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Think property practices in the South West and the top dogs, Burges Salmon and Osborne Clarke, are probably the first to spring to mind. Both firms cleaned up nicely out of Eversheds' Bristol U-turn earlier this year - Burges Salmon gained property and finance litigator Peter Morris, while Osborne Clarke added a new dimension to its property practice with the hire of Eversheds' national head of licensing Jeremy Phillips.
While these firms compete in Bristol, both are also making their mark further afield. Orange's decision to appoint Burges Salmon for its London headquarters deal at Paddington Basin and Obsorne Clarke's acquisition of McGuinness Finch prove the point. Their lead over other Bristol contenders is undeniable. But another practice is beginning to make chase, breaking away from the second tier with a dynamism that belies its old reputation as a sleepy practice with an office in every village and with every partner's name on its notepaper.
The property practice in question belongs to South West firm Clarke Willmott & Clarke. Head of planning Nick Engert and head of commercial property Roger Seaton are creating a very punchy and profitable business, and doing so in a manner that the firm's Bristol peers - Bevan Ashford, Veale Wasbrough, Beachcroft Wansbroughs, and newlyweds Cartwrights and Bond Pearce - cannot quite seem to match. Property and planning fee income at Clarke Willmott has doubled over the last two years, making this the fastest growing area of the firm. It now accounts for more than a third of its total income.
Seaton makes no bones about his ambitions to shake off the firm's old image and build something that is renowned for its work nationally. Sound familiar? The management decided two years ago to launch an aggressive hiring programme, which is now starting to come to fruition. Like Burges Salmon and Osborne Clarke, Clarke Willmott has also gained from Eversheds' Bristol demise by hiring partner William Jackes; it is also about to be joined by an associate from Veale Wasbrough, who will come in as a partner.
Clarke Willmott's up-and-coming status in property owes much to Engert's well-regarded planning and environmental practice. The practice now has its own planning barrister, a rarity outside the City. It is on the back of the firm's planning specialism that it has pursued one of its key shake-up strategies - to move further into the development world.
It now lists 12 quoted developers or their subsidiaries among its clients, including Berkeley Group, Wilson Bowden and Prowting. Just two years ago, Clarke Willmott was doing no work at all for Prowting; now the developer is among its biggest billers. The relationship began when Clarke Willmott acquired the small property practice Michael Evans & Company, which did one or two areas of Prowting's work. Clarke Willmott presented to Prowting in June last year and convinced the developer that it could service its national legal needs from its West Country offices via a partnership arrangement. Prowting has now pretty much closed its in-house legal function and appointed Clarke Willmott as its sole adviser. The work revolves around mixed-use brownfield developments, and it is this shift in focus that is encouraging developers to turn to firms like Clarke Willmott, which invest in the skills needed in this sector.
The most recent sign of this investment is the hire of a legal director from housebuilder Redrow Group (The Lawyer, 11 June). Karen Wallis has spent much of her career in the industry. Redrow has its own major in-house function and so is not yet a client. Another key to boosting the department's income has been the development of a complementary volume conveyancing service. Key clients include Future Mortgages, Woolwich and Staffordshire Building Society.
Commercial property has also grown. Hiring Jackes from Eversheds meant the arrival of clients such as Burger King, Oddbins and Bristol & West. And all of this progress is not going unnoticed by Bristol's other property players.
Conversely, there is also a perception in the market that the practice is still somewhat patchy in places, that there is some catching up to do before its other chosen specialisms are recognised as being on a par with its planning and environmental expertise.
But Seaton is under no illusion that the battle is yet won. Expect to see some more interesting hires and direct wins in the near future.
Julia Cahill, reporter