By Tim Skipper, Totum Partners
Sorting through my desk last Friday was like a march through time. The deeper I delved the further back I went.
Several versions of the Blackberry were finally trumped by my Palm Vx, which was gathering dust at the bottom of my drawer next to a bottle of ink (the quill sadly long since vanished).
At the very back I found a copy of an advertisement which my Mum had cut out of The Sunday Times in 1996, which was promoting the role of Director of Business Development for a leading City law firm at a salary ‘From £55,000 plus benefits’. How times have changed.
Feeling all nostalgic, I dug out The Lawyer’s list of the top 30 firms in 1996. I sensed it would make for interesting reading given the changes that have affected the legal profession over the past two decades. I was not disappointed…
Scale of the top 30
In 1996, Clifford Chance topped the legal rankings by some margin, with a turnover of £282m and just under 1,400 lawyers. Linklaters & Paines sat second on the list at £100m less and 500 fewer lawyers.
Then there was a considerable gap to the other Magic Circle firms, which all sat in the top five firms by revenue (with Lovell White Durrant sitting sixth). Dibb Lupton Broomhead was in 11th place with a turnover of £30m and 228 lawyers. But shortly after the list was published it would announce its merger with Alsop Wilkinson, which would move it to just below Lovell White Durrant.
How times have changed. Move forwards to 2016 and Clifford Chance generated revenues of £1.4bn. And DLA Piper, following multiple mergers, enjoyed a turnover of more than £1.5bn, alongside six other firms also boasting revenues of more than £1bn.
Mergers…and more mergers
Take a look back to the top 30 in 1996 and all bar five in the list have since embarked on at least one significant merger. Only Allen & Overy, Slaughter and May, Simmons & Simmons, Macfarlanes and Stephenson Harwood have maintained their independence (albeit they have grown very significantly organically and via laterals).
Furthermore, in addition to the merger that became Dibb Lupton Alsop, six of the top 30 chose to merge with another in this list (Denton Hall/Wilde Sapte, Cameron Markby Hewitt/McKenna & Co, Pinsent Curtis/Masons), with the final four of those choosing to merge with firms either immediately above or below them in the rankings, with almost identical turnover.
Of the others that chose the merger route, five did so via significant US ties ups, and others (notably Ashurst Morris Crisp and Herbert Smith) combined with leading Australian firms.
It is perhaps telling that in The Lawyer top 30 listing in 1996, Baker & McKenzie’s London office was included in the UK listing, quoted as turning over around £33m. Certainly this listing did not have any firms who had merged with US firms – the 1999 deal between Clifford Chance and Rogers & Wells was still some way off and it would be nearly a decade before DLA’s three way merger with Piper Rudnick and Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich (2005).
But, by 2016, over half of the original 1996 top 30 listing had entered the US market via a full blown merger or by strategic acquisitions of local offices of firms. Over in London US-headquartered firms like White & Case have blazed a trail, with London revenues of £232m in 2016, putting it, and others, in or around the top 20 by revenue in the UK alone, comparing favourably with the likes of Addleshaw Goddard and exceeding high quality firms such as Osborne Clarke and Gowling WLG. Many more US firms have set up shop in London since 1996.
Innovation – it’s all relative
Twenty years ago ‘innovation’ wasn’t a word much bandied about in descriptions of the legal sector. But in 1996 things were starting to change. The very first web page was credited to CERN in 1991, but Bird & Bird wasn’t too far behind, launching one of the first law firm websites in 1995.
Back then the DX was still used as the sector’s bespoke physical mailing system, email was not yet part and parcel of law firm communications either internally or externally (indeed, I remember having to queue for the one PC at my recruitment company each lunchtime to send CVs to some of the corporates who had started to refuse to receive them by fax, post or even courier!).
But by 1996 came the launch of the Palm Pilot, with some law firms introducing them for partners. Blackberries were to follow some time later. Roll forwards to 2016, Blackberries are history, Palm Pilots are increasing in value on Ebay as a retro throw back, IPhones are where it’s at and we are now firmly in an automated world, with robots and technology-enabled processes part of the fabric.
So where to by 2026? Who knows? But with four kids still at school, a large mortgage and the likelihood I’ll need to work way beyond this date I’d better start figuring it out. But I would assume that one of these robots will have the answer (if only I can learn how to work it).
Tim Skipper, founding director, Totum Partners