BLP’s Eisenberg: the magic circle has been undercutting us

For Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) managing partner Neville Eisenberg one of the most frustrating things is not the extraordinary 40 per cent slump in PEP in 2012/13 or the 20-odd partner departures over 18 months, but undercutting by major City firms on pitches.

“One of the things we found during that year was a degree of competitive behaviour between firms we’d never expected before,” he says bluntly.

“In part that was driven by a lack of work at the premium end. We’d been moving into a new competitive space and we were finding ourselves undercut left right and centre on quality work. It was particularly noticeable among the top ten including the magic circle. It wasn’t unusual for us to be undercut by 50 per cent by very high quality firms.”

Eisenberg declines to name which firms have been playing rough, however.

Such complaints are regularly aired by private practice managing partners about the competition with varying degrees of credibility. However, with general counsel getting tougher on fee packages, the pricing issue is hardly going to go away. Eisenberg acknowledges this, pointing out that the firm has prioritised process-mapping across its practice areas and consulting clients about fee and service levels.

While the outcome of the review has yet to be signed off, he cites four areas where BLP can make efficiencies. They include process mapping itself; the lessons learned from the Managed Legal Services project, which has now been scrapped as a standalone project ( 22 July 2013); outsourcing to firms outside London and a low-cost centre in the regions.  

“We’re at the closing stages of integrating an integrated proposal which is a menu of options for particular assignments,” Eisenberg says. “I’m hugely excited about all that – I think it’s different from other firms.”

BLP has not had the easiest time of it. The firm’s high-profile partner recruitment drive – it hired 40 laterals between 2010 and mid-2012 alone – has been only patchily successful. As The Lawyer noted in November 2013, there was internal friction over guaranteed payouts for laterals, some of whom did not deliver.

In May this year, the firm made 102 legal and secretarial jobs redundant. Its average partner profit figure – £401,000 compared to the previous year’s £660,000 (30 September 2013) – was announced very late in the financial results cycle, a delay that led to even more external speculation about the financial health of the firm. The LLP accounts for that year also show that net debt grew from £14.78m to £34.59m, an increase of 134 per cent (2 January 2014).

Eisenberg argues that those speculating need to consider the wider context. “If you look at the two to three years before 2012 we’d brought in a lot of new partners into the firm and opened a set of new offices,” he says. “In the difficult years of 2011 and 2012 those partners were taking more time to build up a book of business.

“We were hiring pre-Lehman and during Lehman in the recession rather than cutting back.”

Does he regret such mass hiring? “No, I don’t,” he answers.

“It significantly contributed to the firm moving into a new market position. Some didn’t work out – when an organisation moves from A to B that will work for some people and not for others.”

The finance department bore the brunt of most of the departures. Group head Matthew Kellett left the firm last year (30 October 2013), at which point the management launched a review of the practice. However, the unthinkable is not being thought. Despite considerable speculation outside the firm about BLP’s finance team, Eisenberg is adamant that the review of the group will not be apocalyptic.

“We won’t merge the finance department into real estate,” he says. “It’s not going to happen. When Berwin Leighton merged with Paisner in 2001 we had a handful of finance lawyers and now we’re recognised as having real finance capability and we’ll focus on this area of strength.”

Nor is the firm-wide strategy review likely to produce startling results, since Eisenberg prefers to resort to that recipe-come-cliche ‘evolution not revolution’.

“The process of strategy review will give the firm a clear policy on our investment priorities,” he considers. “There’s going to be no dramatic changes – we’re not going to move to being a boutique firm or abandoning our international strategy.”

BLP posted six per cent turnover growth at the half-year stage (2 December, 2013). Eisenberg is cautious about extrapolating too much on a year-on-year basis.  “The five year context is most relevant because we’re in a group of firms that over five years have grown whereas most of the big names shrank and had slow growth.”

Eisenberg is taking the long view. Will outsiders do the same?