North-east: few lawyers but still growing
The North-east may have fewer lawyers than other regions, but, as Andrew Towler reports, the work is still flooding in
The North-east of England is home to fewer solicitors than any other region in England and Wales, according to the Law Society. However, fewer lawyers does not mean less legal work, but rather a smaller population and fewer large commercial centres. In fact, the firms that dominate the banks of the Tyne and the Tees in Newcastle and Middlesbrough are reporting a flow of work into the region.
National firm Eversheds, for example, has a 26-partner office in Newcastle that turned over £23m and was named 'Shipping law firm of the year' last year. Like so many businesses and trends in the North-east, success was built on scaling up local connections. 'The firm is an amalgamation of many local firms,' says Stephen Hopkins, managing partner of the North for Eversheds. 'In 1988, Ingledew Botterell Roche joined with Temperley and then, in 1997, Wilkinson Maughan joined. In 2000, with the firm still called Ingledews, Linsley & Mortimer became part of the practice and in 2002, the name changed to Eversheds.'
This desire to build success stories in the North-east can be traced to a passion and loyalty for the area. Because of this, and perhaps because of the area's distance from London, the North-east can afford '“ and needs '“ to be largely reliant on the development and retention of local talent.
Judith Mason, regional manager of the Law Society's North-east office, says the region exerts a magnetic draw on people who were raised or have studied there. 'There is quite a good retention rate of people who are from the area, because they see the good quality of work and life that can be found here. Northumbria University also does the LPC so that attracts people to study here and many of them stay.'
Mason emphasises the recent trend of the larger commercial firms' success having an influence in the legal market across the whole of the UK. 'Dickinson Dees has pulled in over £1.5bn in mergers and acquisitions from London in the past six months and is looking to increase its work beyond the region. Watson Burton is the fastest-growing firm in the country and has opened offices in London and Leeds, but is keeping the North-east as its main powerbase. It is great for the economy in the North-east as it brings work up here, so the commercial firms seem fairly buoyant.'
Hopkins agrees that certain markets are proving fruitful for the larger firms. 'Around 60 per cent of Newcastle's GDP comes form the public sector, so there is a lot of PFI work for law firms in the region,' he says.'And our real estate practice is still strong, as there is good commercial development.'
However, a region with so few commercial centres relies more than most on the local law firms for handling the disputes in smaller towns. 'There are also a lot of very rural areas in Northumbria, which would become advice deserts if the small firms disappeared,' says Mason. 'There is quite a bit of concern about Lord Carter's proposals because the market is quite fragmented and local firms in towns such as Hartlepool, for example, focus on the needs of the local people rather than competing for duty solicitor slots.'
Mason says the Law Society's Newcastle-based regional office, which only opened in June 2005, is now trying to work with the local firms to help them adapt to the modern business environment. 'The High Street firms always tell us they are really busy and bringing lots of work in, but they are concerned about their profit levels. We have been working with the smaller law firms offering them management and business training with courses such as 'Building a modern law firm'.
'We really try and stay member-focused and are trying to remind people that the Law Society has changed and we act in a representative capacity. We have also been working with groups of solicitors, such as women and ethnic minorities, to help them prosper.'
A more profit-focused approach to running a law firm should not be limited to the North-east, of course, but firms in the region are starting to take a less local, more proactive, less restrained approach to building up business.
'There isn't the huge investment you see in other cities in the North like Leeds and Manchester,' says Hopkins. 'We tend to integrate with our Leeds and Manchester offices quite frequently and this is the way I can see a lot of the larger firms going over the next 12 months. The Newcastle and local markets are still important to us, but our international experience and strength across Europe benefits us.'
It appears the local growth that has bred such a close business and local community in the North-east has reached the point where it must move further afield to avoid stagnation. However, with the larger firms' roots firmly set in the ground of the North-east, branching out can only bear fruit for the region's economy.
What firms are up to
- Dickinson Dees has appointed five new partners with three internal promotions and two lateral hires from firms in London.The new partners include Andrew Scott from City-based Mayer Brown Rowe and Maw and Alex Rodger, from international firm Barlow Lyde & Gilbert. Suzanne Duff joins from the Pensions Regulatory Authority as associate.
- Thompsons Solicitors has welcomed a new member of the team to its Newcastle office. Christian Harbinson, 30, from Gateshead, has joined the Newcastle-based firm's asbestos team following nine years of study.
- Irwin Mitchell has strengthened its clinical negligence department by appointing a medical researcher, Michelle Thomson, who previously worked at Wansbeck General Hospital in Ashington as theatre sister.
- Northumbria University law student Harriet Leach jetted off to Australia for a month thanks to a scholarship launched by the Irwin Mitchell Newcastle office.
- Eversheds' Newcastle office has appointed two partners. Adam Heather and Shirley Wright are among a record number of 24 promotions to the partnership. The North-east branch has also made a number of winning pitches recently, including: One NorthEast as part of its legal panel review; South Yorkshire Supply Management Confederation,which spends in excess of £1.5m a year; UK Coal, to handle its historic and ongoing claims portfolio of accident and respiratory claims in a contract worth £1.7m; County Durham & Darlington Priority Services and Derwentside PCT for two PFI schemes with a capital value of £40 -50m.