GROUPINGS of firms, small or large, national or international, are now a normal part of today's legal world. But when the first association was set up in 1977, it heralded the beginning of a legal revolution.
The original M5 Group comprised four firms that met to discuss a range of professional matters at a time when secrecy was paramount. Nor was it commerce at that time that law firms needed, but management, says Peter Smith, chief executive of the Norton Rose M5 Group, which was born three years ago in the merger of M5 with the City firm Norton Rose.
'Practice management issues were the concern for M5 at the beginning,' Mr Smith says. 'The group looked at how it could provide services better on a collaborative basis.'
The collaboration included professional training, recruitment, and legal, management and financial information exchange. In 1986, the first firm not based near the M5 motorway - Mills & Reeve of Norwich and Cambridge - joined.
Twelve months later, the group was employing its first staff. Other changes followed and in 1990, M5 joined forces with Norton Rose to become what Mr Smith stresses is a new association of firms with a common interest.
Norton Rose M5 has seven member firms: apart from Norton Rose and Mills & Reeve, they are Addleshaw Sons & Latham of Manchester, Bond Pearce of Plymouth and Exeter, Booth & Co (Leeds), Burges Salmon (Bristol) and Wragge & Co of Birmingham.
The group's joint resources include 311 partners, 1,350 fee earners and a total staff of 3,000. It also has a central office in Birmingham, with a staff of 11 working for Peter Smith. A further 11 are employed on a major project, run from Norton Rose, which computerises and updates precedents and other documents.
'Norton Rose M5 has extended its interest,' Mr Smith says. 'As well as maintaining professional development efforts, we have moved on to purposeful business development activities.'
The current key issues for the group are its size and international dimension. Its size puts huge resources at the disposal of its member firms, Mr Smith says. 'First, they share the burden of costs and secondly, they have access to each others' resources, including specialist areas of practice.'
The group's international work is not only based in Norton Rose's seven foreign offices; the other member firms are also undertaking international projects. 'We can cover the world better with 300 partners than we can with 50,' says Peter Smith.
Jonathan Barclay, the group chairman and a partner at Mills & Reeve, adds: 'With the single market, international work is no longer concentrated on the major institutions, but has become more important to medium-sized businesses too.'
One of the advantages of the group, says Mr Barclay, is that it offers clients a wide range of services, and differing cost structures at different locations. Another is the possibility of joint efforts to win clients around the country. He cites the collective seminars held recently by the group for managers of further education colleges. 'It ended up with all our firms acting for a significant number of those colleges, ' Mr Barclays says.
Membership of the group also enables the firms to develop high levels of specialisation. Niche fields can be broached because of the informal support offered by fellow member firms.
According to Graeme Menzies , a partner in Mills & Reeve's commercial litigation department, the special interest groups are a tremendous help and support.
'If you have a particularly awkward question, there is bound to be someone else in the group who has come across it before,' he says.
In practical terms, the group gives rise to little bureaucracy - 'a lot less than was predicted when we signed the agreement to set it up,' says Mr Barclay.
'There must be an orderly way of doing things,' Mr Smith says. 'So from the early days, it was very important to establish good positive relationships within the group. It's the bedrock of how we operate; we cut through the rules by having people understand one another.'
The management of the individual firms reflects these principles. 'Substantially, they are run in similar, although not identical, ways,' Mr Barclay says. Each firm has a representative such as a managing partner on the group's board, which from time to time decides actions to be taken by the members. 'It is then to a large degree up to them how they do it,' says Mr Barclay.
'Over the past three years the management strategies of the firms have become more and more harmonised, and there is a sound infrastructure of people co-operating. We try to avoid occasions when the board says 'you must do this', but there are times when it has to.'
For the most part, says Mr Smith, it happens the other way round. 'If a firm decided to open a new specialist department, for instance, it would probably want to discuss it with the group. Or if it proposed to open an office where another member firm already had a presence, it would clearly have to be discussed.'
According to Mr Smith, the group is unlikely to take on new members. 'We have no policy of flags on maps,' he says. 'And if you look at our geographical spread and our expertise, there are very few gaps.'
Nor is merger into one national firm a likely prospect. 'When we set up in 1990, our policy was to be client- led,' says Mr Smith. 'That is still our position. We want to operate within a structure that will best serve the needs of our clients.'
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