The Leader column

Oh, puh-lease. When Pinsent Curtis Biddle press-released its merger last week, it all sounded so plausible. Great fit, bolstering London, big push on private equity, blah blah blah. And then Julian Tonks had to go and spoil it all. “We will be able,” he declared, “to compete with the leading firms outside the magic circle.”

Julian, Julian, Julian. Why didn’t you just go the whole hog and say you’re on the verge of bagging the entire FTSE 100? Or poised to dominate in European high-yield?

It is increasingly difficult to enthuse a jaded market nowadays – so much so that each announcement comes with a sweaty whiff of spin-doctoring. There used to be a time when every set of merger talks caught the imagination. The Ashurst Morris Crisp comedy of errors with Latham & Watkins; Clifford Chance‘s stealthy takeover of Rogers & Wells and Pünder Volhard Weber and Axster; the bartering Freshfields had to go through before landing Bruckhaus Westrick Heller Löber – all of them had the essential mix of money, ambition and towering egos. Compared to these, the deals struck by Hammond Suddards Edge and Pinsent Curtis Biddle are prosaic.

Unfortunately for all of them, each set of talks ends up as a five-minute wonder. (Has anyone given a second thought to the Berwin Leighton-Paisner & Co negotiations in the last month? Thought not.) Not only that, but they have to contend with the astoundingly glib assumption that they are part of consolidation in the allegedly overcrowded middle market. In fact, the vast majority of firms from 15 to 50 in The Lawyer 100 Survey 2000 are doing perfectly well, insurance litigation aside. Of course, some will suffer if there is a recession, but that holds for every other business sector in the country. It’s salaries that are unsustainable, not the number of mid-sized law firms.

Still, it would be a nice change to see more of these practices embrace the fact that they’ll never quite be Linklaters & Alliance. Instead of pretending they’re a threat to the big boys, why don’t the mid-sized firms play to their strengths? Some of us would rather have seen Julian Tonks say: “We’ll be able to make pretty good money, do more interesting work – and we’ll still get to see our children.” Now, there’s a radical thought.

Catrin Griffiths, editor