Coming off the M4 corridor

Anne Mizzi meets the lead players at Morgan Cole as they look back on a year of upheaval at the firm and forward to shaking off its unsexy branding.

It has been a difficult year for Morgan Cole. The firm is now a bulging 100-partner law firm formed out of successive mergers with practices stretching from London to Cardiff via Oxford.

Its peculiar spread has led to it being dubbed with the less than sexy epithet “M4 corridor firm”.

Twelve months ago, 59-partner south Wales and London firm Morgan Bruce, merged with 35-partner Thames Valley firm Cole & Cole. It then tacked on 12-partner London-based insurance litigation practice Fishburn Boxer in June and, six months on, Morgan Cole is coming out of an internal restructuring as it moves towards winning more blue chip clients.

The merger may not have been in the same league as the international mega-marriages being forged by the top City firms, but this has not made the internal restructuring which followed any easier.

John Cole and David Main, chairman and chief executive respectively, appear calm considering all of the upheavel.

Their firm is emerging from a partnership shake-up which saw a new team of divisional directors and a new chairman, with co-chairmen Guy Clarke and John Moisson replaced by a single chairman in Cole.

The firm has also unveiled a performance-based partnership structure which removes the distinction between junior and senior equity partners.

Main says the two-tier system is being scrapped in favour of a meritocracy.

“We are now rewarding people on the basis of their contribution to the firm. To do this, profit-sharing should be aligned. In the single-tier system rewards need to reflect the totality of what they are putting in, not just their billing,” he says.

Attention has also focused on plans to axe more then 10 per cent of partners, revealed after a series of leaks to The Lawyer over the summer. Now the dust has settled and the restructuring is completed, the firm is adamant that only four heads have rolled. However, it admits that another tranche of partners – it refuses to say how many – have shifted their emphasis from fee-earning responsibilities and been placed in new management roles.

A partner at a rival firm questions whether hiving off four partners is enough to focus the firm in key areas and increase profitability. Partners voted in favour of the proposals, which aimed to increase each partner's profits from £115,000 to £124,000.

The discussion document, written in the summer by chief executive David Main and the then co-chairmen Clarke and Moisson, stated: “If we are going to get close to achieving the goals we have set for ourselves, we need to be parting company with a number of partners. The precise number depends upon further discussions which are taking place at main board level but it is likely to be between 10 and 15.”

A source says the board was forced to backtrack when the proposals were made public. But Main denies this was the reason for the turnaround.

However, some practice areas were never likely to remain within the remit of a firm increasingly looking at blue chip work.

Morgan Cole says it is downsizing its residential conveyancing and matrimonial departments.

Former Cole & Cole matrimonial partners Kirsten Smith and Richard Rouse are leaving to set up an independent legal aid practice, Oxford Law Group.

Smith says her group, with its focus on private client and legal aid work, was increasingly “isolated and marginalised” after the firm's rapid growth and decision to go corporate.

But she insists: “My decision to go had nothing to do with the restructuring. It was an ideological break.”

And Barbara Simpson, the firm's Oxford-based head of family law, is taking her private client practice to Boodle Hatfield.

The fourth partner to go has yet to secure a new destination. It is likely to be a residential conveyancing specialist, although Main refuses to confirm this.

Surviving practices are, in contrast, seen as growth opportunities. These include industry sectors such as energy, insurance litigation and employment. It is the new divisional directors who are charged with their development.

The directors of the five divisions won their places on the board, which includes the chief executive and human resources director, through a combination of interview and election – the selection was dependent on the endorsement of the partners within the particular division.

After the merger, the firm identified partner support as a key area for reform. So more assistants are being recruited to increase the assistant to partner ratio, and Morgan Cole is also introducing flexible working methods to encourage more delegation of non-legal work.

Main is not a practising lawyer. He joined Morgan Bruce with a business development and accountancy background in 1997. While some law firms, such as Berwin Leighton and DJ Freeman, experimented with the idea of a non-lawyer few have stuck to their guns. By way of explanation for the move, he says: “It seemed to me that the world of law firms was going to go through the massive changes that accountancy firms have seen.

“One of the things that comes out of these practice development activities is the broadening of the client base. We are freeing up partner time to help practice development.”

Cole says: “You have to make sure the right people are doing the right job. If they can generate a lot more work in a different role then it makes sense.”

The firm is also planning to appoint a partner to oversee the implementation of the firm's internal information technology.

Main says the restructuring process has come to a close. But he has not ruled out any further departures.

Main admits: “Partners will retire, and occasionally partners will decide their futures lie elsewhere.”

Part of the plan is to remove more partners from fee-earning work.

He says: “We have talked to a number of partners about the role they will have within the firm. For some it will mean an emphasis on other areas of the business like practice development.”

Cole insists that rather than making cuts, the firm is trying to expand.

The M4 branding looks likely to be the last casualty of the restructuring. Main admits: “We will look at it over time. The 'M4 corridor firm' was quite important to get a message across. It was correcting a misconception that Morgan Bruce was just a Welsh firm when it was a south Wales and London firm.

“Where it fell down is it is a fairly broad corridor to take in the clients we service, both to the north and south of the M4. At some stage we might look at another description and branding. It doesn't fully reflect the ambitions we have for the firm.”