It was suggested recently in this column (5 April) that national law firms are dogs that have had their day.
The truth is that large national law firms have, in the past 10 years, increased their profile, profitability, size, quality client base and reputation in a way that challenges all but the very largest City firms. Only one or two regional firms which have not adopted a national strategy have been able to do this and even then they have been less successful than the major national players. My own firm last year increased the number of FTSE 100 companies for which it acts more than any law firm other than three of the top five City firms – hardly an indicator of an old dog!
What about the argument that national firms are expensive to run? Undoubtedly there is some duplication of overheads. One of the challenges in managing a national firm is to reduce duplication to the minimum commensurate with providing a seamless service. But there is no evidence to suggest that it is any more expensive for law firms to manage multi-site operations than it is to provide legal services from one location to clients spread throughout the UK.
Clients do not want to have to reinstruct lawyers from one office when they have already briefed another: precisely the concern clients expressed when large law firms became increasingly specialised. Again, I can see no evidence that large single-site offices are any better at providing a seamless service across their departments than large multi-site firms.
Quentin Poole suggested it is hard to develop a shared culture if your people "have never met". Any national law firm that operates without encouraging its people to meet regularly and at all levels is doomed to failure; but which national law firm doesn't do this and how many large regional firms have cross departmental meetings other than their annual Christmas party?
Poole's conclusion that "very few big ticket clients actually want geographical spread" is not supported by our research and experience or, indeed, common sense. My firm will not be alone in having won prestigious national clients because of its geographic spread and capability. It was precisely the remoteness displayed by large City firms that gave national firms an opportunity to increase their market share at the top end.
More worrying for a large regional firm is its ability to expand internationally. The great majority of international work emanates from or goes to London. Increasingly top quality legal work has an international element. However clever you are at marketing, it won't cover up a lack of ability to undertake major international work.
Regional law firms will be fishing for legal work in a smaller and smaller pool and that is no way to keep your best lawyers.