tough job, Dickinson Dees has managed it very successfully - so far. According to Ashley Wilton, head of the law school at Newcastle University: "Dickinson Dees is managing to keep its position as a leading private client provider, while simultaneously developing an impressive commercial presence."
On Teesside - the base for much of the country's petrochemical industry - there were conspiratorial mutterings following Dickinson Dees' decision to open an office there at precisely the same time that Eversheds was closing its Middlesbrough office. An inside job, or a coup for the firm's burgeoning telepathy practice? Nobody is saying.
"It's a different view of the marketplace," says Wilton. "Teesside is thought by some to be up and coming. Eversheds believes that it can service that market from Newcastle, and presumably Leeds as well." Eversheds insists that it took all of its petrochemical clients with it, which is borne out by the fact that the Dickinson Dees operation has so far focused more on employment, commercial property and litigation work. Never likely to develop into a powerful centre in its own right, the Teesside office nevertheless consolidates Dickinson Dees' image as 'the people's law firm' in the North East.
|"Like Liverpool and Glasgow, two other great river-based cities once regarded as economic basket cases, the North East economy has proved more resilient than its critics"|
Compared with other regions, the economy is relatively weak, but according to Spriggs, "it's been making good progress". The dismal days of the late 1990s, when both the Fujitsu and the Siemens production plants were shut down, the latter before it had even begun production, are long gone. Like Liverpool and Glasgow before it, two other great river-based cities once regarded as economic basket cases, the North East's economy has proved more resilient than its critics. The previously neglected quays and wharves of the waterfront are bustling with the buzz of regeneration and Newcastle's lawyers have been able to capitalise on this growing business confidence. "On the whole things are looking pretty good, and that's reflected in the way that law firms have performed," says Spriggs.
All three of the top firms have recently splashed out on new buildings. Dickinson Dees and Ward Hadaway opted for the regenerated dockside area, while Eversheds has a plum spot behind Newcastle's Central Station. The Eversheds deal was actually the largest property deal in Newcastle this year.
Ward Hadaway spent most of last year engaged in merger talks with regional rival Watson Burton. Since the talks broke down, it seems to be throwing its energy into expanding organically, although rumours remain over its merger intentions. Prior to the merger talks, it had announced ambitious growth targets in terms of both personnel and turnover. However, without the additional resources the merger would have provided, it will be difficult to meet its targets. That is not to say that growth has been unimpressive - indeed, turnover has been good and along with Eversheds it was one of only two firms in the region to make it into the slimmed-down National Health Service Litigation Authority (NHSLA) panel.
The NHS panel's restructuring and the squeeze in insurance work have hit some North East firms hard. There were a number of well-regarded smaller firms for which regular NHS and insurance-related work was the foundation on which their reputations were built. Crutes was well known for its Solicitors' Indemnity Fund and NHS work alongside its core insurance practice, and Jacksons had a well-respected personal injury insurance litigation practice. Jacksons seems to have bounced back straight away with a whole raft of new hires, whereas it appears that Crutes has struggled.
|Moves and mergers round-up|
"We've been rumoured as being a Ward Hadawaypartner. Perhaps they're building their new office for us"
|Spotlight: Deas Mallen and Blackett Hart & Pratt|
All talk and no action would seem to sum up the mergers scene in the North East. Somebody is always rumoured to be looking to merge with somebody else, but more often than not it comes to nothing.