London lights undermine Birmingham's law firms

THE GOOD people of Birmingham know they do not have to go far to find a top quality curry, but new research released exclusively to The Lawyer shows they do not have the same faith in their local law firms.

Over a quarter of the 100 large Midland companies interviewed do not use local firms because they think the firms do not have the necessary specialist skills. This, in spite of a marketing effort by Birmingham firms that outweighs the national average.

The data comes from CSS, part of one of the world's largest research companies.

One hundred leading businesses from Birmingham, Stafford, Leicester, Shropshire, Warwick, Hereford and Worcester were surveyed. All spend at least u30,000 on legal services each year.

The good news for local practices is that when asked to name the first few firms they could think of, senior managers did mention Birmingham firms. The bad news is that awareness has not led to employment: Midland companies may think Birmingham – but they instruct London.

Such findings do not inspire confidence in the Birmingham legal scene. Whether it is a question of simply wanting to play with the big boys or a genuine lack of expertise, Midland companies are looking out of town when it comes to the big jobs. Only 11 per cent exclusively use Birmingham firms and, most significantly, 26 per cent do not use any Birmingham firms at all.

Those interviewed speak of the “size, prestige and expertise of a London firm” and the “lack of experience of Birmingham firms”.

“For historic reasons, and reasons of prestige, shareholders like to have a big London name handling their transactions,” says one client.

Wragge & Co, Eversheds, Pinsent Curtis and edge ellison – known in town by the cowboy-like moniker of “the big four” – accept there are certain things London can do that Birmingham cannot.

At the same time, they believe they do not deserve to be overlooked.

“They [local companies] will find the skills and expertise are here, at rates that are not as high as London,” says Jenny Hardy, marketing director at Wragges. “And there's a lot less arrogance than in the City firms.”

The “big four” accept the onus is on them to win over local companies and claim to be excited by the news of so much potential new business on their doorstep. But it will be an uphill battle.

CSS research manager David Perry points out that other geographical centres are also crowding out Birmingham. “One of the things that struck me is that they [the companies] are not just talking about going to London firms. In some cases it was Leicester.”

The figures also show Birmingham firms are being overlooked, despite their marketers' best efforts. A full 90 per cent of respondents recall marketing by law firms in the past year. That is higher than the national average of 86 per cent, and more than in other European countries. Their arrows are in the air, they are just missing the mark.

The survey found that Wragges is the most widely-known and highly-respected firm in the region. But it does slip behind Eversheds in employment and pensions law and Pinsents in banking and finance.

Pinsent Curtis managing partner John Pratt concedes that Wragges' sheer size – with 750 lawyers in the city – makes it a clear leader, but he does not think its number one status is carved in stone.

Pinsents, however, may not be the one to knock it off its perch. Pratt says his firm is “punching above its weight” and focusing on the top end of the market.

If anyone is likely to challenge Wragges, it is Eversheds or edge ellison.

“They [the big four] are definitely way ahead,” says Perry. “We have got Dibb Lupton Alsop and Martineau Johnson coming into the top of the next tier. But in terms of this study, we've got these four standing out from the rest.”

For a copy of the CSS research report, contact Ben Bolton 0171 332 0808.