Oxfordshire's lawyers suffer from the proximity of Reading, the large Northampton and Midlands firms and even Birmingham practices. Perhaps as a result, local firms have created a market which appears separate to the rest of the region. “Oxford is a bit of an island unto itself,” says one Reading lawyer.
The largest Oxford firm is Cole and Cole, whose success is acknowledged by lawyers outside the city.
Partner John Cole says: “The firm has changed quite dramatically over a 10-year period, leaning much more towards being a commercial firm than just a large provincial practice,” he says.
The firm takes a mix of commercial and private client work and now has an office in Reading. One competitor says this has not been a major development. “My perception is that their office in Oxford has been much more successful than the one in Reading,” he says.
But the firm claims a wide spread of clients along the Thames Valley, including a number of well-known corporate finance clients. “Our move to Reading has been a great success and in many ways has provided that link with the big accountants,” says Cole.
Linnells is well-regarded for its broad-based establishment practice, but has suffered recently in company commercial terms. Its office in nearby Witney (run by partners Ken Brooks and Nigel Street) recently declared UDI and set up as Brook Street des Roches.
The market is not big, but firms are recognised in particular areas. Thomas Mallam & Reeves is well known for agricultural work (although it has lost agricultural expert Chris Findlay to Cole and Cole).
Dallas Brett is known for its intellectual property work, while Manches & Co's office is well-regarded in corporate circles.
The bulk of firms in Oxford are small, with two to three partners or sole practitioners. Few of the national firms have regional offices in the city, despite rumours that some firms are considering it as a location. Banbury firm Hancocks recently closed its Oxford office.
Oxford has suffered from the collapse of Austin Rover, although developer Arlington is hoping to build an industrial development on an old Cowley site which should generate 5,000 jobs.
Bedfordshire and Bucks suffer more than Oxford from northern competition, which is perhaps why there are few large commercial firms in the area.
Practices which are mentioned by other lawyers in the area include Bedford's Borneo Martell & Partners, known for its commercial work. The town also has strong general practices such as Gareth Woodfine & Partners and Sharman & Trethewy. Luton's Knowles Benning is also respected.
Local law society president Neil Hickman says firms in the area have suffered in the conveyancing crash. But, he adds: “The majority of the firms in Bedford are not as dominated by conveyancing as one would expect.”
He doubts large law firms are going to move to Bedford. “I don't think Bedford has the clientele to support them.”