“This is Manchester Piccadilly, your final station stop. Please ensure you have all your personal items before leaving the train.”

Lawyer 2B is on tour.

Junction of the Bridgewater, Ashton and Rochdale Canals in Castlefield, Manchester.
Junction of the Bridgewater, Ashton and Rochdale Canals in Castlefield, Manchester.

Along with our colleagues on The Lawyer magazine, we tumble on to the platform. We’re up in Manchester for a week. Jonny, the reporter charged with organising the trip and making sure we all get to our different meetings on time, looks hassled already.

The fact that the entire Lawyer crew have hauled their sorry behinds from Euston is telling in itself. London is the centre of the legal world – there’s simply no denying it – but things have been happening in Manchester recently. There have been big changes even since the last time Lawyer 2B headed up this way, in 2013.

Back then, we reported on a city that was clearly doing well. There were plenty of cranes on the horizon, and new firms were arriving on the city’s legal scene – TLT, Mills & Reeve, Freeths, to name but three.

Two-and-a-bit years later, things have stepped up a gear. George Osborne has coined the phrase ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and Manchester is at the centre of it. Efforts to discover what the Northern Powerhouse is, exactly, will become a theme of our week in the city.

As far as the legal market is concerned, things have picked up even more. Some really big players have pitched up in town. Chief among them are the magic circle giant Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, the US big-hitter Latham & Watkins and London stalwart Berwin Leighton Paisner.

They’re certainly not coming for the lovely weather (Manchester is Britain’s fourth-rainiest city). They’re here for cold, hard commercial reasons. Specifically, they want your juicy student brains.

Manchester, in case you didn’t know, has the biggest student population in Europe, with Manchester University, Manchester Metropolitan and Salford within the city limits, plus Bolton, Lancaster, Liverpool and numerous others close by.

There are other reasons too, of course. ‘Northshoring’ is now a thing – law firms can do work more cheaply in the regions than in London and many have picked Manchester as their low-cost base because of that large pool of talented graduates. Freshfields hasn’t needed to use recruitment agencies since arriving, say local sources, because graduates looking to join the firm as paralegals are so abundant.

Second city

Tony Wilson aka Mr Manchester, the pop guru behind Factory Records and the Hacienda, was once asked about what his view was on the age-old question of which is Britain’s second city. “As far as I’m concerned Birmingham and London can fight it out between themselves,” he replied. The response is a typically Mancunian one – “everywhere has regional pride, but there’s no city that believes in itself quite like Manchester,” one local lawyer says.

It is of course, a somewhat tongue in cheek quote. “We can’t compete with London, admits Paul Johnson, a partner at Ward Hadaway. “but we can compete with Munich, Barcelona, Milan, Amsterdam. We should be looking to build on the London and UK brand. That is happening and we are fortunate to have a decent local council who are very pro-business.”

As for the rest? Well, with apologies to Birmingham, Leeds, et cetera, there’s less and less argument these days. There’s no denying that Manchester is pulling ahead.

Greater Manchester’s economy is bigger than Croatia’s. There are more multimillionaires here than anywhere outside London. The professional services firms have set up shop in the city. The BBC relocated many of its operations here a few years back (it now employs about 2,300 people in the city) and tech and media businesses have sprung up around it in the MediaCityUK development. If you were inclined to sneer at the mention of Salford University earlier, don’t – it was formerly the Royal Technical Institute and has an excellent reputation in that field. In short, business is booming and law firms are following the money in order to capitalise on all the commercial activity.

Trainee life

Firms are choosing Manchester – so far, so obvious. What about graduates, then? Why should they pick the charms of the North West over the lure of London?

Crewe-born Alex Kelsall speaks from personal experience. “I went to uni in London,” he says. “I really enjoyed three years of university but by the end of it I didn’t see myself staying in London. I still like going down at the weekend and knowing how to navigate round the Tube – but I also like the fact that I can get on the train home on the Sunday night and return to Manchester!”

