Rumour mill of the North East

The opening of the latest Harvey Nichols store in Leeds later this year may attract Absolutely Fabulous' Patsy and Edina, but has the city's affluence brought in work for lawyers?

According to those both within and outside the legal profession, Leeds has managed to ride out the recession rather well. Some insiders say the local market has managed to weather the storm better than the South East, which may be one of its attractions.

Another attraction for the AbFab girls is that the city is a hotbed of rumours. “There are more rumours in Leeds than anywhere else in the north east,” says one partner.

And it was the merger of Leeds firm Simpson Curtis with Birmingham-based Pinsent & Co in May last year that caused the most ripples. Pinsents managing partner in Leeds Andrew Walker says: “The purpose of the merger was to provide a firm with existing legal credentials with a national profile and reputation. We already had the traditional Yorkshire and Midlands client-base, and we are widening that appeal.”

The impact of the merger has been confirmed by the firm's entry at third place in the national top 10 of legal advisers to stock market clients in the latest edition of the Hambro Company Guide.

Pinsents has weathered the loss of five partners and five associates from the then Simpson Curtis in 1994 to Garrett & Co. And three of Pinsents litigation lawyers have recently moved to different firms. Walker says this is the normal level of activity in any legal community.

The firm has a clear strategy. “With offices in Leeds, Birmingham and London, we have broken down the barriers with three offices down the centre of the country,” says Walker.

He adds: “We see ourselves competing increasingly with London firms. There is an increasing tendency for the FTSE 500 companies to have more than one named adviser, usually a national firm and a City firm. Our objective is to be the sole adviser, providing 'City' and day-to-day advice.”

Another north east commercial firm, Walker Morris, succeeded in this when Hull-based financial services company Cattle's (Holdings) switched from City firm Simmons & Simmons to the Leeds practice.

John Winkworth-Smith, a partner at Dibb Lupton Broomhead's Leeds office, thinks this trend will continue. He says: “More and more work is coming to the provinces. There has been more insolvency work. The businesses that are exporting are thriving, the others less so. It means that all businesses in the region have to be lean and fit – if not, look out.”

One of the most recent moves to spark off rumours has been the merger of Sheffield firm Irwin Mitchell with Leeds firm Teeman Levine, which had already established as a niche commercial practice.

Irwin Mitchell partner Howard Culley explains that the firm originally moved into Leeds to do litigation work and expand into corporate business.

“We went into the lion's den when we went into the Leeds market. The recent merger is now settling down – it has been well-received by the clients and the profession,” says Culley.

“Mergers sometimes mean redundancies but in this case we have successfully gone through the initial stage of retaining clients and staff and we are now seeking to recruit with a view to expanding our corporate services in Leeds.”

According to other practitioners in the city it is “too early to say” how much of an impact this merger will have on the local market. One partner of a Leeds firm says he was “surprised” at the move, and wonders what the merger can bring to the marketplace in Leeds in particular, and to Yorkshire and Humberside generally.

He says: “Teeman Levine have a good reputation at the smaller end of the market in Leeds, and the move has given the merged firm a foothold to compete with the others here.”

“The others” include the major players – Booth & Co, Dibbs, Eversheds, Hammond Suddards and Pinsents.

And what about the much-vaunted Arthur Andersen-associated Garrett & Co? An insider warns: “It would be foolish to underestimate the firm's potential – the people they have selected are good operators”. But he adds: “The other law firms are not quite quaking in their boots.”

The Leeds office of Garrett & Co now has 23 fee earners. Managing partner Nick Painter says it is establishing a reputation in competition law and intellectual property, as well as general practice. He says the market is picking up in a number of areas, but admits that the firm is fortunate that it is not solely dependent for work on the 15 square miles around Leeds. The practice has recently forged links with Glasgow firm Dorman Jeffrey.

Painter adds: “My impression is that we are holding our own and doing as many deals. And our recruitment lags behind our aspirations.”

The competition is not just local and with such a crowded 'premier league' of legal players, there is no room for complacency. Some observers have even suggested that Leeds is “over-lawyered”. Booth & Co partner Mark Jones agrees, to an extent. He says: “Leeds is an even more competitive environment than London, which can make it a client's dream.”

On a wider scale, the competition is also lateral across the North – firms like Dibbs, Eversheds and Hammond Suddards all straddle the Pennines and treat the whole region as one market. And recent deals by Yorkshire and Humberside-based businesses – such as FKI, Fenner, and Vector Industries which have targeted and acquired US companies – indicate that corporate activity in the region is buoyant.

