Etchells: ‘I don’t think independence would be good for Scottish business’

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THE new managing partner at a major Scottish law firm has warned that uncertainty surrounding the constitutional debate could have a negative impact on the sector in 2012.

Simon Etchells, who took over at Semple Fraser on 1 January, said legal firms face very serious challenges – including the discussions on independence.

“The biggest challenges are a quiescent level of activity and a need to regenerate business confidence. It is hard to think a level of uncertainty will not be injected by the independence debate. If you are outwith Scotland and thinking of investing, it must be in your thoughts.

“I do not see that as a positive for Scotland; we have bigger problems to deal with. Where folk do not know the position in relation to their business context, that adds uncertainty.

“Would I have concerns about an independent Scotland? Yes, I would; I do not think it would be good for Scottish business.”

The firm has 22 partners and employs 130 people at offices in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Manchester.

“At the moment, we operate in a single national environment in the UK, but should there be a change, you would just have to operate in a multinational environment,” he added.

Etchells, a real estate specialist, succeeded Alister Fraser as managing partner. Fraser, after 19 years as MP, moved to the chairman’s seat, with Andrew Hastings promoted from finance director to chief operating officer. This is “an important new role”, says Etchells, which will free up others to “look outwards” and allow him to concentrate on helping clients.

So why the big changes? “We had been talking about a change in governance for some time – and reached the end of the process. I have been in the business from the start and worked with Alister for 25 years.”

What attributes does Etchells bring? “The continued energy I brought to developing the business [including two years in Manchester] – and I am very focused, client-driven and believe in the ability to communicate, externally and internally.”

Etchells says he plans to be “highly visible” in all three offices this year, with a focus across the firm’s key areas of banking and finance, real estate, renewables and energy, waste, the digital economy, life sciences, and construction and engineering.

The keys to success, he says, are flexibility and fleet-footedness: “The market has changed fundamentally and only those that continue to flex will do well in what is going to be another tough year. Early 2012 will be very tough for service businesses. In an uncertain market, you have to change and be willing to look at things differently.”

Etchells says the firm, whose turnover nudged back up to £12.2m in the year to April 2011 from £11.06m the previous year (down £1m on the year to April 2009) embraces change: “We are very independently minded and don’t operate in silos. Yes, we do the legal stuff but we deliver business advantage to clients, we network them together so we all move forward.”

Energy and waste are doing very well for Semple Fraser, and although real estate is also performing, he admits corporate has been tough: “The Scottish market has seen real challenges and we derive tremendous benefit from a UK focus. Our corporate lawyers are all dual-qualified.”

Etchells is a positive character. He says Semple Fraser has already had “some very big wins across different sectors” in early 2012, but won’t say what. However, he is not on the acquisition trail: “That’s not on my agenda, but do I see more consolidation in the sector? Yes, I do.”