A thorn in the City's side

Rather like the ratings of Brookside compared with Coronation Street, the legal professions in Liverpool and Manchester respectively have been considered a David and Goliath. But Liverpool has stolen a march on its North West rival recently, with the ratings-stealing episodes of the Jordaches' trial in Brookside and the high-profile collapse of Liverpool legal aid firm Deacon Goldrein Green.

However, practitioners in the North West regard the Deacons debacle as an isolated incident, due mainly to rapid expansion and other Liverpool solicitors say there has been little fall-out.

The issues which concern the firms in the region are the same across the UK – legal aid, conveyancing fees, and competition from a bloated profession. National trends also show up in the movement of lawyers in the region, particularly at partner level, to the extent that cynical observers might say the legal profession is playing a game of musical chairs.

Since our last survey, Manchester firm Addleshaw Sons & Latham has signed up lawyers from Garrett & Co, Dibb Lupton Broomhead, Halliwell Landau, Davies Arnold Cooper and Lace Mawer, as well as setting up its own venture capital unit.

And national practice Pannone & Partners also divided its London and Manchester offices in January this year and in April enticed matrimonial doyenne Beth Wilkins and her assistant from Davies Arnold Cooper.

Halliwell Landau's new senior partner Roger Lancaster acknowledges that his firm's expansion is attributable to both organic growth and “some very successful lateral hirings”.

Hammond Suddards is another firm which has thrived on lateral hires, and also has a presence in Leeds. This is where national firm Eversheds has consolidated its northern practice, and from where more firms are crossing the Pennines to compete for work in the North West. Hammonds' corporate partner William Downs says: “There is a trend for a number of accountancy and solicitors firms to operate in the whole of the north and to treat the whole as one region and, essentially, one market.”

There has also been a trend for different entities to encourage investment in the North West at local level.

Downs continues: “Everyone is out there chasing the work,” but he is encouraged that the firm is expected to hit its projected target of a £6.5 million turnover this year, a healthy increase on the £5 million turnover for the previous year. Pannones also says its turnover is up 12 per cent on the previous year in the first quarter, indicating a burgeoning confidence in the region.

But all practitioners in the North West acknowledge that the market is getting increasingly competitive, which is a national feature. Pannones' commercial property partner Mike Jones cites the commercial property market as healthy due to an injection of public money. He says there is now “a trend for more and more business to be taken by regional firms from London firms, a development which 10 years ago was unthinkable”.

One of the reasons for this is the increase in the number of larger firms who are more able to compete in a market governed more by price and beauty parades. National firm Alsop Wilkinson, having been in talks with the now defunct Turner Kenneth Brown, and latterly with Lawrence Graham, neither of which came to fruition, may now be considered to be 'on the shelf'. But Alsops, according to Nigel Kissack, managing partner of the firm's Manchester office, is “looking at any opportunity that is brought to us. We are not in discussions with anyone and are not actively looking, but there is obviously a business dynamic aimed at achieving a greater strength and depth of resource to enable us to compete head on with the traditional City firms as many North West firms aspire to.”

For many firms, what is important is ensuring that as much legal work as possible is undertaken in the region, as well as promoting the North West as a recognised centre for professional services and business.