Noel Hutton, head of corporate law at Hammond Suddards, agrees that the corporate side has picked up. He says: “With the number of buy-outs on the increase and with so many providers of debt or equity in the region, things are busier than they have been for quite some time.”

Leeds is seen as being on a par with Manchester, and with the high quality of work available, both cities tend to attract and compete for lawyers from London and Birmingham. The same cannot always be said of other cities in the North East.

Despite this, firms such as Read Hind Stewart and its sister firm Carrick Insolvency, Gordons Wright & Wright, Cranswick Watson, and Ford and Warren are considered solid medium-sized practices, and Lee & Priestley in Bradford is also well-regarded

As for other rumours doing the rounds, the city's practices seem to have entered a period where they are happy to wait and see. Booth & Co's Mark Jones says: “There is no real logic in Leeds for mergers. That would just create an exceedingly large fish in a fairly small pond.” But he adds: “Generally, lawyers are going to have to operate ever more like businessmen. That is what is required by the clients – they will ignore it at their peril.”

Like many law firms across the UK, those in the North East are looking to expand in terms of revenue but not necessarily by head count.

The consensus is that they will have to do things ever more efficiently, something they are used to in the North. But they may still have time to save up for the bottle of Bolly.

North east circuit

The lawyer 30 january 199According to the leader of the North East circuit Stephen Williamson QC, the new family court centre in Coverdale House, Leeds, has been given the approval of the family Bar, “so far”.

He explains that the purpose of the new six-court centre, which opened on 2 January, is to have family and other civil cases heard in a less formal forum.

He adds that the local Bar “still awaits with urgent anticipation the appointment of a mercantile judge”. The mercantile court is predicted to open later this year.

One of the most recent moves for the circuit has been the approval of a new constitution, which is an attempt to represent a more business-like approach to circuit responsibilities and “involves what is hoped to be a sharper circuit executive”.

On a more practical level, he adds that he is “still more interested in encouraging people to do more civil and commercial work – criminal practice has its limitations. And the younger Bar are taking that lesson home.”

The circuit junior Simon Reevell agrees. He says: “The days when most commercial and chancery work went to London are numbered. We are looking at Leeds being the second city in legal terms to London.”

Sheffield and Hull

Sheffield and Hull legal practices tend to have very loyal local clients, so much so that one lawyer in Leeds commented that a client in Sheffield or Hull would rather go to London for a lawyer than instruct a Leeds law firm.

In Sheffield, the main players include Irwin Mitchell, which has recently merged with another local firm, Kershaw Tudor, as well as with Teeman Levine in Leeds. The firm is known nationally for its litigation work, but with the recent moves is now building its commercial work.

Managing partner How-ard Culley says: “We are lucky in that we are in quite a heavy growth period, which is going quite satisfactorily on all major fronts, and we are doing that on a stable background.”

It is acknowledged that on the corporate side in this market, Dibb Lupton Broomhead is in the lead.

Dibbs partner Paul Firth says the firm is generally as busy as it has ever been. He adds: “That may also be because Dibbs' business is divided on a specialisation basis rather than a purely locational basis. Historically, commercial work has been about 30 per cent of our work, but there is also banking, insolvency and corporate recovery work and property work.” Firth is pretty bullish, predicting that the firm's fee income will be up about 12 per cent over the year.

Dibbs main rival in this sector is Nabarro Nathanson, which recently set up a National Centre for Law in Industry in its new office in Sheffield under partner Richard Holt.

The other firms in the area are watching Nabarros' moves with interest. One partner says: “It is not a case of what Nabarros have done, but what they will do next.”

Other moves include Wansbroughs Willey Hargrave taking over Oxley & Coward's health practice in Sheffield.

One partner says that his impression “from hearsay is that the smaller firms, as is the case nationally, are finding it tough. In Paradise Square, where there are a number of 'traditional law firms' – these may disappear in the next few years.”

But it is not all negative. Insiders say the general commercial practices such as Wake Smith are seen as doing well and are rated highly, and the recruitment market is fairly stable.

Hull, another 'market unto itself', is dominated by Rollit Farrell & Bladon, with a broad practice covering commercial and private client work. Andrew M Jackson & Co is another strong presence in Hull.