Corporate immigration work can be the hook that brings in the big clients. Claire Smith reports on a booming sector that City firms ignore at their peril.
Julia Onslow-Cole sits relaxed at her desk, surrounded by bulging files detailing the movements of an enormous range of corporate clients.
A member of the inner circle of the chief executives and managing directors of some of the world's leading businesses, she does not worry about competition from other City firms because, she claims, there is none.
As head of immigration at CMS Cameron McKenna, Onslow-Cole claims to lead the biggest corporate immigration law team in the country.
“There are very, very few firms doing this work,” she says. “We are really regarded as the best – I look behind and there is no one there.”
Last week Camerons poached immigration lawyer Lorraine Forrest from SJ Berwin, and it is understood the move will bring with it some impressive sports clients. Onslow-Cole is looking forward to boosting her practice with the likes of the Football Association and several Premier League football clubs.
She sees this newly-acquired client base as the next big growth area, and says that firms who neglect immigration law do so at their peril. Sorting out work permits for some of the wealthiest football clients in the country will, she hopes, lead to work arranging television rights and other high value deals.
She says: “In our experience cross-selling is very real in this area. We do a lot of applications from the United States where businesses are starting in the UK. We refer clients to the corporate department and the employment department all the time.”
It is an experience shared by Peter Alfandary, partner and head of corporate immigration at London firm Warner Cranston.
He cites the example of his client Time Life, the US publishing company, which brought an eight-year litigation battle to the firm after Alfandary advised it on business immigration.
He says: “As a direct result of my advising one of the company's very senior executives on a business immigration issue, the firm eventually acted for Time Life concerning a series of Henry Moore's sculptures at their building in Bond Street.
“I think it's interesting that a large number of firms really don't perceive it as a useful tool for cross-selling. They don't take a long-term view.”
Simmons & Simmons ditched its immigration practice earlier in the year. The team was snapped up by Kingsley Napley which carries out all Simmons' immigration work on a referral basis.
Simmons' head of employment William Dawson says: “We decided it was not core. If immigration had been a major producer of work we would not have made that decision.”
But leading immigration lawyer Philip Trott of City firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite says: “With an immigration client comes the first permission to work, then they have got to buy a house and sort out client contracts.”
It is not always the case that cross-selling is a success. Trott admits that a number of his clients do not give work to the rest of the firm. He does immigration work for heavyweights such as Cellnet, Shell and EMI, but these high-value clients take other contracts elsewhere.
Onslow-Cole says: “It all depends on having the corporate back-up and the right attitude in the firm. We are really encouraged to cross-sell here, that is as good as billing things of your own.”
As an example she cites the work the firm does for investment bank Investec. Onslow-Cole first brought in the business via a South African immigration contact. The corporate department went on to advise the firm on a number of UK acquisitions, including its take-over of Hambros. Inves-tec has also worked with Camerons on litigation, property, construction, banking and employment law.
“Investec brought the firm hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of work, and I brought that client in,” boasts Onslow-Cole.
However on the whole City firms still ignore the area. Trott says: “The big City firms see immigration work as a bit of a dirty word.
“A lot of people don't like the idea of foreign people sitting in their waiting rooms. I once went for an interview in a big City firm and they made it quite clear they were not interested in immigration.”
Even though City firms ignore immigration work, Camerons is not guaranteed a monopoly. It faces stiff competition from Kingsley Napley – although the firm does not rival Camerons in size (it has three partners and nine assistants working in immigration as opposed to Cameron's one partner and 15 fee-earners), it is regarded by some as having more depth.
Other top practices include London niche firms Magrath & Co and Sturtivant & Co.
However Alfandary says: “As far as the named firms go there are five or six and they are all equal. I don't think any of those is less good than the others. We all know we are all up there in terms of expertise and the only difference is in terms of size.”
Hilary Belchak, now head of immigration at Kingsley Napley, says cross-selling to other departments in the firm is not a big factor, but the department is very busy.
“There are two very different situations,” says Belchak. “You have got the very large firms like Camerons where there are cross-selling opportunities and work generated from within the firm. But most of our referrals come from other law firms, either here or abroad, and we do not pose a threat to them.
“We provide a specialist service which many of the big City firms don't want to get involved with. They would rather refer out the work, and they know we are not going to take the clients from them.”
Kingsley Napley rates some major IT and pharmaceutical companies among its clients, and says the work continues to grow.
Belchak says: “I think immigration work is growing as we become more globalised. There will be more and more people moving around, and more people setting up new businesses.”
But Onslow-Cole does not feel threatened by Kingsley Napley.
She says: “Kingsley Napley is a criminal practice. When Hilary Belchak moved from Simmons & Simmons I picked up a lot of her clients who said they did not want to take their work to a criminal practice.”
Baker & McKenzie also has a highly regarded corporate immigration practice, boosted by assistant Tony Haque, who is seen as a leader in the field. Tax partner Michael Ingle, who is responsible for the immigration practice, says: “Its an area in which we have had a practice for many years, and it has always acted for a lot of multinational companies.
We recognise that immigration is potentially an area which could result in clients being referred to other departments but most of our practice is concerned with existing ones.”
All practitioners in corporate immigration agree that it is a growth area, with a booming UK economy attracting workers and new businesses from across the globe. But problems in legislation and delays at the Home Office are forcing lawyers to take on a campaigning role.
Leading immigration lawyer Jane Mann, a partner at Fox Williams, says delays at the Home Office are causing serious problems.
“We have been unable to get through on the phone, and the new computer system is not going well. There is a feeling that organisation at the Home Office has not kept up with the increasing number of applications.
“There have been a lot of meetings between immigration lawyers and politicians, but progress is yet to be made,” says Mann.
As chair of the Immigration and Nationality committee of the International Bar Association and secretary of Immigration Law Practitioner's Association, Onslow-Cole sees herself as something of a political animal.
She is campaigning to change government legislation to speed up the processing of applications, which, she claims, currently threatens e-commerce start-ups moving into the UK.
Onslow-Cole says: “Businessman applications for work permits can currently take nine months to a year to be decided by the Home Office, and that is a long time in the world of e-commerce, which the Government is trying to attract.
“Over the last few weeks I have been going to numerous meetings with the Home Office, the Department for Trade and Industry and the Department for Education and Employment. They all agree on the issues but it is a question of getting something done.”
Corporate immigration is an area which gives lawyers direct access at a personal level to chief executives and managing directors. Immigration, say proponents of City practices, gives lawyers the chance to build up close relationships with movers and shakers abroad. City firms ignoring the work may find they will be pipped at the post come the e-commerce revolution.