North West best

Gareth Chadwick tracks the development and expansion of the North West firms which, despite threats of recession, are continuing to produce steady growth rates

As the world economy teeters on the edge of recession, the North West's legal market shows definite signs of slowing down. But although growth over the past 12 months may not have been as strong as in previous years, virtually all the major firms are still achieving growth well into double figures.
Davies Wallis Foyster seems to be finally fulfilling its potential, its latest turnover figures increasing 22 per cent on last year on the back of booming corporate finance and human resources departments.
Perhaps surprisingly, Pannone & Partners, best known for its clinical negligence practice, achieved the highest growth rate, with a 35 per cent increase in fee income. Its work on Manchester Airport's acquisition of East Midlands and Bournemouth airports also brought its corporate team some well-deserved attention. “We had a team of people on that across various departments,” says Pannone's head of corporate Soren Tattam. “Corporate/commercial, property and construction were all working flat out. We also did the successful acquisition of Humberside airport for them last year so we had experience in the sector.”
Eversheds has swept all before it in the corporate market. The Manchester-based team won second place in The Lawyer awards for best M&A team and the firm topped the Corpfin deals table for the first quarter of 2001, ahead of Ashurst Morris Crisp and Clifford Chance. Halliwell Landau has been consolidating its corporate reputation too, achieving second spot in the UK IPO table. By way of a celebration, the firm recently announced plans for a £1m refurbishment of its Manchester office. Meanwhile, property powerhouse Cobbetts has kept its head down as usual, letting its growth rate of 14.1 per cent do the talking.
The legal market's growth, kick-started with the arrival of the Leeds firms in the early to mid-1990s, is also bringing sunshine to those firms further down the scale. Chaffe Street, a highly regarded 16-partner firm, does regular work opposite the nationals, recently advising on the £12m management buyout of Coats Viyella after a referral from Eversheds, and has increased its turnover by 61 per cent in three years. Another 16-partner firm, corporate finance specialist Wacks Caller, saw its turnover increase by around 34 per cent last year, profits by 27 per cent and its commercial property team boosted by Elizabeth Mackay, former head of commercial property at Hill Dickinson, and Robert Harries from Clifford Chance. Similarly, litigation specialist Rowe Cohen, with 14 partners, saw its turnover increase by 23 per cent.
By no means a newcomer to the Manchester scene, 14-partner Kuit Steinart Levy has seen its turnover increase by 29 per cent in three years and consistently punches above its weight. Staff numbers rose from 50 to more than 100 over the same period and it recently acted for SSL International on the £46m acquisition of the Hibi range from AstraZeneca. It is also handling the £21m disposal of the Park Royal Hotel, a joint venture between Hanover and Royal Bank of Scotland.
“As the big get bigger, the SME [small and medium-sized enterprises] clients get less important to them, no matter what they say,” argues Robert Levy, executive partner at Kuit Steinart Levy. “Owner-managers by and large want to deal with commercial people at a higher level and they want consistency in who they're dealing with, and that's difficult in a big firm where a corporate partner is on a deal in Manchester one day and the next he's flown down to London and isn't available.”
In contrast to the 92-year-old Kuits, another firm rapidly making a name for itself is Nexus, the largest new law firm to open in Manchester in the last 10 years, founded in July by five heavy-hitting partners: Tony Brook, former head of commercial litigation at Berrymans Lace Mawer; Stephen Isherwood, former head of corporate at Vaudreys (now part of Beachcroft Wansbroughs), Jamie Lloyd, formerly head of corporate at Beachcroft Wansbroughs; Des O'Driscoll, previously head of commercial property at Turner Parkinson, and Chris Pugh, formerly a commercial litigation partner at Berrymans Lace Mawer.
Although the growth of the legal sector in Manchester may not have been as spectacular as in previous years, the strong performance of the region's mid-tier firms is evidence that there's still a long way to go before market saturation is reached.