Firm profile: Underwood & Co

“Our clients like to have significant partner involvement,” says Peter Hughes, managing partner of West End firm Underwood & Co. “We find that as a relatively small firm, clients want to know who they’re dealing with. But at the same time, we aim to make sure that clients are introduced to assistants and get to know them – too high a partner profile can be demotivating to staff.”

It is a sensible, pragmatic approach that has stood Underwoods in good stead since it merged with Corbould Rigby & Co in 1998. Hughes was one of the two lawyers at the helm at Corbould Rigby, and has relished taking on the role of managing partner at Underwoods. He has been instrumental in cultivating a modern office environment that has seen Underwoods’ turnover grow from £2.5m five years ago to a healthy £4m. “We discourage a ‘long hours for the sake of it’ culture,” he says. “We try to build a good team atmosphere.”

The firm, which specialises in property, commercial matters and litigation, has some top-drawer clients, although it has an unusual niche too. “We handle a lot of work for dentists buying and selling their practices,” says Hughes, who adds that the firm is looking to expand and to develop its existing expertise in the health care and hotel sectors.

The merger with Corbould Rigby saw a commitment to focus on key areas, with clients such as Knight Frank. “A good example of our work has been advising Knight Frank in connection with setting up and transferring its business to a limited liability partnership [LLP],” says Hughes. Knight Frank’s changeover took effect on 1 December 2003. Hughes says: “It’s been a substantial project over a period of many months, where detailed knowledge of the client’s business gained over many years acting for them has been invaluable.”

Underwoods may even undergo its own LLP learning curve. “We’re considering converting to LLP status,” says Hughes. “It is potentially an easier way of ensuring that lawyers have a stake in the business than the traditional method of partnership.”

Meanwhile, there has been some significant litigation for the Bank of Scotland. “We acted in the Bank of Scotland v Bennett case, one of a representative series of cases known collectively as Royal Bank of Scotland v Etridge, which were finally determined in the House of Lords,” says Hughes. “These were landmark decisions that dealt with the legal position of a wife or partner in relation to a legal charge granted over their home or a guarantee granted by the wife or partner.” Another high-profile case for Bank of Scotland was heard by the Court of Appeal in 2001 and dealt with “issues of critical importance to financial institutions in connection with the ‘tipping off’ offence”.

As well as banking, Underwoods’ litigation practice focuses on commercial litigation, insolvency and landlord and tenant work. As the firm continues to grow, Hughes anticipates “a move to bigger and better premises”. Meanwhile, he will continue with his sensible, pragmatic approach. As he says, “flexibility is key”.

Underwood & Co
Managing partner Peter Hughes
Turnover £4m
Total number of partners Eight
Total number of solicitors 23
Main practice areas Commercial property, litigation, property finance
Key clients Bank of Scotland, Blue Arrow, Knight Frank
Number of offices One
Location Welbeck Street, London