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A mid-tier firm that has made a better job of climbing the City ladder than most, Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) divides opinions if nothing else. While some contributors point to a certain patchiness across the firm as a whole - "the lawyers are variable in quality - even the partners," says one poster - obvious exceptions include a heavyweight real estate team and an increasingly visible finance group. Corporate has also been a focus for expansion in recent years.
One contributor who joined from a magic circle firm suggests BLP is "not ready yet to take on the big guns", while another concludes that "if you're interested in real big-ticket cross-border and complex work, go to a top 15 firm, a boutique or a US firm's London office". However, the firm has plenty of ardent supporters.
"I'm fairly confident that this is the firm to watch in the City," says an admiring partner at Herbert Smith. "This firm will easily fit into the top 10 in the next couple of years. From what I understand the firm doesn't rest on its laurels and I've heard lots of talk from friends at the firm about enormous expansion in the coming years."
"I joined the corporate department and have never looked back," adds an ex-magic circle lawyer turned BLP loyalist. He now claims to enjoy a better quality of life without a drop in quality of work.
"I've worked with quite a few of the firm's lawyers on a number of deals [and] was impressed to say the least," sighs one contributor from a US firm, pointing to an "up-and-coming" corporate team in particular. "It doesn't take a genius to work out where it wants to be over the next couple of years."
The people are friendly too - which may have something to do with the firm's eminently achievable billable hours target of around 1,500 hours. Indeed, joining BLP is "very much a lifestyle choice" according to one battle-hardened contributor, although another BLP-watcher suggests lawyers in the corporate and funds groups do work long hours.
One ex-magic circle contributor says support areas such as human resources and even stationary are below-par compared to the magic circle. He suggests that quirks such as the availability of stationary supplies only between 10am and 2pm lends BLP a "regional feel" inconsistent with its aspirations of challenging the City elite.
"The first thing you see at your desk on arriving is a bin with pens in," notes one contributor, "[and] all costs are carefully controlled." Yet BLP has a good reputation for the quality of its support services - including what one contributor calls "the highest-rated IT support department in the City" - and there is evidence of it investing in this area.
"BLP is very conscious of getting its PR right," observes another reader. Aren't we all?
In 2008, BLP posted a 10% increase in turnover for the 2007-08 financial year, with revenues reaching £186m, up from £169m the previous year. However, profits per equity partner fell by 6% to £620,000 from £660,000 the previous year.
"The hours are ok and the work is super," raves one former magic circle lawyer now at BLP. "I'm staying for a lot longer [and] I can't imagine another firm in London with better prospects of becoming one of the City's elite firms."
BLP has put plenty of effort and cash into shedding its reputation as simply a property firm , albeit a very good one. While the flagship real estate group - including planning and development - is still a large chunk of the practice, corporate and competition are just two areas that have been targeted for investment.
"The work in corporate is more comparable to that of national firms or the likes of Lawrence Graham than the magic circle," says one contributor. "If you want AIM work it's a good place but it doesn't have the same bluechip reputation in private equity as, say, Ashurst, Macfarlanes or Travers [Smith]. And it doesn't have the same reputation in public M&A as the magic circle."
However, one Ashurst contributor (see post below) laughs off the suggestions that BLP's corporate team should be mentioned in the same breath as old Lawrence Graham, describing BLP as a "much more prestigious firm" in this regard.
"I think the [previous] contributor is right that BLP's work is more comparable to Lawrence Graham and the national firms than the magic circle or work of the top 10," counters another contributor. "When was BLP last on a billon-pound corporate deal? Which publications rate it as high as Travers, Macfarlanes or Ashurst in private equity and which rate it anywhere near the magic circle or international firms for public M&A?"
Another adds: "It may be a different firm in five-10 years but at the moment, from the inside, it is not doing the billion-pound deals or working on the most cutting-edge deals in private equity or M&A. It's not just miles away from private equity firms like Travers [and] Macfarlanes... but is also miles away from most of the firms above it in terms of public work too - not just the magic circle but firms like Norton Rose, Simmons, Ashurst and Lovells."
"BLP is an exceptional finance practice for its size," says an A&O lawyer, "and I would agree that it certainly cuts above the rest of the mid-market for its finance work. I had friends there who were snapped up by leading global finance practices, which tells a story about the quality of the finance people at the firm."
BLP has also made a play in sectors such as leisure and online gaming, with some notable successes.
The firm has offices in Abu Dhabi, Brussels, Paris and Singapore, and in December 2008 completed a tie-up with partners from one of Russia's leading firms, Pepeliaev Goltsblat and Partners, to form Goltsblat BLP.
The firm also has a number of strategic alliances with European firms including a non-exclusive 'best friends' relationship with Beiten Burkhardt in Germany, as well as links with Lefevre Pelletier & Associes and DePardieu Brocas Maffei & Associes in France and Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel in the US.
While the hire of real estate head Robert MacGregor from Clifford Chance (CC) remains perhaps BLP's most eye-catching lateral of recent years, the capture of Lovells securitisation partner Tamara Box in 2006 is highlighted by one contributor as a "significant gain" for the City firm. The contributor regards Box as "one of the country's leading securitisation lawyers", with her hire emblematic of the major push BLP has made in this area of late.
In 2007 the firm bagged star Herbert Smith real estate partner Chris de Pury (following a fairly acrimonious split) - arguably one of London's top property lawyers - and the same year went back to CC for rated tax partner Michael Wistow.
Corporate finance chief David Collins is a high-profile member of the transactional team.
While the firm has expanded ambitiously with a series of eye-catching partner hires, one contributor says a consequence of this is an even tougher environment for home-grown lawyers to gain promotion. "Making equity partner is next to impossible," he complains. However, BLP seems to have acknowledged such concerns, with the firm among those to look at alternative career paths for its junior lawyers.
In 2006 the firm promoted a record 13 associates to partner, but that dipped to six a year later and in April 2008 the firm made up just five, all of whom were based in the City.
BLP has upped rates for trainees with those in the first year now netting £37,000. NQ pay at the top 20 UK firm is £65,000 and associates with one year's post-qualification experience (PQE) receive £70,000.
One contributor questions the transparency - and the value - of the firm's bonus system. He writes: "The award-winning benefits package is a masterful display of smoke and mirrors: you actually just get less of everything and an incredibly over-complex claim to process."
"The bonus is a bizarre flat scheme whose calculation is unfathomable," claims a contributor. "It appears that most of the bonus money is already allocated to a few star partners so there is little left over for others. Senior associates tend to get £7,500 or so maximum, while juniors get £2,500 or so."
He adds: "The benefits package basically is £275 to spend as you wish - be it towards gym subscriptions or dental insurance. It doesn't compare to most other firms in the top 25 or better US firms."
One BLP assistant adds: "The firm cuts certain lateral hires (including assistants) deals that far exceed what they pay those who have been here for a long time. The inconsistancies, while not publicised, are very disheartening."
BLP is among those firms considering new career paths for associates as partnership across the City becomes increasingly elusive.
"Good idea with the alternative to partner," says a partner at a City rival, "though I'm not quite sure how it actually works."
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