All the larger firms have gaggles of ex-London lawyers who have swapped the gold-paved streets of EC1 for the tree-lined streets of BS1. Despite the scoffs of City colleagues, it is a move which many say improves their quality of work, as well as the quality of life.
Osborne Clarke's head of employment Paul Killen is one who has made the move, swapping one south west for another. Until 16 months ago, he was an employment partner with the City practice of Berwin Leighton Paisner, commuting in to work from Wimbledon in south west London.
In October 2001 he moved to Osborne Clarke, and became head of the employment team in Bristol in February this year, taking over from Julian Hemming who stepped up to national head of the employment, pensions and incentives department.
“Bristol is a very different market,” said Killen. “I can appreciate how London-centric I was as a partner in a City practice. It really restricts your outlook as to the type of clients that you can do work for to the square mile of the City and the immediate hinterland around it.
“Coming to Bristol and the South West, what has struck me is that although Bristol itself is a considerably smaller market than London, the South West has got a whole network of towns and cities with some really substantial businesses based in them. It is something that people miss when they are based in London.”
The corporate support and transaction-related work that plays a crucial role in the employment departments of many City firms is a key area of difference. Osborne Clarke has one of the largest corporate teams in the region and a look at the deals tables shows that deals do get done in the South West, but there is also a much more substantial amount of standalone employment work.
“The bulk of the work in the City is generated by transactional work and by clients who were clients of the firm predominantly by reason of their transactional work, but for whom we also advised on employment issues,” said Killen. “Here in Bristol, I wouldn't say there's less transactional work per se, but there are a lot of clients who have a very sophisticated requirement for employment advice in its own right.”
And with fee rates for a partner at around £100 per hour cheaper than in London, price is clearly a key factor in Bristol's favour.
Bristol is, if anything, over-lawyered, with as many top firms as larger cities such as Birmingham or Leeds. Killen said that it makes for a very competitive legal market. “There's a large number of firms for a city of this size, but by comparison to London, it's a much smaller community and its easier to get to know people. In the context of employment law, where you're rarely dealing with a zero sum situation, that's not a bad thing. We can all get along and do the deals that give our clients the best service.
“You certainly can't afford to rest on your laurels. There are no firms that could regard themselves as being so pre-eminent that they're not under threat. It's competitive, but there's a friendlier edge to the competition.”