A tough year for North East firm Watson Burton looks set to continue with news that two heads of department could be set to leave the firm and warnings that more could follow.
The Lawyer understands that the firm is set to lose insolvency chief Andrew Cawkwell and wealth management head Keith Hately, the only partner in its private client practice.
The news comes a month after former senior partner Robert Langley left the firm to join the construction practice at North East rival Muckle before his replacement had been elected. One former partner claimed there was dissent among senior equity partners at the firm, who felt that, while Langley had a strong client portfolio, he “was not a manager”.
Watson Burton, which has offices in Newcastle, Leeds and London, is now in the process of electing a senior partner. Among the frontrunners are employment partner Christopher Graham and public sector partner Gillian Hall.
In a statement the firm said: “Watson Burton has begun the process of choosing its new senior partner. This is an important process which will have significant consequences for the firm.
“The leadership of the new senior partner will take the firm forward into its third century to continue to achieve its ambitious goals. We will announce the new senior partner later this summer.”
The firm was asked whether Cawkwell and Hately were leaving, and said in the statement: “It’s policy at Watson Burton not to discuss our business externally when it concerns our partners. When it’s appropriate to do so we’ll make an announcement.”
A senior figure at one of Watson Burton’s North East rivals said the firm would be hit hard if Hately left.
“I think it’s important to have a private client team,” said the source. “If you’re doing work with a corporate client and they need a will, for example, you’ll want to keep it in-house if possible. This is something that might work on a London stage, but not somewhere like the North East.”
Insolvency has been identified as a key practice area for the firm going forward and sources say the loss of Cawkwell will be keenly felt.
Other departures in recent months include partners Lyn Ayrton and Karen Eckstein, who left the firm last September to set up family and professional indemnity boutique Lake Legal, based in Leeds.
Commenting on recent changes within Watson Burton, which restructured its partnership last year, another source at a North East rival said: “I think their current difficulties could be traced back to when they were going great guns and made a lot of lateral hires and opened an office in the Gherkin [in London] – that comes at a cost.
“They’ve been through two senior partners in the space of three years and strategically things have begun to unravel for them. I’m not sure what direction they see for themselves now. They started to focus outside the region and, as a consequence of that, other firms have begun to move in.
“I’d be surprised if other partners weren’t looking around, and that’s now the challenge for the firm.
“I thought the logical thing would be to name a senior partner quickly, to get in front of staff and tell them what the vision is going to be.”
When Langley stood down from the senior partner role in April he said that whoever replaced him needed the “ideas and vision to take things forward”. They will also be tasked with halting the firm’s declining revenue: its LLP accounts reveal that, in the financial year 2008-09, gross profit dipped by 73 per cent and fee income fell from £23m to £19.8m.