9 September 1997
With long-established Edinburgh firm Dundas & Wilson CS leaping into bed with the Arthur Andersen network (and Dorman Jeffrey & Co being enfolded into Dundas & Wilson), according to one senior partner of another Scottish firm, there is only one topic of conversation on the golf courses north of the border. The unnamed client is speaking for many when he says: "Andersens are my accountants, but if they think we're going to be landed with their lawyers, they've got another thing coming."
But Dundas & Wilson chairman Neil Cochran describes the move as necessary to implement the firm's strategy of offering clients the choice of using a single international legal network. The view is that as the largest firm in Scotland, there were few alternative choices in terms of strategy for Dundas & Wilson to make if it was to develop both inside and outside Scotland. Says Cochran: "We see Andersens as number one in the Big Six and Dorman Jeffrey at the top for corporate recovery, and of course the link with Garretts is crucial for both inside and outside the UK."
Some have wondered whether the firm is being used as a "dry run" for the Andersen network to tempt one of the major London players into the fold as well, strengthening the Big Six accountancy firm's reputation in the business world. Cochran refutes this: "You only have to look at our rankings in the UK legal marketplace, which compare favourably with any London firms outside the Big Five. If it is a dry run, it is a pretty ambitious one - we now have 54 partners, and a total of 184 fee earners... so it's not some small firm. On anticipated fee income alone for the year to August 1998 of around £50m, it makes us a major presence."
A number of the other "big four" Scottish firms have already made clear their stance on linking up with one of the Big Six accountancy firms.
As Kirk Murdoch, managing partner of McGrigor Donald, comments: "The move obviously changes the map of legal services in Scotland. McGrigors' position up to date has been to consider whether the concept of a multidisciplinary practice is what clients are really looking for. There is a lot of interest and comment - and those involved are all very able organisations. But our overwhelming impression is that it is not what clients and potential clients really want. They like the ability to choose their own team, rather than having the team laid out already."
And at Maclay Murray & Spens, senior partner Michael Walker questions whether further mergers are the way ahead: "The market is pretty exciting, with a hell of a lot of business, and a certain amount of uncertainty. There has been increased polarisation between the top firms and the middle-ranking firms, which is not a surprise - with the gap growing, that will have an effect. We have already seen, and will see, increasing movement of good individuals. Further mergers for firms here are a problem just because of the size of the market."
Walker's view is that the way forward is to grow in a controlled way. Inevitably, with the rumours of the Andersens/Dundas & Wilson move circulating before the official announcement last week, there has already been a merry-go-round of lawyers moving in Scottish firms, which, according to Walker, "shows that the market is alive, and Maclays is not the only firm benefiting".
Recent moves include Michael Hughes and Alayne Swanson joining Maclays from the Glasgow office of Dundas & Wilson; in turn Robert Pirrie, Douglas Crawford and Caroline Ferguson moving to Dundas & Wilson; as well as in Edinburgh, the demerger of the private client department Turcan Connell from Dundas & Wilson to set up independently, albeit in the same building, at Saltire Court.
Saltire Court is also home to Shepherd & Wedderburn WS, where managing partner Hugh Donald agrees that recent events have been a fruitful area for recruitment - the firm is opening an office in Glasgow in mid-October (as is London and Edinburgh firm Dickson Minto). Donald believes that it is very much a case of wait and see with MDPs. "The clients must make their views known; professional practices are driven by client relationships, and the ability to choose horses for courses."
MacRoberts senior corporate partner Ian Dickson also advises caution: "There is a lot of room for truly independent legal advice in both England and Scotland, and we are not all rushing to join the queue - it may well be that in 10 years' time that is the only way to provide legal services, but the priority is to have a marketplace that is well-served in terms of quality."
Others consider that linking up with accountants is inevitable given the moves that have already taken place. "Whether you like it or not is irrelevant," comments Bishop and Robertson Chalmers partner Kenneth Ross.
But, as another non-Dundas & Wilson partner says, "The acid test will be what happens when the cross-selling starts. Whatever happens, we'll ensure that we can take the opportunities - whether it is disgruntled clients or lawyers, or just business as a result of conflicts."
Rumours of who has approached who rage on - but as to who will be next, it's anyone's guess - as one partner says: "Never say never..."