Scottish legal awards: Optimism is in the wind
TWO new categories in the Scott+Co Legal Awards 2010 offer a microcosm of the legal market during the year - for good and for bad.
The Energy Team of the Year reflects the huge growth in activity in the renewables sector, enthusiastically supported by government and one of the few areas of the economy where investment and employment numbers look certain to grow considerably.
The Banking Team of The Year also returns to the awards for 2010 - and while firms have been involved in more "good banking" activity as the year has gone on, much of the work in the sector has focussed on restructuring and insolvency in the face of the worst economic conditions most lawyers can remember.
A third new category - the Innovation Award - will cut across energy, banking and much more. This award will go to a firm which has shown the qualities needed in the face of a recession - adaptability, resourcefulness and an ability to think differently.
One thing that judges will be looking for across all the categories, as well as innovation, is honesty - and genuine expertise in the award category.
Yvonne Brady, DLA Piper's head of restructuring in Scotland, explains: "The Scottish legal sector has been quite fleet of foot and moved fairly fast to adapt to the economic conditions. However, although restructuring and insolvency is not black magic, it does require certain skills and knowledge - firms cannot just re-badge their people from other areas.
"You need relevant experience - or to be learning from people who have been there before. This is the third recession I have seen - and although everybody thinks it's horrific, we will come out of it."
Martin Darroch, chief executive of last year's Firm of the Year Harper MacLeod, makes a similar point about businesses "re-badging". He says: "Legal firms can change their focus, but they have to remain true to what they are. If you pretend to be something you are not, you will be found out pretty quickly."
This is particularly true in the field of renewable energy. One partner in a large Scottish firm says: "Lots of companies see pound signs in renewable energy, so they just declare themselves specialists in the field - but it can't just be about putting a 'green wash' on the firm. There has to be knowledge and substance."
One legal business that has joined up its thinking in renewable energy with the broader environmental agenda is Tods Murray.
The firm's Green Team brings together all its environmental disciplines - including everything from rural property matters to renewables.Richard Leslie, partner and head of the Green Team, says there are huge opportunities for good firms. "Scotland has an opportunity to become a world leader in renewable energy," he says. "Over the past year, our team has been involved in a number of renewable energy projects, most notably in on-shore wind farms - including Europe's largest operational wind farm at Whitelee, near Glasgow - and hydro electric schemes and microgeneration projects."
Stuart Rowson, a partner in Tods Murray specialising in renewable energy, said: "Innovation holds the key to whether Scotland can capitalise on the vast renewable resources off its coasts - with a history of world-class inventiveness there's no reason why Scotland can't rise to this challenge."
Yvonne Brady thinks that the Scottish legal sector has been resourceful in the face of new challenges surrounding banking and insolvency practice - but warns that there are many new challenges ahead: "Generally, there is a holding pattern - no-one is doing anything too exciting or edgy. Everyone is waiting for the tipping-point if the economy fails to take a bounce and we see a big rise in business failure. No-one agrees when that might be - any time from the end of this year to the middle of 2012."
Ms Brady says that in terms of the distressed banking sector, there has been a shift away from property. "Until the end of 2009, there was a deluge of problems in the property sector - now there is more of a balance. The leisure sector has been quite badly hit but there have not been the number of retail failures predicted. What we are seeing generally is when businesses do fail, people are buying them - but there isn't sufficient momentum yet to say we are coming out of it.
"There are some clever players increasing their coverage and making some very strategic acquisitions. Massive projects are not happening but many firms still have money to spend."
The DLA Piper team was placed in Band 1 of the latest Chambers and Legal 500 listings for insolvency and restructuring practices. Dundas & Wilson, Shepherd & Wedderburn, Brodies and Maclay Murray & Spens are also prominent in the sector. One source said: "D&W have been a big player for years and Shepherd & Wedderburn have a good, in-depth presence."
Both Dundas & Wilson and Shepherd & Wedderburn also feature in Band 1 of the renewable energy sector of Legal 500 and Chambers, alongside McGrigors, who also feature in Band 2 of the oil and gas sector, an area still dominated by CMS Cameron McKenna.
Joy Glass, a partner in Scott+Co, main sponsor of the awards, sums up the character of the 2011 programme: "The Scottish legal business is looking forward with greater optimism than could have been predicted 12 months ago.With the pace of business picking up, the time is perfect for showing off skills and recognising triumphs."
• There are 19 awards up for grabs this year; the closing date for entries is Friday 3 December. For full details, see www.thelegalawards.com
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