Two-way exchange

Taking the fight down to the English, is how one Scottish solicitor describes the growth and development of work for some commercial firms in Scotland.

More specifically the growth has been reflected in Glasgow-based firm McGrigor Donald's emergence as Scotland's largest firm, overtaking Edinburgh-based firm Dundas & Wilson.

McGrigors managing partner Niall Scott says this was not a deliberate move: “Although we may be the largest Scottish firm, there is still a great feeling of urgency in the firm and we are not in any way complacent about the extent of the challenges we face.”

North of the border, with practices closer in size, firms deny there is competition for the title of largest practice. Most simply aspire to be the best rather than the largest.

But being among the largest firms is not necessarily an advantage; one partner says his firm was instructed precisely because it was not in the Top 30, although this is the exception rather than the rule.

And the competition is not restricted to Scotland. The figures for new issues for 1994 in accountants KPMG's corporate finance section show that Scottish firms, including Shepherd & Wedderburn, Dundas & Wilson, McGrigors and Maclay Murray & Spens, are well-placed to advise in major flotations. The search for new markets is UK-wide, and Scotland is quite capable of competing with the City and the UK's larger firms. And although the commercial sector has seen an upsurge in activity, many firms seem to be experiencing the tail end of the joint venture boom that blossomed during the recession.

Managing partner at Maclay Murray & Spens Michael Walker says the last three months for the firm have been frenetic deals wise. But he considers it is too easy to leap on the back of the new initiatives, such as PFI. Although the rail and nuclear privatisations keep lawyers occupied, he stresses the importance of maintaining links with established clients and looking for opportunities to advise in specialised areas where clients may not have instructed solicitors in the past.

Eric Galbraith, head of corporate at commercial firm Dorman Jeffrey & Co, agrees that Scottish firms are seeing an increase in work but adds: “There is no point in talking up a stalled recovery. Activity has been patchy in the sense that regular 'sound' transactions are still happening but the underbelly of less attractive deals are being shelved. This does not seem to be for want of fresh capital, simply a wait and see approach, which is a hangover from the late 1980s.”

The London market has been where Scottish firms have

either blossomed or are still trying to make an impact. The first Scottish firm to establish a presence in London was Dickson Minto in 1986, and it now splits its fee earners almost equally between London and Edinburgh. The firm is now sometimes seen more as a London player, which may partly explain its involvement in five of the nine largest UK management buy-outs. Partner Roddy Bruce admits “the firm grew rapidly at the outset, reflecting the work coming in, and all the indications are that this growth will continue at a steady if not spectacular rate”.

The major players have all indicated they have either increased in fee earner size or will be actively recruiting to service existing clients and cater for new business.

McGrigors managing partner says business in London is the main target for growth, and he envisages the firm's business doubling in three years.

But the movement is not all one way. With the recognition that there is an overall shortage of two to three-year qualified solicitors UK-wide, recruiters from the Top 20 firms south of the border have recently been visiting Scotland in search of quality candidates.

And Frasia Wright, manager at recruitment consultancy ASA International, notes that within Scotland the trends are not unlike those south of the border, with a greater degree of specialisation, particularly in the pensions, employment and banking sectors.

Wright also identifies that newly-qualified solicitors are more proactive, recognising they will not automatically be retained on qualifying. At partner level there is growing activity involving heavyweights who bring an established client base although its value can be difficult to quantify because clients do not always move with the partner.

The trends in Scotland appear to be a microcosm of those south of the border – with a smaller population, any developments tend to be more obvious in effect. Although Scotland did not suffer in the recession to the extent of the South East, lessons can be learned by looking south.