Brief encounter: Cobbetts

It may not shout about its success, but Cobbetts is doing well

In the noisy, competitive Manchester marketplace, Cobbetts is conspicuous by its quiet conscientiousness. While competitors trumpet every deal from the rooftops, Cobbetts keeps its head down and ploughs on with the next job. Its lower profile is deceptive. As one of the oldest firms in Manchester, it is a hard-nosed veteran of the North West legal market, and one of the few independent Manchester firms to have remained at the top as the national firms moved in and upped the competition stakes.
Managing partner Michael Shaw puts it down to “an element of self-effacement and the natural style of the people here”. He adds: “There's also a degree of self-assuredness and self-awareness. We're focused on what we're doing and more concerned with getting on with that and how we actually run the business.”
Cobbetts' relatively conservative image belies an innovative firm. In July, it introduced a firm-wide bonus system (excepting equity partners), focusing on firm and team financial targets, giving all staff a direct share in its growth. It is not the first time the firm has shared its success with the employees. Fee income last year increased 13.8 per cent to £15.7m, up from £13.8m. The budgeted target was £15.25m and the firm celebrated by handing out bonus payments to staff, from £600 for support staff to £3,000 for salaried partners.
Shaw says: “A lot of the PR generated by law firms is quite false because it's for their own ego-soothing.”
Unusually for a lawyer, let alone the managing partner of a top 100 firm, he took the risk of putting his money where his mouth was by pulling out of the Legal 500 and announcing a review of the firm's policy on the Chambers & Partners directory at the same time. “Who reads them at the end of the day? The vast majority of clients think it's a load of old cobblers,” he says.

“Who reads directories at the end of the day? The vast majority of clients think it's a load of old cobblers”
Michael Shaw, Cobbetts

Known particularly as a property practice, the firm was appointed legal adviser to the Cooperative Union in June, and capped a 15-year relationship with Whitbreads by being part of a panel of firms that advised the brewer on the £1.6bn sale of its entire 3,000-pub portfolio. The property department at the firm is one of the largest in Manchester, comprising some 22 partners and a further 36 fee-earners. Headed by Stephen Benson, the department was boosted earlier this year with the recruitment of commercial property partner Anne Quirk from Beachcroft Wansbroughs.
It is not all property though. “Over the years we've had this reputation as being a commercial property pump room, but we've reduced our reliance on it,” says Shaw. “Although we've kept growing that business, we've also grown the other parts selectively so that property has gone from accounting for more than 50 per cent of turnover to around 33 or 34 per cent.”
In July, Cobbetts' media team was instructed by long-term client the Manchester Evening News to advise on its alleged breach of the injunction protecting the identities of the killers of James Bulger, while the corporate team acted on the £14m management buyout of Kingsland Wines and Spirits in March.
Unlike some competitors, a flick through the legal news archives shows very few partners leaving Cobbetts, and only the occasional lateral hire. Apart from Quirk, a key recent recruit was Berrymans Lace Mawer partner Russell Jarvis, brought in to head a PFI team within the banking department.
Shaw believes that the firm's attitude to its staff is the foundation of its success. “You should treat people with respect, treat them all as intelligent people whether they're support staff in the general office or a lawyer. That starting point of innate deceny is the key strength here.”