The Leader Column

In the same week that Simmons & Simmons released its year-end figures, so details leaked out on the adviser fees for the administration of its one-time trophy client Railtrack.

In among Ernst & Young’s £15,000 invoice for breakfasts and dinners and an £8m fee for Slaughters, it emerges that Simmons billed Alan Bloom’s team £3.5m – a paltry sum when you consider that Railtrack used to be worth between £11m and £12m a year to the firm. Small fry too compared with Slaughters’ fee as the main adviser – Simmons, Railtrack’s lawyers since flotation, had to take a backseat due to conflicts.

Yet despite this loss, Simmons can congratulate itself on a 12.6 per cent rise in turnover this year, taking it up to £176.9m. Less worthy of celebration, however, are the profits. Average profits per equity partner stand at around £300,000, a drop of 20 per cent on 2002. It is the second year in a row that average profits have fallen. In 2002 they fell to £375,000 from 2001’s high of £412,000. That resurgence in profitability looks increasingly like a one-off.

With more money coming in, but less going into partners’ pockets, the answer to Simmons’ quandary must lie in how the firm is being managed. Senior partner Janet Gaymer is happy to give the same explanation as last year – a rundown of the firm’s international expansion. Simmons has been investing in offices in Tokyo, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt and Madrid, and has a Dutch merger under its belt. Its international map is certainly looking impressive, although it is worth remembering that Simmons’ entry into the German market in 2001 was late in the day and suffered a false start when Düsseldorf founding partner Gerhard Kaiser left after just a year. Italy, meanwhile, is still proving a headache following a series of partner walkouts.

The Dutch merger recently gifted Simmons the role of adviser to Greenfield Capital Partners on the acquisition of mmO2’s Dutch subsidiary. But such highlights must be weighed against the cost of welcoming more than 20 partners into the lockstep.

With so many risks involved, it is perhaps no surprise that many of the firms Simmons keeps company with in the top 15 are taking a different approach. Both Herbert Smith and Camerons are opting to keep their international relationships as far away from their bottom line as possible. Yet Simmons is committed to further international investment. What it really needs is some extra momentum at home. Maybe it’s time to revisit the Watson Farley deal?