Shipshape in Bristol fashion

Despite attempts by London and national firms to break into the Bristol market, Ryan Dunleavy discovers that homemade firms are still the clients' favourite choice.

The Bristol legal market is securely in the hands of the city's home-grown firms. National firms and London practices have set up offices there but it seems they have made more of a ripple than a splash.

National firms in Bristol are Beachcroft Wansbroughs and Eversheds while London practices with Bristol branches are CMS Cameron McKenna and Masons. Beachcrofts has 17 partners, Eversheds 11, Camerons five and Masons eight – making only 41 partners in total.

Nick Jarrett-Kerr, management board chairman of Bevan Ashford's 38-partner Bristol office, says: “Unlike most of the other bigger cities in the UK, we don't actually have an office of a national firm except Beachcrofts and Eversheds. And my understanding is that they have not made a huge impact.”

Jarrett-Kerr adds that Eversheds' Bristol office “is seen as a sub-office of Cardiff, which is only an hour away. They may be looking for a chunky firm to build on but they have not been able to find one. Their name has been linked with Bristol firms but nothing has happened as of yet”.

Eversheds acquired a small Bristol practice called Holt Phillips and moved into the city in 1994. Last year it entered talks with 23-partner firm Veale Wasbrough but nothing came of the discussions.

A managing partner of another Bristol firm says: “I don't think Eversheds has done a corporate deal since opening. Other nationals have not moved in because Eversheds has shown it is not easy.”

Bob Smyth, business development partner at Burges Salmon, says that Bristol-based firms have similar problems to national firms. “National firms do not have much further to go. They are what they are now. They will not grow much more, and they will run into problems because they are converting themselves into London practices with regional offices. You are also going to see problems in managing quality. Eversheds' office here is restricted and is possibly too close to Cardiff.”

But Peter Morris, managing partner of Eversheds' Bristol office, says the Bristol practice was never meant to be a stand-alone branch. He says: “Because we operate out of two offices we do not replicate the service from one office to another.” In other words, the practices are meant to offer advice on legal issues that are different but complementary. He adds that lawyers move frequently between the offices when working on deals.

He says: “Our pensions specialisms are dealt with by Cardiff-based staff but they come over to Bristol to provide those services. A lot of support services in Bristol are provided by staff who cover the Cardiff office.”

He adds that the Bristol office has expanded and aims to continue doing so. He says: “We are on a continuous expansion programme but we are looking for sustainable growth. In the last five years we have gone from 35 to 85 staff, from 9,000 to 20,000 sq ft and from six to 11 partners. We are projecting forward on a similar basis for the next three to five years.”

He says that the Bristol office has grown so much that it is looking for a new building. “We are bursting out of our present office,” he says.

National firm Beachcrofts has a different strategy for Bristol. The Bristol office is a leader in healthcare, personal injury and professional negligence law rather than general commercial law.

Leslie Perrin, managing partner of Osborne Clarke, says: “If you are talking about public sector work here it comes down to the big two – Beachcrofts and Bevan Ashford.”

Bevan Ashford has offices in Bristol, Cardiff, Exeter, London, Plymouth, Taunton and Tiverton. Its headquarters are in Bristol and house 35 partners. Jarrett-Kerr says: “We don't have such a strong corporate finance presence but we have national pre-eminence in dealing in the public sector, especially the National Health Service. That is about half of our practice.

“Our project finance and private finance initiative work is also strong. But the point of our practice is that we do not just regard ourselves as a Bristol firm. Our work is national but from Bristol.”

He says firms such as his attract clients away from larger London firms. “We are trying to offer clients the depth of expertise of London firms but we have low costs, and not everyone wants to go to London for everything.

“If you are in Southampton it is as easy to go to Bristol as London. Our public sector clients are dotted over the country, such as hospitals. And as far as projects consortiums are concerned, not all come from London. The finance often comes from London but that is only one aspect of a projects deal.

“But we hope to create synergies between our three core areas: public work, public-private work such as PFI, and private work. We are trying to focus on all three of these.”

In terms of commercial work, the market is dominated by two firms, Osborne Clarke and Burges Salmon. One legal analyst says: “These big firms are increasingly competing on a national strategy for London quality work and they are trying to win work from the London firms. On a macro level this is all part of the fact that the legal market is globalising.”

Burges Salmon is also a national leader in agriculture law but it does not like being categorised. Smyth says: “Agriculture is not our main practice area. The focus of the firm is largely commercial and corporate.”

The firm is currently deciding on a new five-year strategy. Smyth says: “We are approaching the end of our five-year business plan and are refocusing our strategy before our financial year ends in April. We are also looking outside the firm to decide how to refocus ourselves.

“Our strategy over the past five years was to drive growth in profitable commercial sectors, such as banking, corporate finance and industry sectors and to achieve a level of growth through the markets organically.

“It sounds relatively unexciting but it has worked effectively. We are twice as big as we were five years ago, and our usual growth has been 15 to 17 per cent each year. That is true growth, because it has not been achieved through acquisitions.”

Smyth says that the firm's single office approach will remain. He says: “You can look around the country and find examples of firms like us that have found a way to service clients across the country from a single office.”

But Osborne Clarke has a different strategy. It has offices in Bristol, London and Reading which work as close together as possible and the firm is on a drive to win more company and commercial work by strengthening its national network.

