Burges Salmon steals Osborne Clarke’s PEP crown in southern battlefield

The battle for supremacy in the South of England legal market saw Bristol heavyweight Burges Salmon overtake arch rival Osborne Clake in average profit per equity (PEP) stakes during the last financial year.

Both firms saw profitability and turnover tumble, but Burges Salmon’s PEP of £409,000 came in well above Osborne Clarke’s figure of £352,000, a difference of 16 per cent. Osborne Clarke’s PEP dropped 36 per cent from £554,000 in 2007-08.

There has always been staunch competition between the two over PEP and Burges Salmon enjoyed two years ahead of its rival in 2003-04 and 2004-05, but was then knocked out of the lead by Osborne Clarke in 2005-06 and 2006-07.

That said, as Burges Salmon’s PEP fell 23 per cent the £409,000 figure will be a disappointment, given that the firm´s costs on its one-office operation are famously low. The fall off in PEP  will have been felt especially hard because of the firm’s planned office move to new headquarters in the City’s Temple Quay area in 2010.

At £84m, Osborne Clarke’s turnover remained above that of Burges Salmon. Unlike Burges Salmon, which has been an arch conservative, Osborne Clarke spent the early years of the decade pursuing an expansionist dream in London and Continental Europe, but has become conspicuously quiet  about its international ambitions.

Elsewhere in the region, Clarke Willmott, with its heavy emphasis on property and housebuilding clients, saw one of the biggest turnover drops in the south – down by 11.2 per cent from £53.2m for the financial year 2007-08 to £47.2m in 2008-09.

Turnover remained steady for Bristol’s underdog Bond Pearce. The firm brought in £48m, equal to 2007-08’s figure. Despite the lack of change in turnover, profitability fell slightly from £245,000 to £213,000.

Further down the food chain, Bevan Brittan smashed through its profitability targets, reporting profits at the 2008-09 year end of £8.6m, up from £6.1m. Revenues at the firm remained flat at £41m.

This is a massive comeback for the firm and down to the careful management of its newly appointed chief executive Andrew Manning, who replaced the firm’s former CEO Stuart Whitfield in September 2008.

Bevan Brittan watchers will note that profitability had been falling at the firm since its demerger from Ashfords in 2004 when net profit stood at £9.4m.

The firm capitalised on the credit crisis after it was drafted in to help local councils reclaim millions of pounds tied up in Iceland’s crippled banks.

For more on the south see The Lawyer UK 200 Annual Report 2009, out on 7 September.