Evolution: our Law Firm of the Year winners reflect the changing times

How The Lawyer Awards judges have recognised the delicate and intricate interplay between culture and innovation as the profession has developed 

The Lawyer judges always look at firms in the round, taking into account client service, quality of work, a distinctive vision, investment in people and operational nous.  

Over the years the big prize has tended to go to those that have shown momentum – not simply by, say, pulling off a merger, but by embedding it well. Culture and leadership are crucial, while momentum also implies a certain element of risk that has to be factored in. Most, but not all, of the management decisions taken by many of our winners over the years would bear fruit in the long run.

To examine the judges’ rationale for picking winners is also to trace the economic and professional trends within which UK private practice firms have been operating.

Freshfields wins, 2008
Freshfields wins, 2008

Addleshaws

The winner in 1999 was Addleshaw Booth & Co, one of a group of ambitious regional firms such as DLA and Pinsents that would launch in London. Itself the product of a mid-1990s merger of Manchester’s Addleshaws and Leeds’ Booth & Co, it would take over City firm Theodore Goddard in 2003.

BLP

The win by Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) – dubbed ‘the lords of the mid-market’ – in 2004 helped define an emerging silver circle. 

It was the year that the firm burst into the City’s consciousness with financial results to rival the magic circle and trophy hires such as Robert MacGregor, who left Clifford Chance to head BLP’s real estate group. 

SJ Berwin, DLA

The City establishment was being challenged, as was clear in 2000 and 2002, when SJ Berwin and DLA were respectively crowned Law Firm of the Year. 

Both firms with non-conformist cultures, their appetite for confronting risk remains undiminished. DLA would go on to pull off an audacious transatlantic combination with Piper Rudnick and Gray Cary to become the largest law firm in the world. 

SJ Berwin, similarly, would pioneer the first UK-Sino-Australia deal when it tied up with King & Wood Mallesons.

Herbert Smith

Occasionally, history creates ironies. Herbert Smith’s triumph in 2003 – won for rebalancing its practice into a corporate and litigation powerhouse and its decision not to sit back and rely on its marquee litigation practice – also referenced the canny European alliance with Gleiss Lutz in Germany and Stibbe in Benelux, which had been crafted “in preparation for possible future merger”. 

Alas, those hopes resided only in the breast of Herbert Smith, not its Continental friends, who resolutely resisted further integration. The alliance broke up in 2011 and Herbert Smith went on to open its own office in Germany and craft a different sort of merger – with Australian firm Freehills. 

BLP – again

BLP’s second win in 2010 referenced its Managed Legal Services division, which aimed to take over the entire legal function of big clients. 

It was shelved last year, but its other major venture that was noted in 2010 was Lawyers On Demand, which anticipated a trend that is here to stay in the legal market – flexible resourcing.

Macfarlanes, Slaughters

Sometimes firms win simply for the tough task of staying at the top of their markets. For two in particular, partnership culture is cherished. This was recognised in 2001, when Macfarlanes won the top award, with the judges noting its “commitment to quality and maintenance of its own ethos. This is the City partnership par excellence”. 

Similarly, Slaughter and May is sometimes conceived of as gentlemanly, but woe betide any opponent who confuses polish with complacency. The firm’s win in 2005 was emblematic of the mid-decade M&A bull market and came on the back of an extraordinary year in which it defended Marks & Spencer against the hostile takeover approach by Philip Green (a deal that included aggressive defence tactics that got Freshfields bounced off Green’s team), and key roles in some of the landmark boom deals, such as Santander’s acquisition of Abbey National, and the enormous British Energy restructuring.

Trowers & Hamlins

Another firm that rode the boom well was Trowers & Hamlins, the winner in 2007. 

It scooped the award not just for its increasingly strong financial performance but also for its long-term investment in the Middle East, a region that was coming into its own as far as legal work was concerned, and its dominance of the projects and social housing market in the UK.

Clifford Chance

Some firms came out on top once they had emerged from a period of pain. Clifford Chance’s win in 2006 was acknowledgement of how it had recovered from its crisis year of 2003, when, as the judges noted, its “profits were dropping, its US associates were in revolt and its partnership was in turmoil”. 

Unusually for The Lawyer Awards, the focus of the judges’ accolades were on the financial turnaround of the firm that year, as David Childs took over and made cost management a priority. It would usher in a period where law firms would attend not just to client work but also to operational efficiency as a key component of success. 

Freshfields

In 2008, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, which had undergone a painful 18 months of partnership restructuring that resulted in litigation, took the top prize as a streamlined deals machine. Such hard-nosed decisions taken in tandem with the bottom line reflected the growing culture of management
efficiency and professionalism in law firms.

Norton Rose

The recession forced firms to take difficult decisions but also to be imaginative – something recognised  in 2009 when Norton Rose won. Although the firm’s financial and deals performance was noted, what set it apart from its rivals that year was its decision not to axe a large part of its workforce, but give employees the choice of reducing their hours to save jobs, thereby avoiding mass redundancies. 

Norton Rose won again in 2011; it had already merged with Deacons in Australia, but 2011 saw it launch in the Canadian and South African markets through combinations with Ogilvy Renault and Deneys Reitz. The Verein structure legacy Norton Rose employed to make international deals has now become common, and certainly allowed it to pull off its deal with US firm Fulbright & Jaworski in 2013.

Taylor Wessing wins, 2013
Taylor Wessing wins, 2013

Mishcon de Reya, Taylor Wessing

In recent times mid-market firms have shone at The Lawyer Awards. While magic circle firms are wedded to a global strategy that has altered little in the past decade, mid-market practices – or the ‘gold middle’ firms, as one wag called them – have had to be very nimble indeed. 

Mishcon de Reya’s win in 2012 came on the back of stellar financials, but the judges were equally impressed by the firm’s investment in operations, training and development. 

Similarly, Taylor Wessing’s win last year was largely for its targeted international expansion and extraordinarily effective colonisation of key markets such as technology and private wealth.

Law Firms of the Year

1995

Eversheds

1996

Leigh Day & Co

1997

Wragge & Co

1998

Olswang

1999 

Addleshaw Booth & Co

2000 

SJ Berwin

2001

Macfarlanes

2002

DLA Piper

2003

Herbert Smith

2004

Berwin Leighton Paisner

2005

Slaughter and May

2006

Clifford Chance

2007

Trowers & Hamlins

2008

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer

2009

Norton Rose

2010

Berwin Leighton Paisner

2011

Norton Rose

2012

Mishcon de Reya

2013

Taylor Wessing