Author: Legal Week
08 Jan 2007 | 14:45
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Osborne Clarke (OC) remains one of the UK's most distinctive legal practices, defying easy categorisation. On one hand, the firm is a major force in the southwest, where its full-service commercial practice is inevitably compared to fellow Bristol royalty Burges Salmon. Yet the firm's practice across its UK network in London and Reading bears as much comparison to City media leader Olswang, thanks to its focus on media and technology clients. Likewise, the firm's international network shows some resemblance to a smaller version of DLA Piper's European alliance.
Whatever benchmark you use, OC has fashioned itself into one of the UK's most successful firms to hail from outside the Square Mile, having rebounded after a painful period during 2002-04, when the firm suffered from the collapse in its core corporate technology market.
The 100-partner practice is now the 36th largest UK-based firm by revenue, with 2008-09 turnover of £84m and average equity partner profits of £352,000.
OC's recent history is bound up by two things that made the firm stand out from its peer group: international expansion and the influence of high-profile former managing partner Leslie Perrin.
By the end of the 1980s the firm had established a respected full-service commercial practice that, alongside Burges Salmon, had first pick of the plc clients operating in the southwest corridor. But OC marked itself out at an early stage as a firm unsatisfied with remaining on its home-turf.
The first sign of this was the creation of a loose grouping of European firms, including the Rotterdam-based Ploum Lodder Princen and Horten & Partner in Copenhagen, in the early 1990s. The unusual move partly reflected Bristol's links with the continent as a major sea port. This alliance was to swell considerably in 1998 with the addition of 35-partner German firm Graf von Westphalen Fritze & Modest and Milan practice Croze Radice & Associati, under the banner Osborne Westphalen International.
This was a clear indication that OC was aiming to build a fully-fledged network across Europe under the leadership of the charismatic Perrin, a trail-blazing move at the time for a firm of OC's size and regional roots. This was reinforced two years later as the grouping was restructured as a six-firm formal alliance, Osborne Westphalen Alliance, with additional commitments to joint marketing and back-office integration.
By this stage it was clear that OC's ambitions lay in expanding the grouping into a fully-integrated European network. This audacious style was underlined in 2000 when the firm transferred one of its leading corporate partners, Simon Beswick, to Palo Alto to set up a referral branch to win more corporate technology business from Silicon Valley, making OC the first UK firm to set up in California.
But the firm proved to have (for the time being) over-reached itself, as the 2001-02 collapse of the dot.com market sent shockwaves through its core corporate technology market. At first the firm, which had been aggressively expanding its London arm since the mid-90s, was to carry on growing, only to realise it had to start cutting back drastically.
Partly in response, Beswick (pictured right) was in 2002 appointed to take over as managing partner from Perrin, who assumed the senior partner role. It was Beswick's job to stablise the ship and he promptly began cutting costs. This led the firm to initially cut four partners and five assistants in September 2002, followed by a further run of job cuts among support staff in 2003. That two-year period saw no less than 25 partners leave the firm, a good number of which the firm publicly asserted were managed exits. At the same time, the firm's average partner profits sunk to £270,000.
However, this period of retrenchment and austerity was to ultimately prove effective, with OC achieving substantial improvements in growth and partner profits between 2005 and 2007. Beswick was confirmed for a second four-year term in January 2007. The retirement of Perrin in 2006 saw City head Tim Birt assume the senior partner role.
Perhaps surprisingly for a firm that had to comprehensively restructure its practice (leading to a substantial number of departures at all levels of the business), OC retains a decent reputation for its culture and treatment of staff, with partners generally cited as helpful and supportive. In keeping with its image as a media and technology-focused operation, the firm is seen as energetic, especially at its London arm, which has grown substantially in recent years.
OC maintains a high-quality, full-service practice, particularly in its Bristol heartland, where - along with Burges Salmon - it has top-tier local coverage in all the key practice areas. In particular, OC is viewed as one of the best banking advisers outside of London.
Fittingly for a practice that has been 3i's go-to firm in the southwest for years, OC also packs a punch in corporate, though its London arm is (unsurprisingly) more of a mid-market operation, with a defined focus on technology clients and AIM work. The firm is also a credible player in employment, intellectual property and general litigation and has one of the few decent pension teams outside London.
Industry sectors in which OC is particularly strong include life sciences, media, publishing, technology, entertainment, telecoms and advertising.
Despite putting its plans for fully-integrated foreign expansion largely on hold, OC still maintains an uncommonly broad international reach for a firm of its size. Its own offices cover sizeable operations in Bristol, Reading and London in the UK. The firm also its own practices in Cologne and Munich - which were set up after OC split with Graf von Westphalen - and its Palo Alto branch, which is focused on winning referrals rather than US law.
The firm also has coverage in many of Europe's major cities through the Osborne Clarke Alliance, including Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, Milan and Paris.
OC has built up an enviable roster of clients. Among its trophy clients are Consensus Business Group, Vodafone, RAB Capital, Eurostar, Royal Bank of Scotland, Dell, nPower Topland, Close Brothers, Marks & Spencer, ROK, 3i, News International, Thames Water, Transport for London, Asda, Barratt, Nintendo, UBM and Nomura.
In spring 2008 OC landed a spot on the new panel of comms giant Motorola, putting the firm in line to handle the bulk of the company's UK work alongside southwest rival and fellow panel-member Bevan Brittan.
Key partners include advertising and marketing specialists Stephen Groom and Nick Johnson and senior partner Tim Birt. The line-up in the firm's well-regarded finance practice includes Hugh Jones, John Barker and Omar Al-Nuaimi, with Nigel Boobier and Claire Bundy leading names on the insolvency and restructuring side.
The firm's media profile rests to a considerable degree on Paul Gardner, while the firm's IT clients turn to senior lawyers like Andrew Braithwaite and Simon Rendell.
Head of corporate Adrian Bott, who was recruited from Olswang, is one of the firm's best known lawyers in the City.
Pretty good. With its period of retrenchment well behind it, OC would seem to have a solid foundation on which to build and the firm has managed above-trend growth for the last three years. The firm also has a good reputation for training, development and giving assistants early client contact.
The firm pays near the top of its respective markets for assistants after raising its salary bands substantially in 2007. This means newly-qualified assistants in London now receive £63,000, up from £51,000. NQs in Reading receive £50,000, which makes them the best-paid assistants outside London, while OC also leads the market in Bristol, where its lawyers start on £41,000.
Trainees in London and Reading are paid £34,000, rising to £35,000 in the second year. In Bristol, the rates for trainees start at £30,000, rising to £31,000.
The firm also has a reputation - at least by the more parsimonious standards of national firms - of handing out sizeable bonus payments in good years. In 2007, some staff received bonus payments worth up to 25% of salary.
OC takes on around 20 trainees a year. The firm's main recruitment contacts are Naomi Birch (general) and Melanie Ross or Heather Stallabrass (graduate recruitment).
Click here for more careers information on the firm.
Like most nationally-spread law firms, OC has a reputation for being a little less hours-centric that comparable City firms. In addition, the firm is viewed as offering better than average work-life balance and flexibility.
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