UK Roundup: The North West

Pinsents starts recovery in Manchester
Pinsent Masons is intent on rebuilding its Manchester presence following the spate of losses it suffered earlier this year, and the summer has seen the national heavyweight begin its assault.

The firm boosted its Manchester corporate department in August by snaring highly rated partner Stephen Levy from Hammonds and partner Chris Moss from Halliwells. Both Levy and Moss were welcome additions to Pinsents after the firm lost a five-lawyer corporate team to Eversheds in March, which included partners Simon Masters and Hannah Kendrick.

Pinsents’ regional head Carl Garvie has big plans for the firm’s Manchester operations. “The intention is to grow significantly, with the aim being to drive the office up to the level of Leeds and Birmingham,” he says.

Pinsents currently operates from one office in Barbirolli Square, having now fully integrated Pinsent Curtis Biddle’s and Masons’ Manchester offices, after previously operating from two separate premises.

“We’re all under one roof now and we can’t underestimate the importance of that. Being in two sites doesn’t help,” Garvie says. The firm is looking to move into a new office by mid-2008 to accommodate the plans for its Manchester growth.

Cobbetts looks to ride out troubled times
Elsewhere in Manchester, Cobbetts suffered a blow to its social housing team after losing longstanding partner Mike Gaskell, who quit after eight years at the firm, to Trowers & Hamlin.

The latest departure follows a string of difficulties for the firm. While Cobbetts has spent the past 10 years growing revenue (since 1999 the firm’s turnover has risen by an astounding 488 per cent from £11m to £53.7m last financial year), the firm’s profitability has dropped. In 2002 the firm had an average profit per equity partner of £210,000, compared with £190,000 during 2005-06.

As a result, Cobbetts embarked on a redundancy programme this summer, stripping out 20 salaried and equity partners in a bid to raise profitability. However, Cobbetts’ managing partner Michael Shaw maintains that everything is going according to the firm’s long-term strategy, as originally drawn up back in 2001.

“What we set out to do, and what I think we’ve been successful in doing, is that we saw an opportunity in the market and wanted to create the leading firm operating outside London,” Shaw says.

Cobbetts’ recent appointment as main legal adviser to leisure trusts lobbying group the Sports and Recreation Trusts Association reinforces the firm’s strength within the public sector.

However, this is unlikely to soften the blow of the firm’s axing from the Department of Trade and Industry’s panel for the Insolvency Service for England and Wales in July. Adding further salt to the wound is the fact that regional rivals, including Dickinson Dees, Osborne Clarke and Wragge & Co, all benefited from Cobbett’s loss.

Hill Dickinson ends years of separation
Hill Dickinson is, meanwhile, all smiles after successfully wooing its former bedmate Hill Taylor Dickinson. Seventeen years after the two firms split, it appears that the firms have seen the error in their ways and last month joyfully announced that they are to re-merge.

Bets are on that it will be a successful union second time round. The event, which will take effect from 1 November, will create a £69m business. At the time of the split back in 1989, Hill Dickinson had sought to grow and diversify in the North West while Hill Taylor Dickinson wanted to expand its international marine practice.

However, Hill Dickinson is now seeking more critical mass in London. The merger will double the size of the firm’s current London office and will give it an international presence. Hill Taylor Dickinson has a branch in Piraeus and an associated firm in Odessa, in the Ukraine.

The combined firm will be known as Hill Dickinson and Hill Dickinson’s current senior partner Tony Wilson and managing partner Peter Jackson will both retain their respective roles.

Halliwells is northern star with £500k PEP
Good news for law firms in the North West region generally as the The Lawyer UK 100 Annual Report 2006 once again shed light on the market in the North West.

Costs remain low for most firms in the region, with Hill Dickinson and Brabners Chaffe Street appearing in the bottom five of the cost per lawyer’s (CPL) table, with £119,000 and £107,000 respectively. This compares to Keoghs, which came in at 61st place with a CPL of £165,000, followed by Pannone’s at 62nd, which had a CPL of £150,000.

Unfortunately revenue per lawyer (RPL) is also on the low side, with Hill Dickinson once again falling near the bottom of the league table, with an RPL of just £156,000.

There’s certainly good news for Halliwells, however. Its lawyers are bringing in the most money in the North West and each were generating an average £209,000 in the last financial year. During 2005-06, the national heavyweight brought in turnover of £62.7m, a 25 per cent increase from the previous year. The average profit per equity partner was also up by the same percentage to around £500,000.

While Halliwells was hit by the loss of corporate partner Chris Moss, who left the firm to join Pinsents’ Manchester office, it managed to poach DLA Piper partner Steven Fennell last month, who launched the firm’s Yorkshire corporate recovery practice in Sheffield last month.

Halliwells’ managing partner Ian Austin is optimistic about the future. “We definitely want to get into the top 25 law firms,” says Austin, who was recently re-elected to a further four-year term following an uncontested election.

He added that the firm is focusing on strengthening its London presence, particularly in corporate, and bedding down its latest merger with James Chapman & Co’s insurance team in Manchester.