In the words of managing partner Elizabeth Taylor, James Chapman & Co has always been an insurance practice – that is, an insurance practice with a rather glamorous sideline. While the insurance practitioners slog away, Maurice Watkins and his sports team grab all the glory.
The firm concentrates on three core areas – professional indemnity, personal injury (PI) and commercial. It is the commercial arm that gives rise to the firm's sports group and its most famous client, Premier League champions Manchester United Football Club. And as its client's popularity reaches global proportions, with dedicated fan bases as far afield as Mali and Malaysia, so too does James Chapman's reputation.
Watkins, the firm's senior partner and a Manchester United director, says: “We'd argue that we're not just North West-based in relation to football work; we're regarded as the football firm from a national and possibly an international perspective.”
Israeli club Maccabi Haifa has instructed the firm to advise on its removal from the Uefa Champions League. The club fielded a player who had still to complete a period of suspension and was duly ousted from the competition.
Watkins has acted for Manchester United for 20 years. He advised on Sky's aborted £1.1bn bid to take over the club. Between the summer break and the autumn start of the new football season, his team completed the UK's biggest signing for the club, advising on the £28.1m move by Juan Sebastian Veron from Italian club Lazio. This instruction followed the firm's earlier work advising the club on signing Holland international Ruud van Nistelrooy for £19m.
With such highly-publicised deals in the bag, it would be easy to peg James Chapman as something of a one-practice-area wonder. But this is far from true and the firm's commitment to the insurance industry should not be underestimated. Insurance litigation in PI and professional negligence accounts for 80 per cent of the firm's annual fee income.
“Clients recognise that a national firm doesn't necessarily guarantee uniform quality of service from every office”
Elizabeth Taylor, James Chapman & Co
“In terms of the service to clients, we've retained our specialisation in a niche area,” says Taylor. “We have strength in depth in the number of fee-earners in each team.” In terms of numbers, PI accounts for more than two-thirds of the firm's 70 fee-earners. James Chapman's PI practice is defendant-led, acting for insurers such as Zurich Commercial and AXA.
“The insurance market over the last five years has become a lot more competitive,” says Taylor. Mergers between insurers, consolidating an already difficult market, have led to fewer clients. Taylor says that, on current evidence, her firm has responded well to the challenge. “James Chapman has held its own,” she says. “One area that's paying off is guaranteeing quality as well as quantity.”
Not that James Chapman has neglected quantity. Rates for insurance work have been squeezed to an extent where bulk work is required to make it cost-effective. The firm offers a claims-handling service for high-volume, low-value claims. It has also made a name for itself in the handling of catastrophic cases. Kevin Finnigan is a recognised expert in this area, recently gaining a place on the Avon/NFU panel for claims in excess of £1m.
Taylor discounts a merger from the firm's plans for future development. James Chapman may be operating in a cut-throat insurance environment, but that will not push it into impromptu links with other firms. She believes that examples of successful law firm mergers are few and far between. “Clients recognise that a national firm doesn't necessarily guarantee uniform quality of service from every office,” she says.
Clients also recognise the appeal of glamour by association – James Chapman's illustrious sports clients are a strong selling point for its other practice areas. “A lot of clients are interested in football; after all, it is the national game. It makes for a good talking point,” observes Watkins.
So that's the clients taken care of. The lawyers benefit instead from a family-friendly attitude, a small, 28-partner firm with its attendant camaraderie and a policy of retaining personnel and organic growth.
Of the future of the firm, Taylor hopes for “consolidation with existing clients and expansion with some new ones.”