British Coal

When Nabarro Nathanson swallowed up British Coal Corporation's (BCC) legal team in 1990 and established a foothold in the north, the critics were quick to carp.

Publicly they said it was ambitious, but in private many thought it mad. Competitors predicted that the mix of cultures, in-house and private practice, would prove problematic and that the commercial risk was too great.

But senior partner Jeffrey Greenwood clearly derives much pleasure from explaining how things have actually panned out.

“The coal merger has been an outstanding success. Merger is always a risky business and of course we had our worries and doubts. But we have proved our critics wrong.” Those critics now say it is hard for them to judge how things have worked out, but Greenwood's version of events corresponds with the view of British Coal's head of legal, Philip Hutchinson, who says he has been happy with the relationship. “One of the most pleasing things is the way the situation has worked so well with our external lawyers,” says Hutchinson.

Greenwood pays tribute to the “outstanding” team of in-house lawyers who formed the bedrock of the new office which opened in Doncaster in May 1990.

Seventeen of BCC's 75 solicitors were appointed as equity partners at the firm while 10 of the 14 partners now in the office were also recruited from the coal corporation.

So is the great cultural divide between the employed sector and private practice no more than a myth?

“No, but the idea that people do not change is nothing but a myth,” affirms Greenwood.

The former in-house lawyers have flourished in the new environment and have become some of the firm's biggest client-pullers.

In some of the departments in Doncaster, British Coal accounts for only 60 per cent of the workload and the proportion is steadily decreasing. Winning the Railtrack litigation contract in the north is a further demonstration of how the firm is expanding.

But coal remains an important staple for Nabarros, which will have to prove its mettle when privatisation finally comes to fruition.

There is no guarantee that the new owners will instruct the firm and Nabarros may be forced to bid for work. Among potential new clients will be the Coal Authority, which will be dealing with outstanding matters such as the liabilities which are not being passed on to purchasers.

But Greenwood remains confident and does not envisage that Nabarros will lose any business.

“We have the skills but it will be a case of selling them to different clients. Although we will be in competition for the work we know we have a pretty good chance of winning the business,” he says.