Legal 500: Mergers drive Bristol market as conditions remain tough

September 27, 2013

Bristol’s legal market has been dominated by more mergers and new arrivals as its firms are increasingly challenged by highly-competitive conditions, according to the latest Legal 500 published this week.

The annual directory, one of the definitive guides to the UK legal sector, says the regional market experienced “another tough year in 2012, with the economic uncertainty in the UK making for a difficult and fast-changing legal environment”.

It points out that competition was “extremely high”, demonstrated by the arrival in Bristol of a number of new players, including – in a move that could herald an influx of London practices – the opening of an office by international firm Simmons & Simmons.

Other newcomers to Bristol were Exeter-based Michelmores, which acquired the Bristol office of Wilsons in November, and Cornish firm Follett Stock.

Mergers continued to reshape the city’s legal make-up including the May 2013 tie up between Bond Pearce and market-leading North East firm Dickinson Dees to form Bond Dickinson and DWF’s link up with Fishburns. However, not all potential mergers were consummated. Bristol’s Veale Wasbrough Vizards’ merger talks with Hewitsons were abandoned as were those between top-two Bristol firm Osborne Clarke and major London outfit Field Fisher Waterhouse, which would have created a top 20 firm with revenues of nearly £200m.

The Legal 500 also points out that the Jackson reforms, which resulted in cuts to legal aid, had led a number of firms to move away from publicly-funded family work.

Other key moves in local market included Bristol-based Co-operative Legal Services being licensed as an alternative business structure (ABS), and insurer Admiral announcing the formation of an ABS joint venture with Bristol-based claims specialist Lyons Davidson.

The Legal 500 looks in detail at the major players and movers and shakers in the city. It's firm-by-firm analysis looks at the strengths of Bristol's firms and their key individuals.

It names Burges Salmon as a pre-eminent player, both in the region and nationally, saying it has a “particular strength in sectors such as energy, transport, financial services and infrastructure”. Led by managing partner Peter Morris, the firm undertakes complex work ‘with ease’, and is ‘highly focused on meeting clients needs’. In 2012, the firm’s partner headcount grew by 11, including seven internal promotions.

Osborne Clarke is highlighted for its ‘friendly and approachable lawyers, who provide an absolutely first-class service’. It has leading expertise in corporate, technology and real estate matters, and is notable for its expanding international reach; it recently opened an office in Hamburg, and merged with its Spanish and Italian alliance partners. In 2013 it announced the move of its headquarters from Bristol to London.

While TLT is a younger firm than the region’s duo of leading heavyweights, it is a growing force nationally, expanding into Scotland and Northern Ireland in 2012. Led by ‘outstanding’ managing partner David Pester, the firm focuses on industry sectors such as financial services, renewables, leisure and retail. ‘The service is exemplary and the response times are brilliant’, and key recent achievements include becoming the sole supplier of legal services to WH Smith in relation to its property estate in England and Wales.

Ashfords, which has five offices across the region, continues to build its presence in Bristol.  It merged with London-based Rochman Landau in February 2012, recently hired Andrew Perkins, previously joint managing partner of Kitsons.

Public services specialist Bevan Brittan has coped well with the widespread transformations taking place across the sector, and has a new managing partner in Duncan Weir, who was promoted when former chief executive Andrew Manning stood down.

Bond Dickinson, following its high-profile merger, is now a top 40 UK law firm with eight offices across England and Scotland. In the South West, the firm is noted for its expertise in areas such as energy, real estate, retail and financial services.

DAC Beachcroft is highly esteemed in the insurance industry, and also has notable strength in litigation and the health sector. In the retail sector, it acts for clients such as EE and Clarks Shoes, and handles landlord asset management work for four of the UK’s largest shopping centres.

Foot Anstey continues to grow in the Bristol market following its move to the city in 2011, making a number of lateral hires. It handles matters across the commercial spectrum, with niche expertise in areas such as pensions and Islamic finance.


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