Reading firm Pitmans surprised observers last month when it recruited planning expert Alan Ledler from the Greater London Authority (GLA), a client that Pitmans has been handling an increasing amount of work for.
This followed criticism of London Mayor Ken Livingstone after the GLA ran up legal costs in excess of £36,000 with Pitmans, in relation to a single planning hearing. Defenders of the mayor pointed out that the figure could easily have been higher if the GLA had instructed a London-based firm and, in any case, Pitmans has a good reputation for its planning work.
The firm's strongest suit is commercial property, which would worry many a firm in the current economic climate. But managing partner Christopher Avery says that while market conditions have had some negative impact, with some property deals not coming off, Pitmans is hoping to grow this practice area in 2003, thanks to its strong client portfolio of residential house builders.
The firm represents some of the largest house builders in the country, including Barratt Homes, Barclay Homes and Wimpey, and by all accounts there is plenty of house building going on. Avery says that there have been fewer new homes built in the past three years than at any other time since the 1920s, and he is confident there is now scope for a lot of work in this area, even if there are not many commercial occupiers looking to move into the Thames Valley right now.
With 16 partners, some of which are salaried, 44 associates and a total of 105 fee-earners, Pitmans is the largest single-office law firm in the Thames Valley area. In addition to property and planning, the firm also handles corporate, commercial and banking work, and commercial litigation. It numbers Fujitsu Siemens and Porsche among its clients and recently acted for Bank of Scotland on a £75m debt and equity funding deal for a property company, and for Madford on a £70m acquisition of five retail parks from MEPC and the subsequent disposal. The firm also has a highly-rated pensions team.
Avery claims Pitmans increased its turnover by 24 per cent in 2002, after year-on-year increases of 20 per cent in each of the past five years, and that the firm achieved 40 per cent profitability in the 2001-02 financial year. While it is hard to disagree with his boast that “not many provincial firms achieve that sort of figure”, it is unfortunate that Pitmans is so coy about its actual turnover, without which, all this is hot air.
Pitmans is now aiming to grow its company/commercial practice in the hope that this will lead to offshoots in other areas, as has been the firm's experience with commercial property. It also plans to grow in other niche areas – it is currently looking to recruit a media finance lawyer – despite some previous setbacks: Avery admits that the firm has taken on partners in some niche areas in the past and “it hasn't worked out”.
Pitmans is tight on overheads and aims to stay a single-office firm. “London is not in the business plan,” he says. He compares Reading to the Birmingham of 20 years ago and predicts significant growth. As for the economy, he is bullish, saying: “A recessionary environment creates opportunities for firms like ours to grow. We recruited strong partners during the last recession.”