BLP and the unstoppable rise of the mid-size City firm

It was the year when the mid-sized firms got sexy again. When Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) released its 40 per cent profit increase in May 2004, some thought it was a blip. It was not.

By 2004 the magic ­circle was still ahead on ­profitability, but ­international investment and restructures – and the still quiet M&A market – were taking their toll. By contrast, BLP, DLA Piper, Nabarro Nathanson and SJ Berwin all had excellent years, efficiently mining their ­specialist areas. Indeed, to cap it all, BLP won Law Firm of the Year at The Lawyer Awards, as it saw ­partner profit soar by 40 per cent.

The cause of its resurgence was its growth in corporate and finance on AIM in particular, but also on ­quality upper-mid-market ­instructions in finance.

Later that year it would make by far the most significant lateral hire of 2004, luring Clifford Chance’s relationship partner for Canary Wharf Robert MacGregor to become head of real estate. The fact that BLP could attract a quality player – and have the financial wherewithal to do so – was a breakthrough moment for the mid-market.

As BLP motored, so did DLA Piper, which pulled off the world’s first-ever mid-market global merger when it combined with US firm Piper Rudnick Gray Carey (itself a recent amalgam of East and West Coast firms).

The Hutton Inquiry
In February the Hutton Inquiry exonerated the Government over the death of Dr David Kelly, but in general the report baffled many senior lawyers.

Lord Lester QC told The Lawyer: “I’d be surprised if anyone who practises in media or libel law would think that Hutton got it right.”

James Dingemans QC, however, got rave reviews for his performance as senior counsel to the inquiry, for which he and his colleagues at Clifford Chance won Public Sector Team of the Year at The Lawyer Awards, hosted that year by none other than Alastair Campbell.

The best bit of M&A lawyering all year
You want to defend your company from a hostile bid? Call Slaughter and May. The City’s top M&A firm earned all its fees – and then some – through its inspired defence of Marks & Spencer from a £9bn bid by Philip Green.

Slaughters injuncted Green’s lawyers Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer from acting, citing a conflict of interest – a case that would dog Freshfields for three years after the Law Society saw fit to get involved.

Law firms reluctant to sue banks
The Lawyer set off a media frenzy in September when it revealed that anyone wanting to sue one of the UK’s five big banks would have an uphill battled to find a firm willing to take the instruction.

Of the top 30 firms in The Lawyer UK 100 Annual Report, only four would not be forced to turn down an instruction.

The curse of Sarbanes-Oxley
The fallout from the Sarbanes-Oxley Act ­continued well into 2004. EY Law global head Patrick Bignon fell on his sword early in the year, followed shortly by Landwell (allied to PricewaterhouseCoopers) head Gerard Nicolai.

The restructuring at McGrigors following the collapse of its alliance with KPMG continued with a series of partner departures in London.

The richest man at the bar
Gordon Pollock QC became the bar’s highest earner in 2004 after his brief fee on BCCI. The Essex Court silk went on to deliver the longest opening statement in history – 79 court days – on behalf of the liquidators of BCCI.

However, Pollock’s £3m fee was later over-shadowed by the savage criticism he got from Mr Justice Tomlinson on his conduct in the case.

Hi, we’re Google. Fancy investing in us?
Equity for fees never took off much in the UK, but one Californian firm’s foresight in taking on a little technology client called Google paid off in May 2004.

The Lawyer reported that US firm Wilson Sonsini was set to pocket up to $11m (£6.29m) on the float, purely from its original investment in the company.

Judge of the year, but not in a good way
2004 was not a great year for Technology and Construction Court judge Mr Justice Seymour, who found himself overruled by the Court of Appeal twice in two months.

The judge had labelled Vogon International’s claim against the Serious Fraud Office as “dishonest”, but the Court of Appeal said Seymour was “entirely wrong”.

Chrissi Evans,

In November DaimlerChrysler general counsel Chrissi Evans made a forceful point to City firms when she decided that they did not offer value for money.

She ditched Herbert Smith and Richards Butler and in their place hired Pinsents and Shoosmiths. Evans’ move was one of the most high-profile ­examples of general counsel power in 2004.

It was matched only by Cisco Systems, which dispensed with much of its City expertise (and rates), choosing instead a DuPont-style ­relationship with Eversheds.

It chose the national firm from a shortlist that included Baker & ­McKenzie, Clifford Chance, DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary and Herbert Smith.

Ireland became the first country in Europe to ban smoking in places of work
The village of Boscastle in Cornwall was flooded when a month’s worth of rain fell in less than two hours
Bomb explosions across the Spanish city of Madrid killed nearly 200 people and many more were injured
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat dies, aged 75
Greece are the surprise winners of Euro 2004