What’s going on in Manchester? The regional powerhouse is enduring an unprecedented realignment which has seen a string of long-established names disappear.
Manchester’s legal profession has undergone a period of remarkable change, with some of its biggest and most iconic firms disappearing altogether and hundreds of lawyers forced to switch firms.
Linder Myers last week became the latest to turn to administration, joining Cobbetts and Halliwells as high-profile victims of market tumult.
Yet in the same week Field Fisher Waterhouse moved to the region through a merger with Heatons, while Leigh Day was also planning its move north-west.
So, is this a city in decline or development? And what has caused this sudden surge of activity?
Paradoxically, Paul Jonson (pictured), who will this month take over as managing partner of newly formed Pannone Corporate after Slater & Gordon has acquired the rest of the Manchester firm, believes the success of the city contributed to some firms’ downfall.
‘There is a lot to be positive about Manchester’s legal profession – Manchester is on most measures the leading commercial and cultural centre outside London and the south-east,’ he said.
‘There have always been a number of well-known and successful “non-national firms” in Manchester and the dominance of the national firms has traditionally not been as strong as in other cities such as Leeds. The success of Manchester as a city region encouraged our local firms to expand and some of those expansion plans became impossible to sustain with the recession.’
Over-expansion seems to be a recurring theme. Lesley Graves, managing director of Manchester’s Citadel Law, says too many firms have chased growth without being ready for the pressures that come with it.
‘At the heart of this is a lack of expertise and governance that has created a misplaced confidence that firms purchasing personal injury work will turn future profits where others have failed. Couple this with increasingly accessible finance to fund deals and an environment has formed where many are overlooking what is necessary to build a credible PI business model.
‘The same goes for firms which have sought to grow through merger and acquisition. Failing to pay the required attention to the detail of costly and time-consuming pre- and post-M&A strategy and integration will lead to more business failures.’
Borrowing was clearly a key driver for the rapid growth that some firms have enjoyed since the turn of the century – not least Linder Myers, with seven acquisitions in five years.
But once the likes of Halliwells and Cobbetts hit financial trouble and struggled to repay creditors, banks and lenders appear to have been scared off by strong links to the city.
FOUR FIRMS, FOUR SCENARIOS
Halliwells: General practice firm with 848 staff went into administration in July 2010 and different sectors were sold off to four other firms.
Cobbetts: Bought by DWF in a pre-pack administration in February 2013, saving 400 jobs. Owed £91.6m to unsecured creditors by its end.
Pannone: Rumours persisted throughout 2013 about a merger before Australian firm Slater & Gordon confirmed £33m acquisition in December.
Linder Myers: After merging with seven practices since 2009, suffered from tough trading conditions and last week filed notice to appoint administrators.
Mark Hovell, managing partner at Manchester firm George Davies, oversaw a merger last year with national practice Mills & Reeve. It was a partnership born out of the need for a mid-tier firm to enhance its infrastructure, while the national entity sought a trusted local member of the profession.
Hovell says the firm had turned down regular approaches from firms looking to establish a presence in the city, and opted not to swallow up smaller firms already struggling to clear debts.
‘Linder Myers appeared to be taking a lot of smaller firms out of administration, but we resisted that. It seems the banks were willing to lend at one stage but their stance has hardened. Then over a period of time you’ve seen some top earners leave and go elsewhere.
‘When you have that downward spiral no one up here rubs their hands with glee, because you have friends in these places. But there are a number of firms that have benefited and taken teams that will do well from this.’
Although the headlines might suggest doom and gloom, everyone involved in the Manchester legal profession is keen to emphasise the city’s plus points.
Sucheet Amin, founder of PI firm Aequitas Legal, believes the city may only be going through the sort of inevitable change others have yet to encounter.
‘Where a merger or acquisition is involved, I think this is simply the consolidation taking full effect, just as the academics predicted. With increased competition, fixed pricing structures and the rise in overheads generally, it was only a matter of time before some firms realised that survival was in the form of a merger or sale.
‘Arguably, it could be said that Manchester is at the forefront of the changing market and the firms in the region are all too aware of what the future holds.’
Michael Clavell-Bate, senior office partner for Eversheds in Manchester, is similarly upbeat: ‘The region excels at making the most of its strengths – we can see this with the ambitious Manchester Airport development, but also the region’s international brands, a desire to harness research and technology resources in the region, and the trading and investment of Greater Manchester-based large firms.
‘This offers a number of opportunities for the legal community, for firms that can offer specialist legal advice to Manchester-based businesses and respond to the region’s growing ambition to establish its position on the world stage.’
Manchester Law Society president David Joseph, partner at expanding firm Gunnercooke, admits more casualties may lie ahead but is certain the city’s legal profession will come out stronger.
‘In Manchester, several significant firms have either merged or collapsed entirely. Many surviving law firms live in fear of suffering a similar fate. Regrettably, part of the reason for the dramatic change is poor management and greed. The reality is that there are many more high-priced solicitors than there is high-priced legal work.
‘[But] there are a number of Manchester firms operating at the forefront of innovation and expansion, with new business models based on the simple fact that they realise that they are running a business. Those firms will continue to thrive and to prosper.’