Kelsall moved back north, where he worked and did a Masters before picking up a training contract with DWF. Since starting, he’s spent time in the firm’s real estate and finance litigation teams. The sort of work that trainees see in the city’s big commercial firms – DWF, DLA Piper, Eversheds, Pinsent Masons et al – is in practice indistinguishable from what they would get in London, not least because some of it IS London work that’s been shipped up to Manchester. Among the firm’s clients in the North West: The Royal Bank of Scotland; the UK’s largest brewer, Sussex-based Greene King; and Premier Inns owner Whitbread Group.

“In commercial real estate I worked for a pension fund managing the properties within their investment portfolio, and on the disposal of multiple apartments within key developments in Manchester, but relatively small private client stuff as well,” recalls Kelsall. “I was surprised by the varied degree of the size of clients I was working for. It’s nice to be able to get that experience on smaller matters, where you can be effectively managing the transaction albeit under supervision. I didn’t expect so much variety in such a short space of time.”

Kelsall’s trainee colleague Charlotte Hughes, meanwhile, is sitting in the pensions team having just spent six months in construction. There, she helped out on a big adjudication and spent time working on a number of big projects that are ongoing in Manchester. Not that the city is an island. “We do work with the other offices so you get to know people, which is good when you’re in a firm so big,” Hughes says.

The Northern Powerhouse

What’s all this about a Northern Powerhouse, then? We’ve read plenty about it in the press but what does it equate to in practice?

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what the Northern Powerhouse actually means,” says DWF head of local government Michael Mousdale. On one level it’s not much more than a concept, about trying to restructure the whole national economy so there’s more of a focus on the north. “Our shared aim is to transform Northern growth, rebalance the country’s economy and establish the North as a global powerhouse,” says the government in its own statements on the subject. “If you’re looking for real things, it very much fits into the agenda of devolution of local government from central government,” says Mousdale.

Transport is a key part of the whole project. There has been some talk about creating a ‘supercity’ that will join up all the north’s major urban areas and compete with London. “It’s just not going to happen,” Mousdale says. “You can’t move Liverpool and Manchester 25 miles closer together.” What can be done, however, is increased investment in connectivity. “Everyone will tell you that the connectivity between the northern cities is absolutely woeful,” Mousdale says. There are moves afoot to put a serious amount of money into improving the transport links, not just between Liverpool and Manchester, but right across the north of England. “You do start to see what investment like that would do for the economy as a whole.”

Of course, a city is more than infrastructure and transport. There has also been huge investment into the cultural and arts scene here. “Manchester has everything except a beach,” Ian Brown of the Stone Roses once said, and there really is some truth in this. Theatre, nightlife, food, museums, sport – you name it, the city can cater to it in abundance. There may be only a block of flats where famed 90s superclub The Hacienda once stood, but the music scene remains as vibrant as ever. Venues such as the The Deaf Institute, Band on the Wall and Castlefield Bowl host headlines acts but there are dozens of smaller venues catering to all tastes.

On the cultural side, the Whitworth Art Gallery got a £15m redevelopment in 2015 and won that year’s Museum of the Year award. HOME, a centre for international contemporary art, theatre and film, also opened just last year. while the famous Lowry sits on the quayside. Top chefs are coming to the city, too. On our visit, The Lawyer 2B crew got wined and dined at posh celeb haunt San Carlo – we were told later that there are better restaurants in the city but to honest were pretty impressed with what we got.

And it would be impossible to talk about Manchester without mentioning that it now has not one but two world-renowned football teams. While congratulations should go to Leicester for winning the league this year, for sheer financial clout and global recognition, City and United are still giants of the game.

