Last year, corporate departments emerged as the number one fan of private equity. But charming the venture capitalists was not everyone’s corporate strategy. Hammond Suddards Edge had a great year and it had nothing whatsoever to do with private equity. The firm hauled itself into Thomson Financial’s UK M&A top 25 for the first time by focusing on mid-cap corporate M&A work.

When Hammond Suddards and Edge Ellison merged in summer 2000, Edge Ellison was outnumbered in terms of corporate partners, contributing just 12 to the 30-strong merged department. As the dominant partner in the merger, Hammonds at that time had a reputation as regional private equity powerhouse. The smaller Birmingham firm was known for its less glamorous mid-cap corporate M&A clients.

A casual observer would have expected the merged firm to follow the path of the majority. Hammonds senior partner-elect Richard Burns reinforced this presumption when he told The Lawyer in June 2000 that his long-term goal was to emulate the reputation of Macfarlanes, a firm with a fantastic private equity client stable. What Hammonds actually did was to change tack and focus on a gap in the market.

Hammonds had a great year and it had nothing whatsoever to do with private equity

It took the Edge Ellison list of corporates, which included WPP and Hazlewood Foods, added its own well-respected corporate client list and then built from there. Now Hamm-onds has an excellent corporate finance practice, which is genuinely making headway in the second tier. But in terms of the split, 20 per cent of the work comes from its AIM practice, just 15 per cent from private equity and a whopping 65 per cent is M&A for mid-sized corporates.

The firm still has high-calibre private equity clients including Abbey National and Royal Bank Private Equity, not to mention regional private equity stars such as David Bayliss. That said, there won’t be anything there to trouble Macfarlanes. Hammonds has also fared well with what little AIM work there was around, bagging a record number of AIM listings. But AIM is a niche market and the profits are never going to feed all the mouths at such a big firm.

In 2001 when the big deals fell off, a few second-tier firms, including Hammonds, successfully targeted what was around. This work tended to be medium ticket. It is not rocket science to say that a listed, mid-sized corporation does not need a magic circle firm to do a straightforward acquisition. If you need a dual-listed company structure you call Linklaters. If you want to break up a merger between P&O Princess and Royal Caribbean, you call Herbert Smith. But if you are Jabil Circuit and you want to do a straightforward acquisition of Marconi’s Coventry and Leeds businesses, there’s more than enough talented lawyers at Hammonds to do the deal for you.

Being a national firm undoubtedly helped Hammonds buck the trend and increase the value of its deals from $4.1bn (£2.87bn) in 2000 to $5.7bn (£4bn) in 2001. And Eversheds also fared well last year, boosting its ranking to seventeenth in the Thomson Financial tables. For corporates based in the regions and for foreign direct investors setting up outside London, the attraction of a full service national firm is obvious, particularly if the company has only a small in-house legal team. However, Hammonds’ Yorkshire rival DLA’s drop in rank proved that mere regional presence is not enough.

It is still easy to see why everyone wants to be a private equity lawyer. Quite apart from the current economic climate, it is a glamour job for which only genuine movers and shakers need apply. But last month Hammonds was called in by a FTSE top-50 company to bid for the role of primary corporate adviser. So, targeting the heartland of mid-cap corporates can have its benefits, even though the clients don’t make such good conversation pieces at parties.