Its latest plan is to set up a network of banking departments across its offices. HSBC in-house counsel Jeremy Cross and Hugh Jones, former head of banking at Morgan Cole, have been hired to help do this. Cross starts in 2000 and the firm is looking for two more banking partners for the London office who will also start next year.

And the culture at Burges Salmon and Osborne Clarke is different. A lawyer at one of the firms says: “You need to know Burges Salmon and Osborne Clarke quite well to know we are like chalk and cheese. Clients either tend to like their school or ours. Burges Salmon is more traditional and Osborne Clarke is more modern. We are very different animals. But this means the market works quite well.”

Osborne Clarke describes itself as more internationally focused than Burges Salmon. It has offices in Barcelona, Brussels, Cologne, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Milan, Paris and Rotterdam. Burges Salmon has no foreign offices.

But a legal analyst says: “Osborne Clarke is not necessarily more international than Burges Salmon. Burges Salmon has got links with North America, although they may not have links in Europe to the same extent.”

Osborne Clarke and Burges Salmon may dominate the Bristol corporate and commercial markets but there are also firms that are not based in Bristol but have satellite offices there and are doing well. Clarke Willmott & Clarke is an obvious example.

The firm's main office is in Taunton with branches in Bridgwater and Yeovil. But its Bristol practice has high aspirations. The firm branched out of Somerset into Bristol in the mid-1980s principally as a personal injury practice, but is now in the process of broadening its remit.

David Sedgwick, managing partner of Clarke Willmott & Clarke, says: “It started off as PI. In 1996 we moved office and expanded our commercial presence. On the back of this, we are now desperately looking for new space. We are now nearly three times the size as when we moved here.

“Over the last three years we have broadened our Bristol practice. We are now a true commercial firm. Our real strengths are commercial property. We have the top commercial property practice in the South West. But litigation is still our biggest profit maker.

“We are now looking to go further on commercial property, particularly house builders, and in personal injury and commercial litigation.”

But he admits that “corporate is not a core activity. We are not challenging Burges Salmon and Osborne Clarke in corporate but we are offering businesses an alternative”. The firm's main strengths are commercial property and litigation, but it also handles a lot of public sector work that rivals Bevan Ashford and Beachcroft Wansbroughs.

Sedgwick says he hopes to attract some of Bristol's corporate clients by offering an alternative to Osborne Clarke and Burges Salmon. He cites companies such as Dyson, Orange, Lloyds TSB, Bristol & West building society, and businesses involved in the city's £600m harbourside redevelopment project.

However, Bristol clients are not of prime importance to the big company and commercial firms. Perrin says: “I don't think our Bristol work would be relevant. Our big clients are banks and venture capitalists.”

He thinks that the same goes for public sector firms. “Bevan Ashford works for 100 health trusts. There are only about five in Bristol. Bristol does not have a driving force for public sector work. There are no development corporations like in cities that are in industrial decline so we do not get the squillions of public funds flushing about,” he says.

Bond Pearce is another regional firm that recently moved into Bristol. Its main office is in Plymouth, but it also has branches in Exeter, Southampton and, since August 1998, Bristol.

The Bristol practice was set up with three partners. It was supposed to act as merely a springboard for work in the rest of the region, but has been such a success that it now has seven partners who deal with company and commercial work as diverse as property, banking, insurance and corporate finance.

Victor Tettmar, managing partner of Bond Pearce's Bristol office, says: “There has been a tremendous flow of work. It is evident that for our region Bristol is a key city.”

Some London firms have switched on to the success a Bristol office can bring. Camerons and Masons have been in Bristol for a while.

Simon Hegarty, managing partner at Camerons' five-partner Bristol office, says: “Our Bristol office was opened in 1990. We are concentrating on core specialisms. These are banking, banking litigation, insolvency, insurance, corporate finance and corporate and commercial property.

“We have a Bristol office is because we have historically done a lot of work for Lloyds TSB. In 1990 they moved their UK retail banking division to Bristol. That is why we moved here.

“I think Masons opened to gain construction work in the Bristol area, but they have expanded into commercial areas now.”

Masons opened its Bristol office in 1988 with one partner to handle construction work. It now has eight partners and deals with finance, property and planning. It also has a health team. Only half its turnover now comes from construction work.

There are, of course, other Bristol law firms that have a strong hold over the city's company and commercial market, such as Veale Wasbrough, Cartwrights and Lawrence Tucketts. But analysts say they tend to exclusively advise Bristol clients.

On the whole, the Bristol company and commercial market for law firms is booming, but lawyers say this is not the case for the bar.

Four chambers dominate the company and commercial legal scene – Guildhall Chambers, Assize Court Chambers, Old Square Chambers and St John's Chambers – but solicitors who were interviewed said most barristers, even from these sets, generally did not specialise enough to add value to the major firms. Stephen Davies of Guildhall, Neil Levy of St John's, and Barry Cotter of Old Square were named as the exceptions rather than the rule.

Bristol sets have an excellent reputation for handling cases on crime, personal injury and family law, but most company and commercial firms find this little use. Instead they tend to go to London to instruct barristers.

Bristol firms with national and international clients have the marketplace sown-up to a large extent. National firms, City firms and regional firms that have opened in the city are doing well, but still have not taken large scale public and private work from the existing practices while smaller Bristol firms are buoyant but focus mainly on local clients.

However, the bar shows signs of constraining itself by being spread too thinly on company and commercial matters. If it is going to win back Bristol work from its London counterparts it may have to specialise more.