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Twenty years ago a brash Yorkshire firm called Dibb Lupton decided it could go mid-tier and that SME corporate clients needed a more responsive service than City firms were providing.
It bulked up aggressively, paid big bucks to lateral hires and sold the market a vision of what a modern law firm should be. It became DLA Piper, and Nigel Knowles got a knighthood.
Irwin Mitchell is the latest no-nonsense Yorkshire firm looking to shake up the market.
Its announcement last week that it has engaged advisers Espirito Santo and Norton Rose with a view to a float was just the first step in what will be a long-running publicity campaign.
The picture is already becoming more clear.
In saying that the firm will build up a £50m war chest to create a business focused on the corporate mid-tier, managing partner John Pickering has declared war on domestic-focused, mid-market firms (see this week’s cover story).
Even more than Dibb Lupton did, Irwin Mitchell will need to engage in a whole lot more PR to convince the sceptics. Outside its core areas of insurance, personal injury and consumer litigation its PR efforts in the legal community have always been abject. The reaction of one well-placed City source last week was typical: “Do you want to be told what to do by a bunch of guys from Sheffield in short-sleeved shirts?”
But despite the southern snarkiness, nobody’s betting against the oddity that is Irwin Mitchell. Its big-time hiring ambitions throw a new light on its hitherto baffling recruitment of Jon Vivian’s real estate team from SJ Berwin last year. Pickering will undoubtedly play on one of the chief fears of lawyers who believe themselves to be underprovisioned for retirement: he is dangling not just a substantial salary package, but the possibility of significant capital - but presumably the prospect of less annual income.
However sentimental we are about the biodiversity of the mid-market, and however counter-intuitive Irwin Mitchell’s mixed model appears to be, this is the slow beginning of long-predicted consolidation. The Legal Services Act is not about QualitySolicitors.com or the Co-op, and City lawyers can’t wish it away any more.