20 August 2001
Manchester is uncharacteristically sunny and looking pretty damn fine when I meet Ian Evans, senior partner of Weightmans. Although based in Liverpool, Evans has travelled down the M62 to visit the firm's Manchester office, which has recently suffered the loss of its entire retail and leisure team to Halliwell Landau.
This was a team launched with some fanfare last November, but the news of its loss has, with the timing of a bad airport novel, coincided with Weightmans' exit from two insurance panels, namely Axa's for general insurance litigation and CGNU's for fast-track work. The news came as a shock to many in the market, as Weightmans personifies the insurance sector. By Evans's own calculations, insurance provides 85 per cent of the firm's turnover. And, of course, all this comes in the shadow of failed merger talks with fellow North West insurance specialist Hill Dickinson, which broke down last November.
Evans starts off cagey - answering questions politely but briefly, with the barriers coming down after each response. The past fortnight, which covers the period of the three disappointments, he says, has been "busy" and no, the loss of the retail and leisure team was not a surprise. He tells me he had been in discussions with the team for several months about its departure but cannot remember who voiced their discontent first.
He stops abruptly at the end of each sentence, crossing his arms tightly, like body armour around his chest. In the pauses, he smiles, half in an attempt not to come over as aggressive and half to imply that he knows the game and he isn't playing. The two marketing guides sit in silent support, but Evans deals with the tough questions without any appealing glances in their direction.
Anyway, Evans says that the retail and leisure team felt it was time to move on as it needed the greater headcount that would come from a larger firm with a substantial commercial practice. Its gearing was wrong and it needed to come out from the shadow of Weightmans' defining insurance practice. So the search for a new home has been going on for a while.
Then there is the panel work - Evans is unable to discuss individual insurers apart from to say that the final decision was not a shock as the process had been a long one, taking shape over a period of months.
You can't help but feel that the legal market has been a little unfair to Weightmans. The two areas it has dominated in the North West, namely insurance work and litigation, have changed beyond recognition in the past couple of years. The Woolf reforms have slashed the amount of litigation around, while the spate of mergers among the insurance big boys has led to a re-examination of panels and legal spend.
Weightmans' traditional base is Liverpool, once the second city in the British Empire, now playing an aspiring ugly sister to Manchester's Cinderella. Even a cursory glance at the two cities will tell you where the money and movement really is - Manchester has Armani next to DKNY and the pinnacle of Liverpool's shopping is a four-storey sportswear shop. This is probably why there will now be a reshuffle to restock the Manchester office, and Evans is currently discussing whether to take on more space in the city.
But as in every market, it is survival of the fittest, and if the current strategy does not work then it's time to get a different tactic. Weightmans' chosen coach was Hildebrandt International, which came into the firm last year and shook things up. Characteristically of the consultancy, it advised concentrating on what the firm was already good at - namely general insurance work and specialist litigation - at the same time as growing its commercial practice and bringing in professional managers.
Evans says: "We spent a long time looking at ourselves and how we are managed. We've now invested heavily in management support and brought in a high-level finance director from Cadwalader."
Now Evans is getting into his stride - the arms have dropped down and we are having more of a conversation instead of playing twenty questions. A much friendlier and down-to-earth personality is beginning to shine through. Ironically, now the difficult questions are out of the way, Evans begins to refer more to the marketing people, but to include them in the discussion rather than check things
The root and branch reform of the firm even reached that holy of holies - the lockstep system. The previous renumeration structure had lasted for 30 years, so it was due for a change. Evans is amused by my astonishment as he tells me that the previous lockstep did not have a plateau level and people just kept going up for, in some cases, 30 years. Now the top is reached after 13 years to give younger lawyers something to aim for. How terribly modern.
Having got those changes through, another of Hildebrandt's suggestions was to implement partnership appraisals. For the past couple of years, the firm's management has held yearly partnership interviews, but Evans says that they were really no more than a chat. Under the new regime, partners will end the year with a list of aims and objectives to achieve in the coming year. Whether they achieve them will affect their standing on the lockstep, as progression is not automatically set at one rung of the ladder per year. Now people can be put backwards or forwards as management sees fit.
But, says Evans, the changes were passed relatively smoothly. "There was a will for change," he says. "We all read the periodicals and understand the pressures that are out there for generation X. We wanted to make the partnership one which was tempting for solicitors to join and one which is attractive for them in terms of their future."
Another priority for the firm is to boost the commercial practice, and Evans's aim is to get a rough parity between that side of the business and the insurance work. Of course, one easy way to do that would be to look at a merger again. Before Hildebrandt came in last year, Weightmans was in talks with Hill Dickinson. Discussions between them started after Evans got chatting to the other firm's senior partner Paul Walton on the touchline of a football pitch. The two men were supposed to be watching their respective sons who play in different teams for the same club. Hopefully, said offspring will not be reading this and scarred for life by the fact that their dads were fibbing when they claimed to be watching the game.
In any case, the talks broke down when Weightmans decided to concentrate on bedding down the changes it had started to work on within the firm.
If a merger had come about, Weightmans would have immediately solved its two biggest problems - first how to get much bigger quickly so it has the critical mass to be able to attack the commercial market, and second, whether and how to launch a London presence. "A number of clients say that we ought to be in London," admits Evans. "Particularly for professional indemnity work, in which almost all the work emanates from clients based in the City. It is unlikely that we would do it through a large merger and we would probably prefer, as a matter of culture, to add on a team."
Evans is not ruling out restarting merger talks with Hill Dickinson in the future, but says it is not an immediate possibility. But the question of London is obviously one that is vexing him at the moment so I wouldn't be surprised if the firm is eyeing up potential candidates for marriage.
If anyone is interested then find an eight-year-old boy and get him kicking a football - quick.
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