After a miserable 2000-01, which included falling revenue, failed merger talks and client losses, 2002 saw the firm bounce back in style.
In May it merged with Vizard Oldham's 16-partner litigation team, becoming Weightman Vizards and gaining a respected London office in one swoop. The Liverpool-based firm went on to post a 10 per cent increase in revenue to £21.8m and a 7 per cent rise in profits per equity partner to £178,000.
The Vizards link-up undoubtedly played a part in winning a place on the Metropolitan Police Force's panel and it also beat off stiff competition to win a slice on the much-coveted NHS Litigation Authority panel.
If the Vizards merger and the acquisition of a London office was the first outward sign of the firm's fightback, it is Manchester that is the backdrop for the latest stage in its renaissance. With a series of audacious North West partner moves in the last quarter, as well as the high-profile strengthening of its Manchester operations, regional office managing partner Nick Peel is in an ebullient mood.
“There have been some challenges over the last two or three years. Personnel challenges, and, of course, in a hardening insurance market there have been one or two disappointments in terms of panel reviews,” says Peel. “These things can be testing and it's a question of how you respond to them. We've remained positive throughout.
“We stepped back and reassessed things about 18 months ago. We formulated a strategic plan to move into areas where we may not have had the confidence a few years back, and we're now focusing on moving into some of these niche practice areas. We think Manchester provides the best starting point to make some in-roads.”
In October, the Manchester office was boosted with the recruitment of former Addleshaw Booth & Co head of corporate Jonathan Shorrock. His appointment marked the creation of a new corporate team in the Manchester office.
Shorrock was joined in the fledgling team in November by insolvency partner Glyn Willmott from Wacks Caller, who will be heading up the corporate recovery and reconstruction unit in Manchester.
Two more partners, to form two new teams, were appointed in December: John Holmes came from Halliwell Landau to set up a planning and environmental team, while Pat Jones joined from local firm Lopian Wagner to add a Manchester-based healthcare capability to the already established employment team. In addition, professional indemnity partner Mike Grant rejoined his old firm from Addleshaws.
Although present in Manchester since early 1999, until now Weightmans has concentrated on servicing existing clients in the city from its core insurance base. This latest expansion is a definite drive to broaden and build on that base, says Peel.
“If you service something exceptionally well, there's always the potential to move into what may be regarded as established markets,” he says. “With the recruitment of Jonathan and Glyn, we're looking at the SME (small and medium enterprises) sector for corporate finance and corporate recovery. It's further supplemented with the arrival of partners such as John Holmes.
“We're very positive about it. We identified an opportunity to set up the team and structure it slightly differently – to bring the two sides of corporate work together and drive them forward together. We aim to offer a service that the very big corporate players aren't interested in.”
The new arrivals will take the staff count in Manchester to 80 out of a total of 600 staff and 80 partners across the firm's five offices.
It has taken on an additional floor to house the expansion. The corporate team is envisaged to grow to around 12 fee-earners, with another three new faces due to join early in the new year, including former Weil Gotshal & Manges assistant Candice Osborne.
“It's a question of concentrating on what you can deliver,” explains Peel. “We believe a dynamic, vibrant commercial centre like Manchester provides the best location for setting up new teams, with a view to spinning them out as a model elsewhere in the firm.
“In the four years we've been in Manchester, we've become fairly established in the city and we've got the confidence to move forward from that base and make what we can of it. It's an exciting place to be, and we're hoping an equally profitable place.”