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The signs were always there. When Hammonds senior partner Chris Jones was being interviewed about his firm's year-end figures, he suddenly came out with something rather pointed about the firm's corporate recovery and insolvency group, which he admitted had not performed as strongly as had been expected. "The market for insolvency was interesting," he told The Lawyer last month. "At difficult times, you'd expect a higher level of instructions than have materialised."
You can assume that when Jones says something like that (and that quote was much dissected by insolvency lawyers at rival firms), there's an interesting story behind it. Insolvency was one of the main drivers of Hammonds' expansion in the 1990s, but it has since shrunk to a business contributing a fraction of the firm's total turnover of £135m. In particular, the non-bank side of the insolvency practice - the one focusing on liquidations and lower-value administrations and which is hugely dependent on relationships with accountants - has frankly been running at half cock as the firm moves towards a more institutional client base.
Against this background, Manchester insolvency star Duncan Haymes has left the firm to join niche outfit Holden + Co. Haymes did a mixture of lender and non-bank work, and pretty much controlled the firm's relationship with insolvency practitioner Begbies Traynor, a major workgiver to Hammonds. Also slated to be joining Holdens - and this has lovely resonances for students of law firm history - is Paul Rhodes, formerly insolvency head of Hammonds and, in a previous incarnation, managing partner of Dibb Lupton (now DLA). Name partner Philip Holden was himself Rhodes' star pupil at Dibbs, where he used to work with Tim Pope, another former Hammonds partner, and who left the firm a year ago at the same time as Rhodes.
Meanwhile, the word on the street is that Hammonds Leeds partner Jeremy Bennett could also be joining the Holdens crew, although that is denied by Jones. Yet if Bennett is staying, it is surely legitimate to ask what part his practice has to play in the wholesale refashioning of Hammonds' corporate recovery group. After all, Bennett is squarely in the non-bank camp. That constituency has been increasingly marginalised over the last couple of years as the firm targets asset-based lenders with growing success - much of it thanks to the acquisition of Edge Ellison's practice. Let's hope that Hammonds manages to keep that part of the business sweet. Time for them to feel the love, eh, Chris?