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Coopers to buy law firm

Coopers & Lybrand will look to acquire a medium-sized City law firm once its own fledgling law firm is up and running later this year, writes Richard Halstead.

Candidates include top 30 law firms such as Ashurst Morris Crisp, Travers Smith Braithwaite and Wilde Sapte, according to sources in the legal profession.

Coopers became the latest Big Six accountant to set up a legal practice when it announced on Friday that it was recruiting two solicitors from the City firm of Stephenson Harwood to set up a firm specialising initially in commercial and intellectual property work.

Rival accountancy firm Arthur Andersen kicked off the trend three years ago, and last year Price Waterhouse announced it was setting up a law firm. The entry of Coopers into the market has been widely predicted ever since.

The two Coopers recruits, Mark Lewis and Christopher Tite, will be released from their contracts by Stephenson Harwood in April. They will start work for Coopers shortly afterwards, operating under the name of Tite & Lewis.

While neither Coopers nor the lawyers themselves would add to the statement they made on Friday, it is believed that they will try to build up expertise in the commercial, corporate and corporate finance sectors very quickly, either by poaching from other firms or recruiting individually.

It is thought they will then seek a merger with an existing law firm with the skills to service Coopers' clients worldwide. Accountancy firms with legal services have so far grown the businesses purely organically.

Reaction within the legal profession to the news was mixed. One senior partner at a top 10 law firm said: "It is a big risk for Coopers to take on, and so far the rewards of the synergies between legal and accounting services have yet to be seen with the other two firms who have gone down this road."

But another said: "The top City law firms have to wake up and realise that if they are not careful, they will be overtaken by accountancy firms who have much closer client contacts."