Legal review: Chambers and Partners' director on how the year stacked up

Looking back at the thousands of interviews with lawyers and their clients we conducted for the latest Chambers UK guide, I am struck by how upbeat the market was. Research takes place from January to June – the prevailing feeling was that we were, ostensibly, coming out of Covid, returning to work, getting on with transactions and spending money.

“At the moment we are bursting at the seams hiring – we are outperforming last year,” a litigation partner told us. The apparent “post-pandemic boom” was a topic on many lawyers’ lips. “Big-ticket commercial activity was put on hold [during Covid]”, another said, encapsulating the prevailing feeling by predicting that M&A will “definitely increase and start to boom”.

Now I wonder if this optimism will be subverted by events. Chaos in Westminster, rising interest rates, never-ending rail strikes, the decline of high-street retail and the prospect of recession. Will the spring of 2022 come to be viewed as a brief respite between two storms? I expect the lawyers we speak to next year may well have had the wind knocked out of their sails.

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Looking at the international picture, though, such concerns seem parochial. Mass murder in Kiev immediately caused disquiet among the legal community. For one thing, many large law firms had offices in Moscow, which they – by and large – quickly divorced themselves of. Firms with prominent Edinburgh offices found themselves facing the prospect of increasingly bad press for each day they prevaricated over their Russian links. At Chambers, within a couple of days of the invasion we had made the decision to cease our coverage of the region.

Alex Marsh, director at Chambers and PartnersAlex Marsh, director at Chambers and Partners
Alex Marsh, director at Chambers and Partners

Ukraine, combined with Brexit, has also impacted the Scottish agricultural economy, and even its whisky production, because, as one lawyer summarised: “We have lost an awful lot of European labour.”

That said, in law, one person’s famine is always another’s feast. Any firm with energy clients outside Russia is seeing an uptick, as the choking of supply from the country creates a ripple effect throughout industry.

One other topic that has been on our minds since we visited firms in Edinburgh in May is returning to the workplace, post-Covid. I was impressed with Brodies’ sparkling new office on Morrison Street and learned that they, like almost all firms in the UK, are permanently moving to hybrid working.

Older partners tend to admit that they prefer in-office working, but accept that the reality is that most recruits will expect to skip their commute a couple of days a week. That’s expect, not request.

The war for talent remains a hot topic. In London, pay packets in the mid-£100,000s are not uncommon. Scotland knows that it can’t quite vie with those astronomicalfigures – and perhaps doesn’t want to – but there is nevertheless a ratchet effect that makes it impossible for competitive firms to avoid the arms race altogether. As one lawyer put it, “we are all going to have to compete for the best people, and that’s not just money, it’s about flexible working.”

Chambers’ bread and butter is revealing which firms have the best lawyers and departments for your legal matter. Brodies and Burness Paull remain Chambers’ Celtic and Rangers – you have to go back the best part of a decade to find a different top-two. Beyond this, though, there is more movement.

For a start, Harper Macleod has climbed from seventh position just two years ago to fourth, looking at their number of ranked departments.

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This is perhaps a bigger achievement that it might sound, given the fact that it is rare for the legal market to change dramatically in any given year.

But bear in mind that is only if we look at most rankings, which benefits larger firms. If we look at most Band 1 rankings only, we should get a view of the more elite end of the market. Slice the data this way, and you are confronted by a distinctly unchanging picture, with Brodies and Burness Paull accompanied by international firm Pinsent Masons. Other firms that have steadily made progress up the tables of late include Morton Fraser and the distinctly un-Scottish firms Clyde & Co and Burges Salmon.

The latter only arrived in Edinburgh’s Morrison Street in 2019, but has already made big waves in areas such as M&A, planning and real estate. It is known south of the Border as a firm from Bristol with strong national practices across a variety of areas, including transport, public procurement, renewable energy and pensions litigation.

We’re not expecting Burges Salmon to vie with the traditional Scottish leaders anytime soon, but it’s a further sign that the market isn’t getting any less competitive.

- Alex Marsh is UK research director at Chambers and Partners

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