TODAY'S announcement by Eversheds, the alliance of six major regional law firms, of the appointment of its first national managing partner may represent a watershed in its attempt to win recognition as a truly national organisation. The alliance began some four years ago, although it was formally created in May last year amid some scepticism within the legal profession about the nature of the merger, particularly as each of the Eversheds offices remains an independent profit centre.
The Legal 500 remarked that the merger was rather like a marriage without a joint bank account. The latest edition of the publication, however, revises its opinion. Few clients, it says, care about internal profit-sharing arrangements, being more concerned about the quality of the legal service and its price. And an interesting side-effect of the merger has been the buoyancy of the constituent firms, the Legal 500 suggests.
Eversheds' new national managing partner is Peter Cole, first the managing partner and lately the senior partner at Eversheds Alexander Tatham in Manchester.
Even before last year's merger, he says, the business world saw Eversheds as one firm. 'It is a pragmatic enterprise,' he says. 'We haven't imposed our approach, but have allowed it to be driven by our clients, at a speed with which our partners are comfortable. There has been no predetermined programme imposed from the centre. Increasingly, at grass roots level, lawyers in different disciplines are coming together to work as one.'
The national process is at a sufficiently advanced stage to provide a more formalised structure at the centre, he says, hence his appointment. His role is to identify 'even more' business opportunities and to co-ordinate operations. It is also to provide a structured focus to specialist areas of practice. 'Our environmental lawyers, for example, come from a number of backgrounds: planning, property, corporate finance or litigation. They come together from the different regions to pool their expertise and generally to make a very powerful team. It'll be my job to take that one stage further.'
He will work closely with Eversheds' chairman, Victor Semmens. 'All our firms - which we call regions - are substantially involved in the same types of practice, although inevitably there are some areas of specialisation, for instance, shipping in the Newcastle office,' Mr Semmens says. 'The client finds it immensely attractive to know that we can deliver a greater resource more effectively. We don't have to invent it six times in six different places.'
But the six offices remain, for the time being at least, separate profit centres. 'It is important that as much autonomy as possible exists,' Mr Semmens says. 'The last thing anyone wants is outsiders dictating how many paperclips to buy. We plan nationally and implement locally, but in the final analysis each region's future will rely on its presence in the local marketplace. Although an increasing amount of work is coming from Europe, the local element is still very important.'
The feasibility of centralising the entire Eversheds operation was examined, Mr Semmens admits, but he says 'the complications did not justify its imposition. However, if the current structure proves to hold back the development of our national business, we would move the structure to fit.'
Mr Cole confirms the Legal 500 view that the client does not care how the profits come. 'He just wants consistency,' he says. 'And as far as the partners are concerned, there is no logic in profits being shunted around to meet some intellectual ideal.'
That said, he will hunt out areas of activity that may dictate the pooling of profits: debt recovery, for instance, and possibly media law. And, says Mr Cole, 'the fact that we don't share profits does not mean that we are not interested in how each region is run. No region would take a major strategic step - a major investment in IT, merger, acquiring new offices - without consultation.'
Eversheds is actively engaged in the 'regions versus the City' debate. On the one hand, the firm's size has enabled it to develop the expertise needed to compete with the City firms. On the other, according to Mr Semmens, taking on board a major London practice is ultimately inevitable.
'We are coming through the recession with a growing business,' he says. 'We have attracted, and still are attracting, a lot of new clients. Much of their work was previously done in central London. The analysis we have is that a limited amount of work is done only in central London, either because it is centred in the City, such as the international capital markets, or because London has the pooled experience not reproduced elsewhere. Because of our size, we have been able to develop that expertise outside London. There is still much to do, however, to persuade overseas clients that there is more to the UK than London.'
Eversheds does have an office, a working practice, in the City. But Mr Semmens says that there is not much doubt that the firm will eventually be joined by a major London practice, because of the international element. 'We started with the intention of being a single business. We think we will be an international business too.'
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