Insurance review

It has been another tricky year for law firms geared towards the insurance industry. A raft of panel shake-ups, the high-profile collapse of Independent Insurance and an endless series of client consolidations, left a number of firms reeling and arguably on the back foot. But in response to these vagaries, the insurance firms have come back fighting.

The panel cuts
Weightmans could have been out for the count. The firm lost a couple of key panel places when both AXA Insurance and CGNU chose to dispense with its services. It has parried these blows by merging with Vizard Oldham’s litigation group and is seeking premises for its first London office.

The AXA panel contraction also provided Berrymans Lace Mawer and Beachcroft Wansbroughs with something of a wake-up call. Comfortably ingratiated into the insurer’s panel in a number of locations, after the shake-up their services were retained only in Manchester and Birmingham respectively. Since then, both firms have undertaken a little restructuring. Beachcrofts opened its equity, adding a meritocratic element to partner compensation. Appealing to its clients’ desires, Beachcrofts also set up Mutual Law, a fast-track claims service.

Berrymans has given its London office additional caché with a new senior partner. For the past two years, Paul Taylor had doubled up as national and London senior partner. Subsumed by the national agenda, the London office had lost some of its identity. With Charlotte Capstick as London’s figurehead, the firm now has an insurance-friendly face.

And while larger national firms have been feeling the strain, tiny Badhams has been quietly gloating. It is the only insurance firm to have escaped the dust-up unscathed. Led by the two Tims, Oliver and Roberts, Badhams has a novel approach to legal services. Part of Badhams and niche professional indemnity firm Williams Davies Meltzer merged and the result is Plexus Law, a firm that its founders argue could become a genuine corporate entity.

Elsewhere, Cartwrights’ insurance litigation department launched itself as a separate entity, named Cartwrights Insurance Partners, while the rest of the firm merged with Bond Pearce. Keoghs closed its Southampton office having struggled to attract new business.

Insurance law firms are in a state of flux that reflects changes in their core client base. Firms have taken a pummelling at the hands of clients keen to reduce costs. But for those that have refused to stay on the canvas and re-focused, 2002 should not be too threatening. For Merricks, who knows?

After the event insurance
Will personal injury lawyers ever be able to get on with their work? Just when claimant solicitors thought it safe to dive into the post-Woolf waters, along came three separate cases concerning after the event (ATE) insurance.

Temple Legal Services could be forgiven for being a bit paranoid, underwriting all three ATE premiums to have been challenged. Callery v Gray probably gained the most coverage. The story gained press attention as it was thought to be the answer to Claims Direct’s woes. If premiums could be taken from the losing side, Claims Direct’s business strategy would perhaps have been given the boost it needed.

Unfortunately for the beleagured claims service, the judgment emphasised the reasonableness of the premium. As Temple’s policy cost just £350, it was deemed reasonable that it be paid by the losing side – Gray’s insurance company, Norwich Union.

In November, ATE legal expenses insurer Greystoke Legal Services entered the conditional fee market. The company blamed “years of uncertainty and satellite litigation over recovery of success fees and premiums” for its decision.

While the ATE issue remains shrouded in controversy, justice suffers. Legal aid has not yet been succeeded by a full functioning alternative. If ATE providers are hounded out of the market, who else will fund personal injury claims?