Beetham Tower
Beetham Tower

The Northern Powerhouse: Government investments in Manchester

£1bn – East Manchester housing programme from Abu Dhabi United Group

£800m – Airport City Enterprise Zone

£235m – Sir Henry Royce Institute for advanced materials research, based in Manchester, with centres in Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield

£78m – The Factory Manchester, a new theatre and exhibition ‘creative hub’


Once the training contract is over, what does a future career look like for lawyers in the North West? “The transactional market is really busy at the moment,” says one recruiter. During the recession firms cut junior lawyers, meaning there are now not enough mid-level associates in areas like corporate, banking and real estate. Too many jobs and not enough lawyers spells happy days for trainees.

“Newly qualified solicitors are really in demand,” the recruiter says. “We are seeing people who trained at smaller firms able to take a huge step up in terms of size of firm, quality of work and salary as well just by having some commercial property or corporate experience. We don’t have enough experience at the mid-level so firms are looking at NQs with a view to training them up.”

With so much demand for their services, junior lawyers find themselves in a strong bargaining position. “We had a 6-month PQE, non-contentious, the kind of person who can go anywhere at the moment,” says another Manchester recruiter. “She ended up going to a firm that offered her one day a week from home and flexible working the other four days”.

Talking to trainees across a variety of firms, it transpires that most live right in the centre – something else that’s uncommon, if not impossible, in London. It means both work and life is right on their doorstep. Among those trainees who live further out, the suburb of Chorlton is a popular choice.

Discussion of lawyers’ lives outside of work leads to discussion of one final pressing reason why graduates might consider Manchester. You can be on the housing ladder much sooner. “The greater salary you get in London gets nowhere near trying to achieve that fundamental thing you might want in life,” says Michael Mousdale.

A home of your own, a choice of big law firms doing big work, a booming economy and a cultural scene that’s one of the best in the country: Manchester may ‘only’ be the UK’s second city, but that doesn’t mean second-best. “I love London,” concludes Mousdale, “but anyone in Manchester will say you’re losing nothing in terms of quality of life. Maybe in some regional cities you would, but not here.”

Jonathan Patterson, DWFSponsor’s comment

The Manchester legal market is undoubtedly changing, with significant growth in key sectors creating an attractive landscape for legal businesses. While DWF remains the largest law firm in Manchester, there is an increasingly competitive local market, with well-established firms in the region being joined by new entrants including Fieldfisher, Freshfields and Nabarro.

With industry heavyweights such as the BBC, ITV and UKFast driving the media and technology sector; adidas, Manchester City and Manchester United leading the sports sector; Bruntwood and Urban Splash in the property arena; and The Co-op and The Royal Bank of Scotland leading the financial services sector, there is a huge incentive for law firms to set up camp in Manchester, particularly as the Northern Powerhouse agenda promises to deliver continued investment and regeneration into the region. 

Manchester is seen to be a centre of legal excellence, with all businesses making the most of the emerging talent pools that are coming out of the region’s many top universities and apprenticeships schemes.

Legal businesses in particular have access to a vast pool of talented individuals looking to pursue new types of legal careers through ‘para-professional’ and hybrid or consultancy roles, supported by the growing contract lawyer market here in Manchester; along with Lawyers on Demand, Addleshaw Goddard, DWF, Eversheds and Pinsent Masons all offer contract lawyer services in the region. We’re also seeing the growth of low-cost delivery centres that are providing much-needed back office and paralegal-led services for City, national and international firms. 

As the business landscape in Manchester changes, so will the expectations of law firms and their people. The outstanding growth of Media City has seen more start-ups than ever before in Manchester, which are starting to intersect with the flourishing legal market as firms partner with tech organisations to deliver more innovative legal services. Manchester has a strong emphasis on higher education and research, with business incubators and science organisations lining the city’s innovation ‘Corridor’, so there will also no doubt be more legal businesses looking to collaborate with academics on the research and development of service model design, driven by change and disruption in the industry.

With a diverse economy, entrepreneurial heritage and growing legal market, there is ultimately nowhere quite like Manchester for innovative law firms — and for the next generation of young lawyers.

Jonathan Patterson, development director, DWF