Are Scottish independents doomed?

Catrin Griffiths

The Scottish legal market is on its knees: discuss.

A pessimist could certainly make a case for this. In a smaller market, overlawyering becomes rather more obvious. In the past few years we’ve seen a serious player falter (Dundas & Wilson), another firm collapse (Semple Fraser) and a whole slew of practices (McGrigors, Biggart Baillie, Anderson Fyfe, Andersons Solicitors) being subsumed into pan-UK outfits, losing their brands in the process. At the same time, intra-Scottish consolidation has manifested itself in virtually a merger a month and an extraordinarily febrile market in terms of partner mobility.

As our analysis reveals, the decline of RBS and Bank of Scotland has had long-term repercussions for professional services firms. More work is now being centralised from London, and with the procurement teams even more visible than before, the cosy certainties that underpinned the Edinburgh old boys’ club are disintegrating.

In truth, many Scottish firms have been too conservative for too long. They were even slow to colonise their own back yard of Aberdeen. Even Bond Pearce (now Bond Dickinson) beat them to it, for goodness’ sake, while the big row over ABSs has ended with a fudge – Scottish firms are only authorised to take 49 per cent external capital.

Other management decisions have been simply baffling; take MacRoberts, whose turnover dropped by 15 per cent last year, and whose major strategic play has been to open in Dundee. And, as Margaret Taylor reveals in her detailed examination of the market, property costs have seriously started to bite.

Still, there are some bright spots. You can clearly see emerging a pugnacious and well-managed middle tier of firms that can pick up referrals from London and prosper as independent outfits. While the Pinsents-McGrigors deal has some clear benefits for both sides, I’ve spoken to several managing partners of good-sized law firms in the City who will now no longer refer to McGrigors since the Pinsents merger.

Opportunities are emerging, then, for that nippy little mid-tier of terriers. Brodies and Burness, which are both led by men who are not from Edinburgh, have done well on corporate and commercial; Harper Mcleod has got its act together at the value end and Turcan Connell has cleaned up in the wealth management market. Guess who’ll do best out of it if Scotland votes for independence.

Catrin Griffiths, editor
twitter: @lawyercatrin