Lawyers are beating a path to the South West, drawn by the quality of life and the quality of work. As Matt Byrne reports, Bristol may soon be attracting even more players

Writing a feature on the South West without mentioning surfboards is possible, but not easy. Ditto advertising campaigns. Burges Salmon made a brave attempt to project the joys of Bristol by showing the space in the city, but eventually resorted to wetsuits.

The campaign might have done wonders for the image of the South West, but it upset more than a few Bristol-based assistants. The inference was that life is a doss in Bristol. As Bevan Brittan chief executive Stuart Whitfield puts it: “Some recent campaigns by law firms have given the impression that you go to Bristol to downshift. Try asking assistants internally and see how well that goes down.” His firm has just billed a client “the thick end” of £1m for a piece of litigation over the last 12 months. “That’s quality work that would stand up well with anything in the City,” he adds.

“The work-life balance thing is largely rubbish,” sums up one local recruiter. “Lawyers do just as many hours at the top Bristol firms, especially Burges Salmon. I see enough lawyers who are pissed off at the hours there, especially in corporate.” The firm’s managing partner Guy Stobart says that the lawyers in his firm do work hard but it is an urban myth that people work as hard outside London as in City firms. “But if lawyers are ambitious and want good-quality work,” he adds, “then they cannot work nine to five.” Stobart also points out that Burges Salmon’s hourly target for newly qualified lawyers of 1,400 hours drops to 1,300 at three and a half years.

The best of both worlds
The main difference between the leading Bristol firms and those in the City is that the former can marry next-to-zero commuting times and access to the sea and fresh air with top-quality work. Bristol is, after all, capital of the region with the highest UK gross domestic product outside London.

As Giles Boustead at recruitment consultants Michael Page points out: “Lots of lawyers live in Clifton and take a 10-minute stroll to work down the hill.” When there is a hefty deal at the end of that path, it is easy to see the attraction of the place.

Most of the leading firms – Burges Salmon, Osborne Clarke, TLT Solicitors, Bond Pearce and others – make a virtue out of the fact that at least 60 per cent of their work is sourced outside the region. This means larger and higher-quality deals, which in turn means the firms can attract the top (usually City) talent. The recruitment drive is currently the defining characteristic of the Bristol legal market. Many of the leading firms are on a hiring spree to people a comparatively buoyant economy. “Most firms in the region, not just in Bristol, held up pretty well during the downturn,” says Simon Chadwick of recruitment consultants Chadwick Nott. “London firms have suffered far worse.”

It is a similar story at most of the bigger firms in town. TLT, for example, is gunning hard to replace Osborne Clarke as the city’s top firm behind Burges Salmon, while its finance-driven practice is a handy differentiator. Bevan Brittan, newly minted after last year’s official Bevan Ashford split, has taken laterals from Beachcroft Wansbroughs, Pinsent Masons, Tarlo Lyons and Wragge & Co. In total, the firm (in both incarnations) has made 15 lateral hires in two years.

Clarke Willmott has made five partner appointments in Bristol alone since October 2004. These include Louise Brown, the former Bristol managing partner of Laytons (the local office of which has all but imploded), and Simmons & Simmons senior associate Robert Smeath. And Bond Pearce, which opened in the city in 1998 with six lawyers, now has a phenomenal 228 people with 110 lawyers thanks to both merger and recruitment. “We’ve grown hugely in Bristol in a very short space of time,” says managing partner Simon Richardson. “The marketplace has shifted, with clients, particularly institutional banks and insurers, moving their regional bases to Bristol. We needed to be closer to the clients.”

Lateral thinking
It is not all Bristol-based firms. Down the road in Bath, the increasingly commercial but still private client-based Thring Townsend Solicitors has been recruiting assistants from the City, including a number from Bird & Bird and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.

Bristol’s two leading firms, meanwhile, are among the exceptions to the trend. Osborne Clarke is still recovering after its two years of restructuring pain, but is at least recruiting again – and it needs to, what with its swanky new offices to fill. Burges Salmon was never a firm to recruit heavily laterally, but it was the first firm to take on a magic circle partner, in the environmentally friendly shape of energy lawyer Ross Fairley, formerly of Allen & Overy. But laterals still represent less than 10 per cent of the partner population. Both firms, though, are pillars of the Bristol legal community, and unlike new kids on the block such as Bond Pearce they have little need for dramatic and rapid growth.

The result of the growth is that Bristol is on track to become a legal centre of a similar stature to Leeds or Birmingham. Its reputation as the gateway to the South West combined with its location, being within touching distance of London, means this is only going to continue. “The number and size of quality firms that are here now means Bristol has the credibility to pull work and lawyers in from much farther afield,” says Clarke Willmott managing partner David Sedgwick.

The magnet that is Bristol is rumoured to be attracting not just lawyers in search of an improved quality of life, but also a new major player.

The still relatively small size of the market and the dominance of the current players would make it difficult for any new entrant, unless it was via a takeover with a ready-made book of work. But the growth of firms such as Bond Pearce and the refocusing of the likes of Clarke Willmott suggest that there is room yet for more competition in the South West.