Alec Craig is in the middle of telling me how Halliwell Landau is going from strength to strength, when he stops and, looking over my shoulder, whispers: “He’s broken the leg off a chair… he’s fixed it now.”
Earlier, we had been discussing some of his Manchester rivals, when from behind me comes a booming “fat old [noun deleted so as not to offend our readership] – that’s what they’ll put on my gravestone”.
It has to be one of the most surreal interviews I have ever done. Sitting in the foyer of Berners Hotel, just off Oxford Street, interviewing the senior partner of Halliwells, while comedian Rik Mayall is himself being interviewed one table away. Being a loud and wacky guy, Mayall is living up to his persona, encouraged by an interviewer who laughs uproariously at every anecdote he
Of course, it was all an elaborate plot on my behalf to show the lawyer from Manchester how glamorous it is living in London, mixing with the rich and famous. But then again, Craig lives in Alderley Edge, home to golden couple du jour Posh ‘n’ Becks.
But away from showbiz, Craig’s firm is doing quite well at the moment, with growth up by 20 per cent to £26.35m, and with the acquisition of Manchester-based leisure and retail practice of Liverpool firm Weightmans. Before all the City types, with their turnovers in the hundreds of millions, start scoffing, just remember that five years ago the firm’s turnover was only £6.3m.
It is a relentless history of growth that has gained the firm a reputation in Manchester for being ruthless and aggressive, but Craig denies that this is the case, preferring to call the firm “ambitious”. But the firm’s reputation cannot have been helped by the series of departures following Craig’s appointment as senior partner.
Craig took up the post last September, taking over from Roger Lancaster. Manchester gossip has it that Halliwells had grown too big for Lancaster to handle, so Craig stepped into his shoes and the firm created a new position of managing partner for litigator Paul Thomas. A new financial director has also joined the fold.
“If your firm makes widgets, then the managing director and management don’t make the widgets, so we needed other people who did other things than practise law,” explains Craig. “We’ve grown fast over the past few years and we now have to manage that growth.”
Since the management reshuffle, client care has been toughened up. “It’s things such as making sure assistants return phone calls and don’t just ignore them,” says Craig. There then followed a series of high-profile departures, including the head of the London office Peter Richardson who left for Beachcroft Wansbroughs, and head of insolvency Andrew Livesey going to Blackburn firm Taylors.
Many close to the firm blamed the departures on Halliwells’ tight equity. Craig believes that while this may have been true historically, now the equity is relatively open – the recently-recruited Weightmans partners joined as equity partners and five more were made up to equity in the last round of partner promotions. Besides, some of the departures came from the equity ranks.
“One or two people that we’ve lost are people that we wouldn’t have wanted to lose,” said Craig. “Some of that period was about getting to grips with things that we should have got a grip on earlier, but we wouldn’t want anyone to leave now.”
Craig says that the time has come to bed things down and make decisions about the future. One of the matters under discussion is what to do in London. The firm has a small office of “twenty-ish” lawyers, with corporate partner Clive Garston spending around three days a week as head of the office.
Craig puts the firm’s success to date down to a willingness to take risks. “If we’ve ever seen anyone with any talent who is interested in joining us, then we take them on and take a risk. The strength of our practice is the individual lawyers, and the partners are just fantastic.”
He adds that the past couple of years have been great for lawyers and that if any firm has not done well it should think of getting out of the game. He is also a bit bemused as to why people are so interested in Halliwells, which is quite a refreshing take from a senior partner. But then, he is not one to beat around the bush. Admittedly, a lot of his comments are off the record, so I am duty-bound not to share them with you, dear reader, but some of them would make the average stuffy lawyer blush. For example, after years of regional firms claiming to be as good as City practices, he rocks the boat by stating that he does not believe a purely regional firm is possible, given that the funding for corporate deals by and large emanates from the capital. He says that the choice for the firm is between continuing its organic growth or looking for a London merger partner. However, being taken over is not an option.
“We’ve talked to one or two firms but they’re not as interesting as us,” says Craig bluntly. “We got off to a slowish start with the [London] office, which is what we wanted. The reason we opened it is because if you want to be a major player and to get on some of the panels, they [those choosing the panels] want you to have a London presence.”
Craig says that the current strategy is not to follow the lead of the likes of DLA and reinvent the firm from being a regional firm with a City presence, to a City firm with regional coverage, but he is ruling nothing out for the future. He also blows one persistant rumour out of the water – that his firm is poised to take on Garretts’ Manchester practice. In January, the firm took on construction litigation partner David Rogers, but Craig says that he has not talked to any other lawyers at the practice.
Where Halliwells has grown strongly, Garretts has struggled – five years after its opening the office, Garretts has only around 40 lawyers – a fair few short of its target of 350. Ironically, Manchester sources say that Craig was approached by Garretts to head the office.
So, where does Craig think that Garretts went wrong? “With people who’ve tried to set up a corporate practice [in Manchester], it hasn’t really worked,” he says. “You need to get one big-name leader and then younger lawyers will follow.” Presumably, given Craig’s statement on snapping up talent where he can find it, he might be open to providing a home to any gifted Garretts lawyers, should any show an interest.
He ends the conversation with a shrug. “There’s no magic behind Halliwell Landau,” he says, “we’re just a bunch of good people who’ve gelled together.”
With that we leave Mayall and interviewer to their hilarious anecdotes and furniture wrecking.