The Leader Column

The eight partners of Garretts’ Reading office must be feeling much loved right now. Unused to any attention from the Andersen management, they suddenly had no fewer than four firms fighting for their favour. Charles Russell, Field Fisher Waterhouse, Olswang and Osborne Clarke were involved in a bidding war for Reading all at different stages. First it was Field Fisher and Osborne Clarke, both of which then withdrew, leaving Olswang to fight it out with Charles Russell.
So what on earth was all the fuss about? Well, it’s all about the potential. Turning over approximately £5m (although computing the value of referrals from Andersen led to much debate among the bidding firms), Garretts Reading acts for clients such as Thames Water and Vodafone. Added to which, Garretts partners Gary Henderson, Alison Harrington and Deborah Kent are all reckoned to have the sort of oomph that would endear them to likes of Olswang.
It’s a classic piece of nifty opportunism from Olswang boss Jonathan Goldstein, who pulled off the deal in the space of two weeks after Field Fisher’s exit from the scene. But this won’t be a walk in the park. Olswang, whose progress over the last decade has been a mix of organic growth and piecemeal lateral hiring, now has to wrestle with its first office outside London and all the management hassles that it brings. Goldstein has to integrate two wildly different cultures, although one suspects that the more energetic of the Garretts Reading lawyers will feel rather refreshed by the cold wind blowing from Covent Garden. (Whether they simply get trampled underfoot remains to be seen.)
The Thames Valley is rapidly emerging as a better prospect for London law firms than Cambridge, that other technology honeypot. This is partly because of the mature venture capital and banking communities and partly because of the dozens of corporate headquarters resident there – which means that partner chargeout rates of £350 per hour are not unheard of. After all, it’s no accident that earlier this year Osborne Clarke relocated James Massy-Collier and his team from London to the Reading office to target public company work.
But the Thames Valley is also attractive because – to be frank – the local firms simply don’t have a lock on the big work. Neither Pitmans nor Clarks play in the same league as Osborne Clarke or Olswang. And with Osborne Clarke and Olswang – hardly the best of mates – the competition will be utterly, utterly ferocious. The fun starts here.