Why the world is UK firms' oyster

Why have City law firms done so well? Their success has been due to that of the City's financial institutions, says the City Research Project study, which examines the competitive advantage of the Square Mile's law and accountancy firms. Firms' other strategic advantage has been the asset of English law.

The law firms have succeeded by providing the services that institutions needed and persuading others of the benefits of English contracts and courts. Nobody handed that business to them on a plate. Beating off the US firms in the fight for London's Eurobond market work, which the research report refers to, is a case in point.

Further confirmation of the strengths of the leading firms comes with the International Financial Law Review figures, which show Freshfields and Slaughter and May shooting up the league. The UK now has five firms in the world's top 10 ranked by size.

New Law Society figures show that legal services overseas earned around u500 million for the UK in 1993. The bulk of this will have come from relatively few City firms making the drive overseas. The top players can have a quarter of fee earners based abroad and some are looking to the day when 50 per cent of fees originate from there.

As the research report emphasises, the major competitors are US firms and New York is the rival jurisdiction for international work. In the UK everything must be done to make English law as "competitive" world-wide as possible and the courts in London accessible, easy to use and cost effective.

The seemingly renewed interest in the City as a base for US law firms may signal the next phase in the struggle for international business. But City firms have shown that while they may not initially have been as quick off the mark as some of the competition, the world is their oyster when they choose to make it so.