Following a review in April 1998, the number of panel firms has been cut from 90 to just 15 in three years.
While “gatekeeper” firms Kennedys and Weightmans stayed in favour, fellow gatekeeper Trowers & Hamlins was given the thumbs down. Joanne Easterbrook, clinical negligence partner at the firm, says that she is philosophical about the blow, but adds somewhat guardedly: “Of course we were disappointed, but things move on. Inevitably it had an effect on work here, the NHSLA is an attractive client.”
Also disappointed were Crutes, Davies Arnold Cooper, Le Brasseur J Tickle, Mills & Reeve, Scrivenger Seabrook and Beachcroft Wansbroughs, although this last firm was only partially kicked into touch.
Of course there was inevitable fallout from the shake-up. While Beachcroft Wansbroughs' Winchester office remains in favour, the firm closed its Sheffield office, which relied heavily on NHSLA work.
One of the hardest hit by the shake-up was Cambridgeshire-based Scrivenger Seabrook, which reportedly derived 90 per cent of its business from the NHSLA panel. However, despite speculation that the firm's four clinical negligence partners might have to jump ship to survive, all are reportedly still at the firm, which is “doing fine”.
Although one could take the view that it is a firm's own fault if it ends up so reliant on such a large supplier, there is another equally strong argument to say that, when under pressure from this kind of client, other work is bound to be pushed away in deference. Other powerful entities, such as IBM, have policies of only employing suppliers who derive less than a certain amount of their income from their contracts, in order to avoid the fallout should it need to pull its business away.
NHSLA spokesman, David Towns, does not see the need for the NHSLA to take responsibility for the aftermath of its actions, saying: “We would expect firms to diversify their business and we do not force them onto the panel in the first instance.”
Nevertheless, new and surviving panel firms are bolstering their clinical negligence departments to account for an expected increase in work. New panel firm Vizard Oldham, for example, has taken on Le Brasseur J Tickle partner Rena Field, and a team of three healthcare lawyers. Prior to the panel appointment just a tenth of its revenue came from clinical negligence work.
Kennedys has opened a Newmarket office to service its NHSLA contract and has hired two Mills & Reeve partners, John Chapman and John Lapraik, to head the office, along with nine associates from the same firm.
But firms must be aware that when the crunch comes, the NHSLA will show no compunction in getting rid of them.
Explaining the motivation behind the panel review, Towns points out that it is something that every buyer of services should do in order to ensure the best quality performance from its suppliers. The criteria are “quality, then money”, he says. “It's more a review than a tender because we're in the fortunate position that we know what their histories are. This is unlike most tenders, where you can get a brilliant presentation, but you don't know if they're really any good until you employ them.”
Unless it really was poor practice management that swung it on the day, the logic behind his assertions remains underwhelming. As one clinical negligence partner puts it: “Certain firms have been taken off the panel, yet the major fee-earners have moved to firms that have been put on the panel. The only people that have gained seem to be the employment agencies.” Far from heralding an improvement in the way cases are defended, the same lawyer goes on to say: “The only difference I have seen has been a change on the headed paper I receive.”
|The new NHSLA panel|
Barlow Lyde & Gilbert, London