How the West End was lost

In business, geography is destiny. And in the legal business a flourishing West End firm looks increasingly like a contradiction in terms.

Our cover story about Howard Kennedy facing a long overdue shake-up is at the same time an obituary for a particular type of legal practice.

A decade ago West End firms were doing well; they were not reliant on the caprices of big institutions and enjoyed an apparently loyal ­personal client base. But two recessions later and the traditional diet of property development and SME corporate work yields slim pickings for any firm within walking distance of Wigmore Hall. ­Outside a hardy band of media and entertainment boutiques, the West End firm is a shaky institution. Unlike Fladgate, which has just made a symbolic move to Covent Garden, Howard Kennedy – which still maintains a decent enough property client list in particular – wants to hang on to its West End brand.

The problem lies in what a West End brand ­actually is. In Howard Kennedy’s case, it certainly doesn’t connote a sparkling office building – its premises are easily the worst of any firm in
The Lawyer’s top 100.

That lack of investment in the building is at the same time a lack of investment in people. Indeed, Howard Kennedy’s West End brand is currently shorthand for an idiosyncratic partnership with
an opaque career structure and incoherent ­hiring strategy. Virtually every recruiter you speak to will tell you that Howard Kennedy is one of the hardest firms in London to sell to candidates. Those ­rejecting a life in the City are no longer ­looking for a ­commercial alternative in the West End but telecommuting or joining funky new ­boutiques that understand the value of ­transparency, such as and Enyo Law, to name just two firms recently formed by ex-City lawyers.

On 22 November last year the then head of family Ursula Danagher blasted the firm for its lack of transparency, claiming there had not been a single partnership meeting since May 2008. That the firm is even considering converting to LLP status is a big change. Howard Kennedy needs a revolution: if new chief executive Mark Dembowsky manages to impose some clarity, few will mourn the old ways.