Playing it down

Despite the robust economy, litigators in the North West are enjoying a steady workflow, with most departments reporting an increase in turnover. Commercial litigators are enjoying a large amount of flotation work, while the insurance litigation market – despite Woolf and the seemingly endless panel reviews – is providing a healthy flow for specialists in this area.

Two of the region's leading firms, Hammond Suddards Edge and Halliwell Landau, both suffered the setback of losing their heads of litigation last year, but both claim to have been unaffected by the departures.

Ian Meredith, who went on gardening leave from Hammonds last year, has been replaced by Michael Shepherd. Hammonds is currently training feeearners to gain their higher rights of audience. It has developed a 25-strong commercial dispute resolution unit and, for the second time in its three-year history, has been awarded the biannual Centre for Dispute Resolution award for excellence in mediation.

The advocacy unit that was set up in 1999, when Patrick Walker was recruited from the bar, now includes five partners who have gained higher rights of audience. Partner Philippa Hayes believes that the traditional argument that it is not time or costeffective for solicitors to conduct their own litigation is no longer valid. “Advocacy isn't just about court work, it's preparing pleadings and skeleton arguments. So much is on paper,” she says.

However, she recognises that it is not fair to pluck a fee-earner and say, “Right, you're off to court now.” “It's a training issue,” she says. “I haven't heard of anyone who isn't willing to do it. Things are really changing and you can't afford to stand still.”

Halliwells did not exactly lose Paul Thomas, the firm's former head of litigation and its most highly-regarded litigator. Rather, he moved upstairs to become managing partner, with Ian Austin taking up the reins in the litigation department. Despite Thomas' new role taking him away from fee-earning, Halliwells has reported its best ever year for defendant insurance litigation. “Traditionally, Manchester, and to some extent Liverpool, have always been strong in litigation, partly because of the emphasis on insurance in the region,” says Thomas.

The department recently recruited two more fee-earners, Stephen Morrison from Laytons in London and Nick Bettridge from James Chapman & Co in Manchester. Both joined the 27-strong team, which includes 11 partners, as senior assistants. While insolvency litigation is also strong – Gavin Jones joined as a partner from Matthew Arnold & Baldwin – Thomas sees more scope in other niche markets such as construction, asset leasing and franchising litigation.

“I don't think litigation will grow hugely,” says Thomas. “Now that the economy is doing well, people litigate less, but if there's a prolonged downturn this may change.” While Thomas' firm uses the Manchester courts a lot, “we tend to use London counsel more than Manchester, because there's greater specialisation in London, and more different specialities”.

Tom Handley, senior clerk at Exchange Chambers, Liverpool, thinks the desire to go to London is more for the big name element than for real specialisation. After all, the top three or four commercial silks can turn their hands to most things. A great exponent of the abilities of the local bar, Handley reports that local courts are very busy, but adds: “There's a need for further judicial firepower or cases are going to get delayed.” He thinks the London bar is increasingly aware of the opportunities offered by the provinces.

John Gosling, head of litigation at Addleshaw Booth & Co, reports a very busy litigation department and a “notable upturn” since autumn last year. “There are more business disputes around, but whether it's a sign that the economy is entering a new phase is debatable,” he says. “What we've noticed is that some major companies are coming to us and saying that while they're happy to pay London firms for the sexy work, they're not happy to pay those prices for straightforward work.” Gosling also makes encouraging noises about the local bar. “Their interest in us has improved, and in terms of courses and seminars, their services and standards generally are improving,” he says.

Perhaps the biggest success of the year is Wacks Caller, which was joined a year ago by Kit Sorrell from Davies Wallis Foyster. Bringing his client base and assistant (now an associate) Anna Duffy with him, Sorrell's heavyweight presence has coincided with an almost 400 per cent increase in business and 40 per cent in turnover. With five partners and 13 assistants in litigation, his department now makes up about one-third of the firm, which started in 1988 with just two partners. Servicing a large proportion of media, advertising, technology and new economy clients, the firm is stronger, particularly in intellectual property.

Coupled with the success of the Liverpool-based personal injury set 42 Castle Street, which beat off competition from the London bar to win a contract worth up to £6m in fees annually from Fastrack Indemnity (The Lawyer, 11 September 2000), the North West's litigators have not had a bad year. There will be many colleagues in other departments, though, that will be hoping their wishes for 2001 are not realised. What are they asking for? An economic downturn of course. n