Merger boom boosts top solicitors' pay packets

Some top City solicitors are earning pounds 600,000 to pounds 700,000 a year as a result of the continuing boom in mergers and acquisitions and other corporate activity, according to figures released today.

While the Legal Business 100 shows the surge in earnings that boosted revenues at Britain's 100 biggest law firms by more than 14 per cent, to pounds 3.73bn, is spread across the country, the City of London's leading firms dominate.

The turnover of just five firms - Clifford Chance, Linklaters & Paines, Freshfields, Allen & Overy and Slaughter and May - together topped pounds 1bn, or nearly a third of the total fees earnings recorded in the listing. Pointing out that between May 1996 and April 1997, UK law firms worked on 4,491 transactions, worth pounds 325.1bn, the editors of Legal Business write that "M&A lawyers undoubtedly set the pace, although litigation, property and insurance lawyers were not far behind".

Senior partners at the leading firms attributed the performance to the strong economy and huge demand for their services. "Everyone's been working an incredible number of hours," said one.

However, despite the general improvement in billings, the league table shows a mixed picture. Some larger firms are investing so much in information technology and overseas offices that partners may take home no more money than those in the middle market.

Indeed, the apparent success of middle-market firms, such as Nabarro Nathanson, Watson, Farley & Williams and Rowe & Maw, which all achieved revenue increases of more than 10 per cent, is one of the surprises of the listing, since it had been widely predicted that practices like these were vulnerable to the arrival in London of powerful regional firms, US organisations and the increasing presence of big accountancy firms, particularly Arthur Andersen.

For the moment, the policy of Slaughter and May - described as home of "the richest lawyers in the City by far" - of concentrating on being a pre-eminent UK corporate adviser seems to be paying off. It achieved by far the highest average profit per partner, pounds 566,000, though it is said that some of its senior people earn as much as pounds 700,000.

Allen & Overy saw turnover rise 21 per cent, to pounds 167m, while profits per partner were second only to Slaughter and May's, at pounds 540,000.

On the other hand, Clifford Chance, the City's biggest firm with revenues of pounds 310m, found itself exposed to a common problem: the strong pound.

Legal Business emphasises that its figures, based on well-informed estimates, are not necessarily the same as take-home pay.

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