The largest region in England, the South West has a crop of heavyweight law firms. But, asks Alison Laferla, does the region have a definable legal identity?
“As far as we are concerned, Swindon is in London.” This remark, voiced by a Plymouth lawyer, captures the dilemma facing anyone hoping to promote the South West as a region: can such a big geographical area find a cohesive legal identity?
The South West is the largest region in England and Matthew McKaig, regional secretary at the Law Society's South West office, sees it as one of the most diverse.
“If you start in Wiltshire, you have got above-average employment, a prosperous county that includes the rapidly growing town of Swindon, the M4 corridor and is quite close to London.
“Move west to Somerset and you have average employment and prosperity,” he says.
“The further west you go, the more it goes the other way. In Cornwall, unemployment is much higher than the national average.
“Then you have incredible areas of activity like Bristol.”
There are eight law societies in the South West, which for law society purposes includes Monmouthshire in Wales.
In such a vast area, it is not surprising that the region has traditionally presented a far from united front.
Historically, Cornwall has a strong tradition of independence and tongue in cheek remarks from lawyers in Exeter and Plymouth that Bristol is part of the West Midlands are not uncommon. Bath is renowned for its fierce independence – one Bristol lawyer describes it as a sixteenth century Italian city state that does not allow any outsiders in.
And, although Dorset is technically included in the region, local firms say it does not sit there comfortably.
“There are a lot of sheep between us and Exeter or Bristol, but not that many people,” explains Barry Glazier, managing partner of Bournemouth-based Lester Aldridge.
“We look East and North for business and compete locally with Southampton. We don't worry about Bristol, Exeter or Taunton.”
The creation of the South West regional development agency (RDA) in April next year might change all this.
Lawyers believe that the business-led agency will pull cities in the region closer together, as they compete for resources against other regions in the country.
Michael Clarke, chairman of South West firm Clarke Willmott & Clarke and Somerset chairman of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) believes Bristol will lead the way in the region's future development. Clarke has been involved in discussion about the RDA.
“While everybody wants to see the South West region developing as strongly as possible, there is no doubt at all that there needs to be a lead if the South West is to get all the advantages that other regions will be aiming to achieve.
“Bristol is seen as a critically important area in that overall regional development,” he says. “Bristol is without doubt, and with great respect for Exeter and Plymouth, the commercial capital of the South West, and its infrastructure, including legal services, makes it most likely that it will continue to develop strongly in that way,” he adds.
Unlike Cornwall and Devon, Bristol has good rail and road links, as well as its own airport. These days, there is little dispute that Bristol is the leading legal centre in the region.
The city boasts commercial heavyweights Osborne Clarke and Burgess Salmon and in the past few years has seen an influx of other significant firms, such as Bond Pearce and Eversheds, from within and outside the region.
The past year has also been a good one for larger firms in the rest of the region, which are reporting increased growth and profits.
Elsewhere Jane Lister, managing partner of Plymouth firm Foot & Bowden, says the legal marketplace in Plymouth has picked up in recent times.
“There is a great deal more activity in Plymouth than there was. Plymouth suffered in the last recession and was slow in coming out of it. But the growth has been slow but sure and the mood is quite positive.
“Plymouth is the leading city of the peninsula and a force to be reckoned with along with Bristol,” she says.
Like many of the larger firms in the region, Foot & Bowden service clients from all over the country in their niche practice areas. Lister says location is less of an issue these days and the region's lower cost base is a benefit that can be passed on to clients.
Plymouth firm Nash & Co believes developments in IT allow firms in the South West to compete nationally and internationally. Marketing manager Anna Roseen says: “We have created the opportunity to compete with firms all over the world, which shows that being located in the South West is only a liability if you choose to make it one.”
Lester Aldridge, one of the largest law firms in central Southern England, has also adopted a strategy of employing good lawyers in niche practice areas rather than developing a large geographical spread.
Glazier says the firm has no difficulty recruiting good lawyers because of the superb quality of life in the area.
On a local level, he says, Bournemouth is starting to attract major companies such as Chase Manhattan and Abbey Life, and business is good in the marine-related industry, avionics and multimedia. But lawyers doing non-contentious work are more pessimistic then they were a year ago because of a downturn in the economy.
In Exeter the story is much the same, with the larger firms saying their offices are doing well. But much of the South West is rural, and the majority of firms in the region are small one- to six-partner high street practices. For them, the outlook is more mixed.
Sole practitioner Andrew Gregg, the new president of Bristol Law Society, says that behind Bristol's first tier commercial firms is a great raft of highly-regarded specialist smaller firms who are doing very well. “Bristol and the South West is a buzzing area,” he says. “The work is there.”
But Roger Hicks, a partner at Devon and Cornwall firm Stephens & Scown and president of the Association of South Western Law Societies, says high street solicitors in the region are concerned about the future – in particular about indemnity insurance, legal aid contracts and the future of residential conveyancing.
McKaig says that “there are lots of rural firms who are feeling very nervous about what is happening: about SIF, legal aid, conditional fees, general overheads, recruitment, IT and fear of the new”.
He predicts there will be many more mergers in the South West and joint ventures with firms outside the region, and says there might be a growth in lawshop chambers, in which sole practitioners share resources and referrals.
McKaig says many solicitors in the region will have to change to survive. His office runs management courses for solicitors, on topics such as marketing and IT.
A few years ago, the courses suffered from poor attendance. This time round, many of them are oversubscribed. “It is the self-selecting firms, who are selecting for success, who are the really exciting ones,” McKaig says.
One firm which would count itself in this category is Bath-based Withy King. Although long-established in Bath, the firm prides itself on being progressive. Its managing partner, Mike Swift, was among the first set of lawyers to graduate from the Nottingham and Trent University MBA in Legal Practice.
Swift used his MBA project to research potential gaps in the Wiltshire legal marketplace and, as a result of his findings, the firm opened a commercial office in Trowbridge last June.
The firm also has plans to develop a new kind of an express conveyancing service to keep up with changes in the residential conveyancing market. “Clients are not so loyal nowadays,” says Swift. “You have to run your firm as a business and you have to be prepared to change. If you can do that, these are exciting times.”
Swift's positive outlook is generally shared by lawyers in the region at the moment. As one lawyer puts it: “The South West is more resilient than other regions. We never had grants like, for example, the North East did.
“We still developed a successful and diverse economy which is used to weathering the ups and downs and so is less likely to suffer during an economic downturn.”