Rivals in the regions

With medium-sized firms picking up sizeable crumbs from what used to be the big boys' table, what are Birmingham's elite and other big Midlands outfits up to these days?

Flavour of the month is Wragge & Co – at least from the local legal community's point of view – with peers heaping lavish praise on the UK's largest single-office firm.

Perhaps one of the biggest compliments came from a recruitment agent phoning every lawyer in Wragges' corporate department – including some of the partners – and asking them if they were interested in a job change.

In fact, the only vaguely detrimental comment made about The Lawyer Awards' former Law Firm of the Year is from a senior partner who claims Wragges has gone as far as it can with its single-office policy.

This assertion is not, as yet, borne out by the facts. Wragges expects to hit its target of 20 per cent growth in fee income this year, and boasts a predicted turnover of about £41m.

It has increased its lawyer count by around 100 in the past year, has a total staff of 750 and is now nearly twice the size of Birmingham's second-biggest firm.

Managing partner Quentin Poole trots out a familiar line: “We think it is possible to service the UK from one Birmingham office and, increasingly, an international base. The ability to do that has been proved by the City firms.”

Admittedly, the strategy still seems to work: around 60 per cent of Wragges' clients are based outside the Midlands and 20 per cent of those are international – an area which Wragges wants to expand even further, particularly in Europe.

Blue chip clients include engineering giants GKN, British Airways, Stakis Hotels and the Department of Trade and Industry. The firm has also recently picked up business from a major soft drinks company.

However, Poole admits the lure of London is becoming stronger and he does not rule out a move to the bright lights.

“There are definitely real advantages about being in London, such as accessibility to investment banks and sources of money… We might conclude that those advantages outweigh the disadvantages of having two offices, costs of a city, duplicated overheads, travel costs etc.”

Yet, while other firms praise Wragges, Poole's evaluation of the firm's Midlands rivals is not so fulsome.

He is disparaging about the concept of a national firm with regional offices, describing it as “a dog that's had its day” (see page 15).

He believes his three rivals have made it easy for Wragges to succeed, claiming edge ellison was slowed down by its failed mergers with Pinsent Curtis and Dibb Lupton Alsop.

Poole adds that Eversheds is distracted by the problems of setting up a huge geographic law firm with varying profitability levels between its offices. Meanwhile, he says, Pinsents is still tackling post-merger heartache four years after joining forces with Leeds firm Simpson Curtis.

Naturally enough, Pinsents – which saw an 18 per cent increase in turnover in the Birmingham office last year – does not subscribe to this point of view.

The firm's Birmingham managing partner, John Pratt, admits that, with all the internal reorganisation, the two years after Pinsents' merger with Simpson Curtis were “tricky”, but he denies the effects are still being felt.

“For the competition to say that we still have problems is (a) wrong and (b) barmy,” he declares.

“We wouldn't be storming ahead if we were still Pinsent Curtis in Birmingham. We're increasing the number of FTSE 100 clients more than any other firm because we are national.”

The firm is focusing on bringing in bigger clients, and intends, in the next five years, to increase to 20 the six FTSE 100 companies for which it acts.

“We're not concentrating on increasing our turnover for the sake of it, but on increasing the quality of our clients. Before the merger, our top 50 clients represented 20 per cent of the firm's fee income. Now they represent 60 per cent of our fee income.”

One recent addition to the fold is work from a massive Midlands auto supplier – previously Eversheds' largest client, according to Pratt.

He adds: “The way you can tell the style of work a law firm is doing is via the fees earned per lawyer. Ours are equivalent to the top 10 law firms in London – they're much bigger than Wragges, where you have a lot of lawyers doing not very high quality work.”

Pinsents is also increasingly looking abroad, which Pratt says could culminate in the firm opening offices overseas, merging or forming alliances.

edge ellison senior partner James Retallack is frank about the difficulties that have faced his firm since the failed merger with Pinsents in 1997, and the takeover threat, disguised as a merger overture, from Dibbs last year.

“The failed merger talks in 1997 with Pinsent Curtis led to a drop of morale in the Midlands and resulted in people leaving,” he says.

He says the quantity of people jumping ship since was not much greater than a firm of edges' size would expect. He admits, however, that it lost people “it would rather not have”.

He also concedes that the Birmingham office's 5 per cent increase in turnover looks “pretty sick” next to some of its competitors, but he remains upbeat.

“I would have been pretty happy if, at the end of the first year of the plan, we were keeping the same turnover with fewer people. To increase it is quite sound.”

The “plan” is his three-year business plan, “The way forward”, which lays down three key objectives: to achieve Midlands pre-eminence; to double the turnover of the London office; and treble the turnover of the firm's international work.

Doubling the turnover of the London office will be achieved in less than a year, says Retallack, and he is optimistic about the future.

“We have given people stability. The business plan has given people a clear idea of what we're trying to do, which I think was missing before.”

He says that Dibbs made it clear it wanted to take edges over and, having decided to remain independent, edges has introduced several changes, including making departments more autonomous, increasing staff training programmes and introducing new communications across the three offices.

edges, he says, is strong internationally, is “growing dramatically” in the fields of banking and finance, and in media and advertising is “ahead of the game” – particularly regarding internet advertising.

He adds: “As a result of our difficulties, the firm has pulled together and we are very happy for all our competitors to be complacent.”

One firm which is clearly not worried that national firms have had their day is Shoosmiths & Harrison.

With offices in Northampton, Rugby, Nottingham, Reading and Southampton, Shoosmiths employs 1,030 people – an increase on last year of 82 – and splits its firm into three distinct businesses.

The core commercial business – involving IP, litigation and corporate – saw a rise in turnover of 13.5 per cent to £18m last year, which managing partner Graham New describes as “acceptable, but could do better”.

The personal injury group had a turnover of £13m, up £1m (9 per cent), while the financial institutions groups – including Shoosmiths' novel conveyancing initiative, Property Direct – had an increase in turnover of 66 per cent, up to £5m.

With such a wide geographical spread, it is little wonder that Shoosmiths forked out £4.1m on new technology to help improve inter-office communications in 1997/98 and plans continuing investment in the future.

“The challenge is to make all the offices operate as one firm, which we do through technological links,” says New.

He says he would never rule out a move to London, but the firm's lack of a City presence has certainly not hurt its client list, as it acts for nine out of the 10 top lenders, as well as Granada Technology Group, Boots and Volkswagen Group UK.

Some things, of course, never change, and the region's partner merry-go-round is as active as ever. Wragges has poached from Pinsents, Eversheds has poached from Wragges, Lee Crowder has poached from Gateley Wareing, and almost everybody has dipped into edges.

But some try to stay above the fray. “We tend not to take huge numbers of lawyers from local law firms. At the risk of sounding unbelievably snotty, we don't think they're up to our standards,” says Pinsents' Pratt.