Making the pieces fit at Pinsent Curtis?

Pinsent Curtis started 1999 on a high note. In May, head of banking Rhodri Davies joined from regional rival Eversheds. Two months later the firm lured employment lawyer Ashley Norman from Irwin Mitchell.

Not much later, the firm poached Joanna Lawson-King from Birmingham practice Martineau Johnson, the first partner to leave the firm in its 20-year history.

But in the last four months, Pinsent Curtis has lost four partners, including Duncan Murray, who was regarded as the deputy head of banking – although the firm disputes the title – and two assistants.

And last week it underwent further staff changes. This time, however, they were self-imposed. Partners voted on a new management structure and appointed Birmingham's head of tax David Ryan to the freshly-created role of national managing partner. (see news, front page)

Pinsents is keen to promote its reputation as a City firm and the thinking behind the reshuffle is to unite the firm's three regional offices – London, Birmingham and Leeds – under one ethos.

The firm is at pains to dispel speculation that the shake-up was prompted by increasing unrest at all of its offices.

Instead, it points out that it is imperative it has a strong UK position if it is to tackle its European expansion plans successfully.

The firm had already entered merger negotiations with a European practice, German firm Shurmann & Partner. But the talks fell through last month when it emerged that US firm Coudert Brothers was close to signing up the Frankfurt practice.

An insider at Pinsents claims the number of partners near retirement at the Frankfurt practice made the talks too problematic. But he adds that the German market is still very much on the agenda.

Sources close to the firm are still not convinced that there is not more to the restructuring than meets the eye. They claim there is open hostility between the offices and that some national practice groups are incapable of working together.

One ex-partner tells The Lawyer why he decided enough was enough and left the firm for another practice.

“It was not as if I was not looking forward to going to work. It is just when you go elsewhere you realise what you are missing. It is difficult to put your finger on it. It is just a more open and supportive environment here,” he says.

Many believe the reasons for this alleged disunity can be traced back to the creation of the firm. In 1995, Birmingham heavyweight Pinsent & Co merged with one of the top Leeds firms, Simpson Curtis.

The problem was that once these two equals had met, no-one quite knew what to do next. As one commentator explains: “Merging just to become bigger does not actually achieve anything at all. Two and two will make four. Mergers are only worth doing if the deal is going to make five. Neither [original firm] seems to want to give ground.”

As one City lawyer puts it: “What does a very good Leeds firm and a very good Birmingham firm do for one another? Arguably, not a lot.”

One senior Birmingham lawyer at a rival firm agrees that many of Pinsents' problems stem from the initial match. He says: “Leeds was made to feel like a second-class citizen and they therefore had to start shoring up Leeds.”

In 1997, the firm was set to merge with fellow Birmingham giant Edge Ellison, but the talks fell through at the last minute after details of the proposed link-up were leaked to the national press.

But, says the source, while the firm concentrated on strengthening Leeds and developing London, Birmingham started to feel the pinch: “They strengthened up these offices but they ended up with high tensions between the two offices who were fighting for their turf.”

This, he argues, has created “fiefdoms” and “robber barons” right across the practice. A senior partner at a fellow Leeds firm says: “When you are running a national practice, first and foremost you have to encourage the lawyers and make them work as a team.”

This need for cohesive national practices is particularly important if the firm is to transform itself into a City operation.

After the 1995 merger both firms made it clear London was high on their list of priorities. But one partner at a top City outfit believes cracking the Square Mile is not as simple as opening an office.

He says: “Pinsents is light years away from it. The City marketplace is highly competitive and you need some sort of very clear differentiators. It is too easy to say 'City law firms are a lot of fat cats' and come in lean and hungry from the provinces to take the work from them.

“In the long term, if you are going to operate with City rates then you will have City overheads.”

Commentators have also expressed surprise that the firm decided against establishing a presence in the burgeoning Manchester legal market.

A Birmingham source says it would have made sense for a firm created out of dominate practices in the North East and Midlands to look towards Manchester, adding: “All of the major regional players are represented on both sides of the Pennines.”

One Leeds lawyer, whose firm has a Manchester office, adds: “I think Manchester is the fastest growing economy in the UK outside of London and you have just got to get into that market.”

But the City source believes the difficulties involved in cracking Manchester should not be underestimated and understands why Pinsents has not tackled it.

He says: “It is very hard to get into. There really is a hard-core mafia there and it's pretty tough, especially for a couple of gents like Pinsents and Simpsons.”

He believes that part of Pinsents' problem is its people. The restructuring will take the form of appointing a national executive to run a national firm.

As well as the newly-elected national managing partner, the board will consist of finance director Stephen Hancock, a national senior partner and three non-executive elected partners.

But the Birmingham source is dubious. He says: “Elections in law firms are very dangerous things. Lawyers like the status quo and do not like change. They are going to need a really driven, really high-class management team to make this work.”

It is thought that current incumbent Julian Tonks will run uncontested for the role of senior managing partner.

The firm will also be voting this month on the regional managing partners, although two of the three, Birmingham's John Pratt and London's Graeme Brister, are running unopposed.

The only change in the regions will be corporate partner Nigel Kissack, who replaces Leeds head and original Simpson Curtis managing partner Malcolm Lloyd. Lloyd will not be running for re-election although he is not leaving the practice.

The new management structure has its work cut out for it. The firm is focused on two goals, unifying the UK position and then expanding into Europe.

One senior lawyer says: “It has got to be more efficient at pooling the resources across the three offices and you cannot do that unless you have a national cohesive structure that works.

“You need local input and a national overview.

“It is not easy and the difficulties cannot be underestimated.”

But there are signs that the firm is through the worst. Insiders say the atmosphere is picking up in all three offices.

Pinsents was highly rated in the latest Chambers Directory poll of the regions and many fee earners are viewing the elections as a real chance for change.

The firm has also found new premises in the heart of Leeds city centre, where it will move before the end of the year.

A spokesman for Pinsents points out that it is already working as a unified firm, and downplays talk of inter-office rivalry.

He says: “It is a very colligiate atmosphere and partners are pulling together It is fair to say that our partners are ambitious but they also recognise the need to work together.”

Then there is the fact that Pinsents is undoubtedly a profitable firm with a good range of top-drawer clients. In The Lawyer 100, the firm was ranked at 22 with 134 partners.

Its gross fees for 1999 were £52.2m and its clients include Argos, MAFF and Lloyds TSB.

As the Leeds source says: “It is very profitable and at the end of the day, that is really what counts.”

The only thing left to do then is sit back and wait and see if Pinsents can live up to its own standards.

Comings and goings in 1999

September: Nick Cockcroft, former head of private equity at the Birmingham office, leaves after a brief stint at the London office without a position to go to.

August: Corporate partner Geraint Lloyd, who has been with the firm for seven years, leaves for Osborne Clarke's venture capital group. Takes clients with him, including Close Brothers and Murray Johnston.

Marina Fariba leaves venture capitalist 3i to join the firm.

Deputy head of banking Duncan Murray – although the firm denies this is his title – leaves the Leeds office to join Nottingham firm Browne Jacobson as head of its banking and insolvency practice.

Two assistants, Louise Duffy and Jonathan Lane, leave the Leeds office for the College of Law and niche IT firm Trevor Robinson & Co respectively.

Former in-house lawyer Matthew Sibley joins the firm's banking team as an associate from Scottish Media Group