Beware a managing partner with too much vision. In its pomp, Halliwells wanted to be a national firm in the DLA Piper mould.
It is now going to be remembered as the most high-profile failure in the UK legal market since Turner Kenneth Brown – an ambitious City mid-market player that overborrowed and had to be taken over by Nabarro in the mid-1990s.
Bad property decisions, in the form of expensive and ill-advised lease commitments, were at the heart of both stories. Halliwells’ obsession with a fancy-pants HQ in Manchester said more about management ego than anything else. It certainly didn’t seem to be governed by what was best for the firm as a whole; the beneficiaries were the 40 equity partners. When Halliwells got a £21m windfall after its Spinningfields property deal, only £5m of that got channelled back into the firm. The rest was divided among the equity partners – 26 of whom have subsequently left. If there were a prize for Most Idiotic Management Move, Halliwells would have walked it.
The Halliwells story will be playing out over the next few weeks as partners and staff ponder their options. One can only hope that Hill Dickinson manages an acquisition that saves as many jobs as possible.
In happy contrast, I’d like to acknowledge the achievements of those shortlisted for Law Firm of the Year in The Lawyer Awards last week.
Particular praise should go to that EC3 thoroughbred Clyde & Co, which was runner-up. The firm has managed what few others have done – successful international expansion without pain, and has managed to maintain its culture. Congratulations too to Watson Farley & Williams, which took the bronze medal and whose extraordinary financial comeback should put it near the top of any US firm’s shopping list. The winner was Berwin Leighton Paisner – the only firm to have won the award twice.
You can read more on pages 4 and 5, but it’s worth pointing out that this award is not made on the basis of PEP and revenues. BLP’s exceptional thoughtfulness and creativity in adapting to a new and challenging market makes it an entirely deserving winner.