Firms in the North East have thrived on fierce competition over the past few years. Now they are setting their sights on London and beyond, writes Chris Fogarty.
London firms with their eyes firmly fixed on catching up with the “big five” risk getting an unexpected kick in the backside from the Leeds “big six”.
The “big six” – Eversheds, Hammond Suddards, Addleshaw Booth & Co, Walker Morris, Dibb Lupton Alsop and Pinsent Curtis – have emerged from a decade of fierce local competition well-prepared to take the national and international stage.
Aspiring London firms may increasingly find that some of their better clients are being targeted from the North.
“In the 1980s there were five or six firms in Leeds which took the view that they wanted a wider marketplace,” explains David Ansbro, Eversheds managing partner for both its Leeds and Manchester offices.
“There was healthy competition – people grew up knowing each other and respecting each other.”
But that does not necessarily mean that Yorkshire is a gentleman's club. Addleshaws managing partner Mark Jones says: “It may have been the case 10 years ago that people
didn't poach from one another in Leeds – it is not the case any more.”
In fact, some of the comments partners make about rival firms in the North range from the libellous to the downright vicious.
Where else outside of Yorkshire would you hear a solicitor suggesting that the suicide of a prominent local lawyer was due in part to his lack of work at a rival firm?
Direct they may be, but northern firms are also realists when it comes to expansionist plans.
In Newcastle, lawyers laugh about the flashy senior partner of a prominent London firm who told a caller on his mobile (and the entire carriage of the train he was travelling on) that his firm was going to come into Tyneside and clean up the locals.
A year later, they are still waiting.
Do not expect any similar mobile phone bravado from partners heading down to London. Firms such as Irwin Mitchell, although highly competitive and successful, have a strategy to grow outside of London, rather than trying to enter it.
Talking of Addleshaws' recent tentative move into London, Jones admits there are many firms in the capital which are “light years” ahead of it and the office is simply there to service existing clients, for the moment at least.
Hammond Suddards senior partner John Heller offers a similar appraisal of his firm's ambitions: “I don't think partners at the top five lose any sleep over our expansion in London.”
But despite this apparent modesty, confidence is growing in Leeds. A thriving city full of office blocks, it is the commercial heartland of the North.
Having recaptured large local clients such as Yorkshire Water from City firms, there is a greater hunger among firms in Leeds to lure clients from outside the region, both nationally and internationally.
With Eversheds Leeds having acted in Du Pont's £1.8bn takeover of ICI's speciality chemicals business and Walker Morris acting for Caterpillar, the multinational boots and bulldozer manufacturer, big legal work is flowing into the region where once it flowed out.
Lawyers in the North have always been viewed with admiration from the South, but with the nagging suspicion that they have chosen a lifestyle rather than a career, or even worse, that they had no alternative.
This view particularly rankles at the Bar.
“The traditional perception of the northern Bar is that it consists of people who choose to practise there as a last resort,” says Enterprise Chambers barrister Hugh Jory, who adds that he gladly chose to work in Leeds.
Ansbro claims that northern lawyers arrive at the office far earlier than their London counterparts. He says his Leeds offices are full by 8.15am while London firms he has visited are still quiet at 9am.
As well as hard-working staff, many northern firms are marked out by their strong individualistic streaks. Each firm has its own particular strategy, whether it be Hammond Suddards' international expansion or Walker Morris' work-from-home policy.
In fact, the range of diverse policies for growth suggests that someone is going to get it wrong. Most, but not all, of the Leeds “big six” senior partners believe that one of their firms will eventually be squeezed out.
But there is no agreement about who this is going to be, except, of course, that it will not be the firm of the particular senior partner you are speaking to.
Pinsent Curtis is one firm which is identified as having had a particularly torrid time since Pinsent & Co merged with Simpson Curtis in 1995.
Pinsents has been hit particularly hard by the arrival of Garretts in Leeds four years ago under the umbrella of accountancy giant Andersens. Garretts has since poached several high-profile lawyers from Pinsents, including corporate star Sean Lippell.
One “big six” partner says the arrival of Garretts has “shaken Pinsents badly” and that the union of Pinsent & Co and Simpson Curtis has been the least successful of recent law firm mergers in the region.
Lippell himself admits that Garretts' arrival engendered hostility throughout the northern legal community.
“There was quite a degree of professional antagonism to the concept and a feeling that established conventions had been broken,” he says.
It has not helped that Garretts recently pinched a substantial amount of the legal work for computer consumables firm ISA International from Hammond Suddards. It also won a pitch for Yorkshire Electricity's legal work.
Accusations have been flying about Garretts “buying in” work while rivals claim that clients feel uncomfortable with the firm's accountancy links. Lippell firmly denies both claims.
While he will not give any figures on turnover, Lippell says the aim is to break into the local “big six”. But whether that will be at the expense of Pinsent Curtis is doubtful.
One lawyer close to the firm says: “Pinsents has made a reasonable fist of trying to recapture the position it lost, but it hasn't done it yet.”
In truth, any of the “big six” could be vulnerable to the whims of competition with Pinsents simply playing the part of this year's whipping boys.
Meanwhile, up the road in Newcastle, firms such as Dickinson Dees can only look with envy at the cut-throat business practices that characterise the legal market in Leeds.
Newcastle is something of a “lost world” for law firms. Few of the Leeds or Sheffield firms (with the exception of Eversheds which took over Wilkinson Maughan last year) express any appetite to go there, despite a healthy level of development in the city.
The general excuse offered by senior partners is that Dickinson Dees, the largest law firm in Tyneside, is so good that it has the market sown up.
But geordies are not so easily flattered. Some Dickinson Dees insiders wonder if the shortage of good quality medium-sized firms in Newcastle means outside firms cannot find an adequate toehold on Tyneside.
Intriguingly, Dickinson Dees is out to pick a fight – actively daring the competition to come in and have a go if it thinks it is hard enough.
Having seen Leeds develop a huge legal market through tough competition, the Newcastle solicitors want a taste of the same.
“It's not in Dickinson Dees' interests to be seen as the best of a bad bunch,” declares business development partner John Flynn.
Within the next decade, Dickinson Dees wants to increase its staff numbers, currently standing at 166, by a quarter and it wants other firms in the city to help it grow the legal cake.
It is not so clear if firms in other parts of the country will be as welcoming to the arrival of the North's ambitious and expansionist firms.
But in the past decade the North has shown that stern competition can benefit the legal profession as a whole. There is a strong vein of determination and energy running through the region's legal community.
Some of the hard lessons learned on the streets of Sheffield, Leeds and Newcastle in the last decade are now set to be put to good use as northern firms look to the rest of Britain and beyond.