Law: The North takes a lead: Commercial legal practices are booming in Leeds. Sharon Wallach looks for the secret of their success

LEEDS considers itself, with some justification, to be Britain's second financial and professional centre. One explanation put forward for this is that the restructuring of West Yorkshire's economy, following the collapse of the textile industry in the Seventies, took place some time before the recession of the late Seventies and early Eighties. This, the theory goes, created a diversity of commercial and industrial opportunities quickly seized on by the hard- headed Yorkshire business community.

Robert Wade, the senior partner of Booth & Co, one of the top six Leeds law firms, points to the M1 and the railway as two major reasons for the city's success. 'In addition, although the type of industry has altered, there has been no decrease in the number of people employed. Alongside this, the service sector has grown substantially, helped by a local authority with an enlightened approach to commercial activity. Good people attract good work and vice versa - it has a snowballing effect,' he says.

In the late Eighties, Leeds became an attractive alternative to London for job seekers, particularly those at senior levels. 'Social changes made people want a high quality of life and work to match,' Mr Wade says.

A recent recruit to the Leeds law scene is Russell Davidson, a commercial law partner at Dibb Lupton Broomhead. He arrived two months ago from a large City firm and was pleasantly surprised at what he found. 'I thought I might have to set my sights lower,' he says, 'but the work is every bit as interesting as in London, and I am busier.'

Leeds now boasts six law firms with more than 300 staff. Robin Smith, the managing partner of Dibb Lupton Broomhead, the largest, attributes part of the region's professional success to the competition to provide legal services. 'This has been rampant since the early Eighties, when a number of firms gave up matrimonial, criminal and personal injury work to concentrate on commercial areas,' he says.

Firms have reacted in different ways to the need to compete. The 35-partner Booth & Co joined the M5 Group of independent law firms to tap into joint resources. In the late Eighties, the City firm Norton Rose joined the group and brought the venture into a different dimension.

'It has been particularly attractive to have access to resources and know-how at the highest level,' Mr Wade says. 'We look on it as a way of enabling us to tackle a different sort of client and to tackle our clients in a different sort of way, with the added value of a major City firm. We describe ourselves as a full-service commercial law firm.'

Included in the service are specialist departments such as intellectual property - one of the firm's fastest-growing sections - construction and pensions.

'Banks and building societies are the strongest side of our financial sector. Largely through the efforts of our specialist, Adam Bennett, we work for more than a third of the country's building societies,' Mr Wade says. The firm is also on the point of launching a new unit providing asset-finance- related legal services.

Booth & Co was founded in 1775. Dibb Lupton Broomhead also has its roots in the mid-18th century. It now has 84 partners and a staff of 670, the majority of whom work in the three Yorkshire offices - Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford. The firm sees itself, however, as a national, rather than a regionally based, firm. 'All our offices are equal; we have no head office,' says Patricia Lennon, the head of marketing.

Dibb Lupton Broomhead's major London presence dates from its merger with William Prior & Co in 1988 (Prior was dropped from the firm's name at the end of last year). Twenty-four partners, headed by Paul Rhodes, work at its London Wall address, which is, according to Mr Smith, 'not just a pied-a-terre. It is a full- service law office in its own right.'

Dibb Lupton Broomhead's aim, Mr Smith says, is to become the leading national commercial law firm. 'In order to achieve that we must have a critical mass in Leeds and the other commercial centres. But critical mass has no virtue in itself without the necessary spread of disciplines.'

With this in view the firm has, for example, stepped up its environmental law expertise by drafting in an American geologist and environmental consultant, Stacy Clark, to work alongside the specialist lawyers. In October 1990, it also attempted to set up what was believed to be the country's first patent agency working from within a law firm. This caused a confrontation with the Chartered Institute of Patent Agents, which objected to Dibb Lupton Broomhead's use of the words 'patent agency' on its notepaper. Settlement was reached at the courtroom door and the notepaper now refers to a patent department.

All the major Leeds firms have European links of one kind or another. Booth & Co's, for instance, has worldwide contacts through Norton Rose M5.

Dibb Lupton Broomhead, Mr Smith says, has looked at Europe in some depth, 'in the context of how to serve the interests of our clients, who increasingly need legal support in Europe. Our policy is to develop closer relationships with leading law firms on the Continent and the US. Branch offices are cost centres and are very unlikely to be profit centres. I doubt whether you can provide the service on the ground the client needs unless you are very large, and there's no point in creating a large law firm from scratch in a foreign jurisdiction.'

By common consensus, the up- and-coming growth areas for the commercial firm are environmental law, public sector work and the provision of specialist skills for in- house legal departments.

In offering these services, commercial firms are, in Robert Wade's words, 'looking out to the marketplace to see what services are needed. What we must recognise is that on the one side we are running a sizeable business and on the other providing a value-for- money service.'

(Photograph omitted)

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