On the up?
Regions focus: Midlands - The Midlands is home to several corporate heavyweights but who is really winning the big-ticket legal work? Michael Gerrard finds out if local firms are finally gaining ground on the City
The Midlands area has a strong industrial and mercantile tradition. It is home to household names such as Boots, which is based in Nottingham, and Cadbury Schweppes, which is headquartered in the Birmingham suburb of Bourneville.In recent years, Birmingham and other Midlands cities such as Nottingham have undergone radical redevelopment, a case in point being the overhaul of Birmingham’s Bullring. This redevelopment has attracted new business to the area. Where there are large corporates, law firms follow. The Midlands’ industrial and commercial heritage has encouraged the development of some of the country’s biggest law firms outside London.Firms such as Wragge & Co, Eversheds, Pinsent Curtis Biddle and DLA have grown up alongside industry and commerce in the area, and their activities now extend beyond the Midlands.With so many in-house teams and respected local law firms, one could assume convenient business relations with local clients instructing the advisers nearest to them. This is true up to a point, but London’s big legal players traditionally feature more prominently on the Midlands in-house scene and excellent transport links also means much work still heads down the M1.Many of the region’s in-house players say the status of local firms has grown tremendously during the past 10 years and they are loosening the City’s grip on the market.Andrew Foster, formerly the Law Society’s Commerce & Industry (C&I) Group’s Midlands group secretary and the company secretary at computer services provider IT Net in Birmingham, believes that the vast majority of the Midlands businesses’ legal requirements can be satisfied by local law firms. He attributes this to the calibre of the lawyers the firms are attracting. “Ten years ago Wragges and Pinsents did not get top lawyers from blue-chip London firms,” he says. “But in recent years they have been aggressively recruiting from the City.”Foster believes this change has meant local firms can offer the kind of specialist advice that was only available in the capital. “Local firms can now offer London quality at regional prices,” he says.Foster says fees charged by partners at Birmingham firms range from £220 to £300 per hour in Birmingham, compared with £350 to £450 in London.Apart from cost, Foster also believes it prudent to spend money locally as often as possible to help stimulate the area’s economy. His views are shared by others in the region. Many of the in-house lawyers interviewed speak of the top Midlands firms in the same breath as their London counterparts, with Birmingham firm Wragge & Co receiving name checks from almost everyone interviewed.David Dench, head of legal at venture capitalists 3i, is a firm supporter of keeping outside legal partners as local as possible. Wragges is one of several firms on a panel with a heavy regional emphasis. He says: “We generally try to use one firm per region and last year Wragges was successful in our selection process. It has a strong track record in big deals and quality.” Ian Thompson, a senior legal adviser at Boots plc and former national chairman of the C&I group, believes local firms win on convenience. He says: “It is still much easier for me to get in the car and in 10 minutes be talking to a partner at Shoosmiths in Nottingham, or at Wragges or Pinsents in Birmingham within an hour.”Convenience or not, several corporate counsel in the area still look towards the City, especially when it comes to big-ticket work.Despite the advances at Midlands firms in recent years, some believe they cannot compete with the experience to be found in the capital. One reason is because although significant legal teams might be based in the Midlands, corporate headquarters and leadership come from London. Other factors, such as personal relationships and the enforcement of a strict panel of approved firms, also influence where work is sent.Bronagh Kennedy, head of legal and company secretary at Six Continents Retail Ltd (formerly Bass Leisure Retail), the themed restaurant and bar chain, is a one-woman legal department. While keeping a tight rein on the legal function, individual projects are often outsourced to several firms.Kennedy divides her week between the corporate headquarters in London and Birmingham and there is a similar division when it comes to law firms. But Kennedy sends the group’s heavy corporate work to magic circle firm Allen & Overy (A&O). Her reasoning for this is clear: she worked at A&O and knows its staff well. She also believes Midlands’ firms cannot compete for big-ticket work.“I would not feel confident using them,” Kennedy says. “As all the magic circle firms deal with each other day in day out, they know how the other magic circle firms work. The lawyers are of a different calibre and it is a different type of business.”That said, for large-scale property work Kennedy uses the team at Eversheds in Birmingham, which are perceived as big players. Much of the smaller scale work, including insurance and employment work, is directed to Midlands firms, notably Andersons in Nottingham. Kennedy gives short shrift to the idea that a Midlands firm is automatically cheaper than its London counterparts. “Eversheds will not be significantly cheaper than London on a big property transaction,” she says, “but it will depend on the nature of the job.”
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