Big legal players are continuing to invest in the regions, but is it enough to stop the north-south brain drain?

There was a time, perhaps not so long ago, when any law firm worth its salt had to be seen to have an office in the heart of London, and preferably, the City. Yet, over the last few years, a trend has appeared where major players have recognised the importance of establishing a regional presence, both as a means of gaining new and retaining existing clients, as well as cutting support costs.

This trend seems set to continue as news emerged earlier this week that the magic circle firm Freshfields Bruckaus Deringer is set to open an office in Manchester. The move makes it the second legal giant to have such a regional presence after Allen & Overy opened its Belfast office in 2011.

Other City firms have also established offices away from the bright lights of the capital, including Herbert Smith Freehills’ and Baker & McKenzie’s moves into Belfast, Hogan Lovells’ saunter into Birmingham, and Ashurst’s journey north of the border to Glasgow.

However, the heavyweights of the legal industry certainly seem to be gravitating towards the north west of England, with Berwin Leighton Paisner, Nabarro and Latham & Watkins all announcing their intentions to set up shop in Manchester over the 12 months.

Slater & Gordon (S&G) is yet another firm that has entered the Manchester arena with 700 staff moving to its new city centre office over the next six weeks. But that is not the only news from S&G this week as it announced a further two law firm acquisitions, which it says will make it the largest consumer firm in Wales, as well as boosting its presence in the north west and south west of England by 200 staff in five locations.

It is yet more proof, if any was needed, that the legal sector in the South West is booming right now as Georgina Inson, a senior associate at BCL Legal, explained in SJ’s latest cover story. The South West is no longer viewed as a backwater for firms, but instead as a major legal centre.

Australian giant S&G has been gobbling up firms over the last few years including Russell Jones Walker, Fentons, Pannone and Goodmans Law, as well as the PI arm of Taylor Vinters. Now it has turned its attention to the north-west England and north Wales-based firm Walker Smith Way, as well as Leo Abse & Cohen (LAC), which has offices in Bristol, Newport, Swansea, Exeter, Swindon, Taunton and Truro along with its head office in Cardiff.

For those among you with a soft spot for the individual histories of law firms – who they were formed by and why – then the absorption of LAC into the colossus that is S&G might be a sad moment.

LAC was set up by flamboyant Cardiff lawyer and Labour MP Leo Abse who earned a reputation for taking anti-Establishment positions, such as campaigning for the liberalisation of homosexuality laws and opposing the use of nuclear power, during his parliamentary tenure between 1958 and 1987. While many would argue that there is no place for sentiment in the business of law, it will be interesting to see whether S&G/LAC retain some reference to their history over the years to come.

Meanwhile, in other regional news, the multi-disciplinary commercial claims organisation, Triton Global, has announced the launch of a new liability practice in its subsidiary, Triton Legal.

The new practice area is to be headed by former Plexus Law partner Richard Salvini and will be based in Leeds where a team of lawyers will specialise in defending health and safety, environmental and regulatory prosecutions, employer, public liability claims, disease, product and property cases for insurers.

Politicians often argue there is a north-south brain drain as some of the North’s most talented individuals up sticks for the excitement and riches of London. Of course, many of the moves by the traditional big firms are merely to establish low-cost support offices, instead of full-blown regional practices, but if those major firms continue to invest in areas north of the M25 then maybe the tide of migration can be halted. Perhaps it could even be reversed to the benefit of firms, practitioners and clients alike.

This blog post was first published on Solicitors Journal on 11 February 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission

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