Things can only get better

Law firms in the South East were the hardest hit by the recession, but Simon Rogers discovers that things are improving

The South East is not the homogeneous region of popular imagination. Dominated by London in the centre, it suffered more than any other area in the recession and is only just beginning to pull itself back from the precipice.

This is not an area dominated by large firms, nor is it cohesive. Apart from Oxford and Reading there are no legal centres to speak of. Instead there are numerous good commercial practices dotted across several counties and a few niche practices taking root.

For our purposes, the South East stretches from Kent through Essex, across Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, the bottom of Bucks, Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Sussex. It stretches to Basingstoke in Hampshire but not as far as Southampton and Portsmouth (thus omitting significant practices such as Fareham firm Blake Lapthorn).

In legal terms, this is the wild west – an under-developed region where most lawyers practise from two or three partner firms, and where the conveyancing crash hit hard.

Reading is the nearest thing the South East has to a dynamic legal centre.

Situated 20 minutes from London by train and the first stage post of the M4 and Silicon Valley, commercial firms in the area occupy a hinterland which stretches to the south of Oxford, west to Swindon (and even Bristol, where they clash with practices such as Bevan Ashford) and south to Southampton and Portsmouth.

But the big firms are not that big. None of them feature in The Lawyer's Top 100 and the largest firm, still Pitmans, has only 34 solicitors, with Clarks close behind with 30.

Reading has been fortunate in recent years by taking work from London, as are firms in the North and the Midlands. Has the black hole started working in reverse?

Senior commercial lawyers in the town say their lower overheads and ease of access are tempting corporate clients away from the capital.

A senior commercial partner's quoted rate is around u150 an hour in the town and that is negotiable.

Commercial lawyers in the town see it as a 'third order' centre, after cities such as Bristol or Manchester. Most of the large accountants have offices in the town and banks are within easy distance.

Clarks is recognised as one of the most dynamic practices in the region, although it only has one office. “The people to beat are Clarks,” says an envious competitor. It does much of BMW's work in the UK and partner Christopher Ward says this is a process which is continuing: “We find ourselves gaining medium-sized and larger companies who source work outside London.”

He says some London practices are alienating medium-sized companies (the u2 million -u20 million bracket), which works to the benefit of Reading practices: “Some of the London firms give the impression they're focusing on major clients and international work.”

Pitmans is still the largest practice in Reading but, since the defection of the IP department to Garrett & Co's new Reading MDP, it has been the subject of much speculation. “They're going through a rough patch, which is sad,” says one rival partner. “But it is a good practice and should pull through.” The firm itself sees a bright future and is rebuilding its profile.

Home grown firms such as Blandy & Blandy, Field Seymour Parkes and Brain & Brain are respected – the latter for its civil work.

Boyes Turner & Burrows is well-regarded by the larger firms, even though their paths rarely cross.

The practice is known for its involvement in insolvency, medical negligence and private client work. Partner Bill Gornall-King says local firms have accepted the recession. “There is a feeling that maybe this is the climate in which we have to live, there's no point in waiting for it to get better,” he says.

The town is also the home of a number of branch offices of firms with a regional bias. Northampton practice Shoosmiths & Harrison has a heavyweight presence in the town, as does troubled London practice Turner Kenneth Brown. The firm has had an office in the town for over six years, which partner Tony Bailes says has been a success, particularly in terms of computer law and charity work.

Bailes says the legal market will expand. “It would not surprise me to see other City firms and national firms deciding to open up in the area. I think that would be good – there's plenty of room for more competition,” he says.

But one local lawyer says it is not an easy market to join. “Reading is a hard place to break into if you're coming in from outside,” he says.

Can single office firms compete? Local lawyers ask if they can continue. “There has to be a question mark over the future of the Reading-only based firms,” says one.

Guildford is the home of one of Clyde & Co's few UK offices outside the City.

Work in the town is a healthy mixture of commercial, generated by some of the finance and oil companies in the area, and home counties agricultural.

Guildford's future commercial development is presently the subject of much debate.

Clyde & Co partner Jonathan Wood says the firm has done well in the town. “Clients like to come to Guildford. It's better than traipsing up to City offices,” he says.

For other practices in the town, the situation is slightly more bleak. The local KPMG office is now closed and 3i has moved out, making life difficult for commercial firms, although there is still work from the oil companies and insurance houses which have local bases.

But niche practices still abound. Callaghans is known for its property work, while Charles Russell is known for its matrimonial work. The Head Partnership is well-regarded, as is the Logan Partnership for crime – principal Alistair Logan represented members of 'The Guildford Four'.

The other large firm in the town is Hart Brown & Co, which has five other offices in the county and is known mainly for its private client work.

In Basingstoke, Hampshire, the legal market comprises mainly local medium-sized practices, such as Lamb Brooks. There are also City outposts, such as Amery-Parkes, Penningtons and Fladgate Fielder. Amery-Parkes is in the area because one of its major clients, the Automobile Association, has its headquarters there. A number of other major organisations are also based there, but their legal work tends to be done in London. Esher firm Mundays is also worthy of a mention for its well respected franchising team.