Storming the Pennines

Leeds firms have revolutionised the legal market in the North of England, both at home and more recently in extending their influence across the Pennines into Manchester

Almost all the major national firms, several with origins in Leeds, now have a presence in both cities, leading to speculation on the convergence of the two markets, creating one ‘Northern’ market reaching from North Staffordshire to the Scottish borders.

Pinsent Curtis Biddle was the last of the nationals to follow the dual-centre approach, opening with seven partners in Manchester in January, poaching several banking partners from Chaffe Street in the process. Pinsents head of corporate Andrew Kerr says: “The accountants, venture capitalists, banks and lawyers tend to be in both Leeds and Manchester now. You’ve got to have quality people on the ground in each location, without doubt.” He goes on to emphasise that two offices does not necessarily mean two teams. Pinsents, like the other national practices, operates single practice area teams, which often cross geographical divides. “It’s a common situation. A Leeds partner runs the deal as that’s where the client contact is, but they are backed up by a team that straddles the Pennines.”

A recent example of the cross-Pennine approach is the £27m disposal of Colonnade Insurance Brokers. A Pinsents team, led by Scott Barraclough in Leeds and supported by lawyers in both offices, advised the vendor; the buyer, Manchester-based Swinton Insurance, was advised by an Eversheds team led by Patrick Rawnsley, supported by both offices. “It’s okay having an office in Leeds and spending a bit of time in Manchester, but it’s much more difficult; and if a client’s looking to instruct you, they feel happier if you’ve got a local presence,” says Kerr.

In May, Cobbetts moved the other way, merging with 18-partner Leeds property firm Read Hind Stewart, acquiring its first non-Manchester office. It now has 22 Leeds partners, having recently made up a banking partner and an employment partner. Managing partner Michael Shaw, currently working from Leeds, attributes the cross-Pennine trend to clients’ expectations. “A key factor is the number of banks, for example, who operate one Northern management structure. If you’re on a banking panel, then you’ll be expected to provide services across the whole of the Northern region. It’s likely that at least some of those services will have to be provided locally. It’s often not as convenient to do it from one location and I don’t think you’d get as much work if you were just in one location.”

It can be done, though. Walker Morris in Leeds has a reputation and reach to match most multi-office firms; and Manch-ester’s Pannone & Partners operates throughout the region from a single full-service office. Walker Morris managing partner Michael Taylor says: “We’ve actually been approached in the past by two separate groups of people asking us to come and take them over in Manchester, and we’ve said no. We’d be happy for them to join us and strengthen our reputation, but we only want to be strengthened in Leeds.”

Taylor argues that a Manchester office would not necessarily bring in more work for the firm. For its work for Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS)/NatWest, for example, he says: “We’d expect to see a significant chunk of work from where the white rose of Yorkshire stands on the M62. We wouldn’t expect them to use us in Lancashire – I think they’d prefer to use a firm in Manchester for that. I don’t think if we were in Manchester it would necessarily change that, because the firms RBS/NatWest uses in Manchester are also in Leeds, but they don’t get the work this side of the Pennines.” The lack of a Manchester office has not prevented the firm from gaining clients in the area, with recent wins including Bolton-based Yates’s Wine Lodge.

Few would argue with the figures. Walker Morris’s turnover last year of £31m, up by 19 per cent on the previous year, is higher than all Manchester offices except that of Addleshaw Booth & Co, which achieved £34.1m in Manchester and £34.3m in Leeds, an increase of 5 and 7 per cent respectively. At DLA, another of the multi-site pioneers, gross fee income in Leeds rose by 20 per cent to £29.3m, with the overall Yorkshire turnover (the firm also has offices in Bradford and Sheffield) up by 14 per cent to £46.8m.

At the end of the day, says Kerr at Pinsents, where the lawyers are based is incidental so long as the client is happy and the instructions come in, whether from across the road or across the country. “We’re a national firm and we run the practice on that basis,” he says. “It doesn’t matter where the work comes in as long as it keeps coming and that we’re getting our fair share of the market.”
Walker Morris would surely agree with that.