The Leader Column

You may think journos love a good bit of bad news. But events at Morgan Cole induce more than a pang of sympathy for its lawyers as the cracks in their firm deepen.

There have been some positive developments of late – the firm gained a role advising the ex-employees of ITV Digital. But the bad news has been coming thicker and faster for the firm born out of the 1998 merger of Welsh giant Morgan Bruce and Oxford-based Cole & Cole. That deal had a compelling logic. Morgan Bruce was the largest firm in Wales and had a London outpost. Cole & Cole was identified by chief executive David Main as the firm to bridge the gap between Wales and London. The fact that the insurance market was demanding critical mass and geographical spread helped make the case.

In 1999, the partnership reached a total of 104 following its (now defunct) tie-up with Fishburn Boxer. But well in excess of 40 partners have left Morgan Cole since its inception. Subsequent hires and promotions have produced a partnership of 76, still a shadow of its former self.

Some departures were instigated by the firm to try to raise profitability, but many should not have been lost. They include former Cole & Cole ‘stars’ who were dangled under Morgan Bruce’s nose in the run-up to the deal. Among them are corporate rainmaker Joe Pillman, who quit for Brobeck, employment specialist Sue Ashtiany, now at Nabarros, and most recently, major insurance name Iain Tenquist, who resurfaced at Keoghs. Hardly a vote of confidence when your VIP guests don’t want to stay at the party.

There are various explanations. Last year’s profits per partner stood at a disappointing £135,000, after an increase in profits of 10 per cent. This was exactly the same figure Morgan Bruce hit in 1998, while Cole & Cole’s average profits per partner stood slightly lower at £110,000. Those stars who have quit the firm are not the only ones to have lost confidence in the management’s ability to effectively address the issue. A recurring criticism is the lack of integration that has followed the merger mania. London insurance practice Fishburn Boxer, which demerged from Morgan Cole a fortnight ago, being the most obvious example.

Whether the merged firm’s management has developed the necessary skills to look after a firm of Morgan Cole’s size and diversity is a question that must now be asked by its remaining partners. Even more fundamental is the issue of whether Morgan Cole’s geographical spread remains a viable marketing tool for the firm’s future. Left alone these cracks risk leaving Morgan Cole a broken firm.