The Lawyer Inquiry: Kevin Greene

Observers prepared to watch a battle for supremacy when Nabarros set up in Sheffield. But the firm refused to play.

When Nabarro Nathanson rode into town four years ago, Sheffield's big guns prepared for a legal showdown. "When Nabarros arrived we had to reposition ourselves," admits Dibb Lupton Alsop regional managing partner Paul Firth. The firm need not have bothered. "I have to say, the impact has been virtually nil," Firth continues. "Its lack of impact has been astonishing considering the amount of resources the firm has put in."

Other Sheffield lawyers agree. Even Nabarros' two-year-old, purpose-built office has failed to impress. One solicitor questioned why it was built on the outskirts of the town instead of in the city centre where prospective clients were.

Managing partner of the northern office, Mike Renger, takes this criticism in his stride. "They've misread the strategy," he says calmly. "Our practice is national. Our success is not dependent on the success of the Sheffield marketplace. We offer niche services for the largest blue-chip clients."

So why did Nabarros – whose northern office developed largely out of the privatisation of British coal – decide to move from Doncaster to Sheffield four years ago instead of Leeds? "Sheffield is seen as neutral and not a threat," says Renger. "We could have retained the lawyers in Leeds but lost the support people." It seems unusually warm-hearted of a major law firm to please its support staff over its lawyers and clients, but Renger does not budge. Picking up a knife during lunch he points to the "Made in Sheffield" logo: "Sheffield's reputation is better internationally than nationally."

Renger says Nabarros is doing well, and last year's £10m turnover saw the office enjoying its best year ever. Rivals say the attempt to set up a corporate department from scratch has yet to make an impact in the market but, counters Renger, it is 150 per cent above budget.

Sheffield's firms seem almost disappointed at Nabarros' refusal to pick a fight and are instead looking to muscle in on other cities. "The market in Sheffield is finite," says Irwin Mitchell senior partner Howard Cully.

Not so the hunger of his firm and Dibbs. Irwin Mitchell set up in Leeds five years ago, and now its 200 staff claim successes in intellectual property, commercial, employment and commercial property law. "We do envisage in the medium term we could be in another city," says Cully.

That city will be regional rather than London, where the firm maintains a small office. "The strategy is to be a regional practice with a London presence." And so far that seems to be working, with Irwin Mitchell's £31.5m turnover last year expected to rise to £40m this year.

There are problems though. While Irwin Mitchell has had huge publicity through involvement in cases such as the British Coal miners respiratory case and tobacco litigation, it is seen as a personal injury firm. In fact, corporate services form 36 per cent of the firm's total fees. while PI forms just 22 per cent. Cully says: "Twenty two per cent of our turnover gives us 75 per cent of our profile."

But while the corporate department has seen a 40 per cent turnover hike in recent years, the firm's growth could be hampered by the lack of international reach that their competitors in the North have. Cully denies this, saying Irwin Mitchell is in a "superb network" of US firms. A network, mind, not an alliance.

Setting aside Dibbs' international goals, which appear to be driven from London, its Sheffield office also has plans for expansion. "To increase our market share and turnover we have to look at different markets," says Firth. Dibbs is now targeting Northamptonshire, Lincolnshire and Birmingham. "We regard that area as quite soft in terms of the highly competitive marketplace we work in," says Firth.

Someone might want to warn Midlands firms that having failed to pick a fight with Nabarros, the Sheffield boys are saddling up and getting ready to ride into their town.