The malaise that continues to plague transactional markets across Western Europe—where M&A activity has slumped to its lowest point since 2009—left most of the United Kingdom’s elite Magic Circle law firms struggling to simply hold revenue steady during the most recent fiscal year.
Allen & Overy and Linklaters, for example, both saw their gross revenue inch up by less than 1 percent in the 12-month period that ended April 30, 2013, while Clifford Chance suffered a 2 percent dip to its top line. Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, on the other hand, bucked the trend by recording impressive gains in both revenue and profits. (The fifth Magic Circle firm, Slaughter and May, does not disclose its financial results.)
Discussing his firm's financial performance, Linklaters managing partner Simon Davies says that market conditions remain “volatile," with M&A activity “subdued—especially in Europe." At the same time, Davies adds, client demand in restructuring, regulatory, and contentious matters remains strong, which helped the firm to a modest 0.9 percent increase in gross revenue, to £1.195 billion ($1.78 billion). The firm's net income increased 1.6 percent, to £521.9 million ($780 million), and average profits per equity partner (PPP) were up 5.9 percent, to £1.31 million ($1.96 million).
For its part, A&O posted a 0.6 percent increase in gross revenue, to £1.19 billion ($1.78 billion), during the most recent fiscal year—a 12-month period the firm described in a statement as "a year of consolidation . . . against a backdrop of challenging market conditions” amid some “encouraging signs of a recovery” in the fourth quarter. The firm's net income rose 2.2 percent, to £496.7 million ($742 million), while PPP remained static, at £1.1 million ($1.6 million).
Speaking to The Am Law Daily last week, A&O global managing partner Wim Dejonghe said the firm was pleased with its financial performance, given the current business environment. “You have to read the figures against a backdrop of tough market conditions,” Dejonghe said.
In a statement announcing its results, A&O reported that its emerging markets practices has delivered a strong performance over the past 12 months, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Morocco. The firm—which continued to invest in its fast-growing international network during the last fiscal year by opening new offices in Istanbul, Ho Chi Minh City, and Hanoi—also saw solid growth in more mature markets such as Germany, Japan, London, and the Middle East, the statement added. (For an American Lawyer feature analyzing A&O’s recent global expansion, click here.)
Clifford Chance, meanwhile, suffered declines in gross revenue, net income, and partner profits. The firm's total revenue dipped 2.5 percent, to £1.271 billion ($1.9 billion); its net income fell 6 percent, to £404 million ($604 million); and its PPP slumped 9 percent, to £1 million ($1.5 million). It's the first time Clifford Chance has seen its average equity partner profits fall since the recession began.
Those figures notwithstanding, global managing partner David Childs says he is pleased with what he describes as a “solid” set of results. “Given the difficult operating environment for many of our clients and the depressed transactional markets, we are pleased to have maintained revenues last year,” Childs says. “We are living through an extended period of choppy conditions in global markets. However, our continued investment across geographies and practices has given us a broad-based business with the resilience to weather this volatility.”
Childs says the firm’s results were down partly as a result of a decline in activity levels in Asia-Pacific. Clifford Chance's operations in the region, which account for some 14 percent of the firm’s global revenue, saw revenue fall 3 percent last year—even as the firm became the first from the U.K. to launch an office in the Republic of Korea. (In a statement, Clifford Chance also blamed the drop-off in revenue partly on “exchange rate movements" and said its revenues were actually “broadly flat.")
Childs says the firm’s litigation and disputes practice “put in another excellent performance” over the past 12 months, however, and that its banking and finance practice “continued to flourish." Clifford Chance has also seen a noticeable upturn in transactional volume in the first months of the new fiscal year, he adds, pointing to a “sense of increased market confidence.”
While A&O, Clifford Chance, and Linklaters all struggled to achieve even minimal top-line growth, Freshfields last week announced a 7.2 percent increase in revenue, to £1.221 billion ($1.82 billion), during the most recent fiscal year. The firm also enjoyed a similar surge in profits, which climbed 7.6 percent, to £1.398 million ($2.09 million). (That increase was in part the product of a 5 percent decline in the firm's equity partner head count, which fell from 412 to 392.)
Freshfields's net income increased 2.4 percent, to £548 million ($818 million), and its revenue per lawyer was up 3 percent, to £585,000 ($874,000), despite its overall attorney head count swelling slightly, from 2,010 to 2,086. The firm’s profit margin fell from 47 percent to 45 percent, however.
Though Freshfields declined to comment on its results or to provide details about how it achieved them, global managing partner Ted Burke said in a statement that the performance serves as proof that the the firm's current strategy has put it on a solid financial footing.
“Over the past six years we have worked hard at making our offering across our practices, sectors, and geographies as nimble and flexible as possible to ensure we can adapt to changing client demand,” he said. “We feel that we are now very well-placed to provide the transactional, regulatory, contentious, and risk management help our clients need, wherever in the world they want it. These strong results demonstrate how this approach is working.”