Law brands may go, but new combinations flourish – Allan Wernham

Five years on from Dundas & Wilson’s combination with CMS, we should not mourn the loss of Scottish law firm brands.

Allan Wernham is Managing Director Scotland, CMS
Allan Wernham is Managing Director Scotland, CMS

The number of elite Scottish law firm brands have diminished over the last decade, but we should not feel sentimental about the passing of historic names. My firm, Dundas & Wilson (D&W), entered a landmark combination with CMS five years ago, and while there have been operational and cultural challenges to overcome, I do not regret for a minute the decision for D&W to become part of a larger international law firm.

Over the last decade, a series of major Scottish law firms have also become part of national or international legal giants. D&W was one of the most prestigious legal names in Scotland, but as a business we have always been forward thinking – we were part of Andersen Legal in the 1990s until 2002 – and our tie-up with CMS in 2014 was simply too compelling. Hand on heart, I can honestly say it has been transformational, not just for the legacy Scottish firm, but for the market in general.

We needed to offer clients a credible proposition beyond our borders and recognised that most businesses were radically reducing their panels of legal advisers. We could see a point where we might struggle to get the Scottish end of top-quality UK or international work.

There was a period in the mid-late 2000s when Scottish legal brands were in the ascendancy with record revenues. We rode the wave of growth created by a fast expanding financial services community and rising oil and gas prices. But then the financial crisis hit.

We realised we were too focused on a small number of clients and were struggling to build national credibility by developing a prominent London office from scratch. It proved especially hard to achieve the necessary depth of roots and cultural affinity with the London market.

Although there were clear synergies between D&W and CMS, such as notable strengths in financial services and energy, I wouldn’t say the combination has been easy.

One big concern has been the perception of the business within Scotland. With so many new national and international brands now part of the Scottish legal sector, we recognised that local businesses were becoming anxious that local lawyers were turning their sights to English and international matters rather than their home market. One of my priorities since becoming Scotland Managing Director 14 months ago has been to remind the local market we are serious about Scotland. We are not here to simply service London work at Scottish rates. There is a massive long-term risk around that, especially as it would not be a strong enough business model to attract and retain the best lawyers.

Being part of CMS has actually helped us to attract the finest talent. In my practice area, real estate, I remember a time shortly after the CMS combination when we suddenly had seven vacancies to satisfy growth and were able to fill them almost immediately, because we had enthusiasm from the best candidates in the market. Since 2014, we’ve also welcomed 23 new partners in Scotland through appointment and promotion, accounting for a third of our current Scottish-based partners.

Our practice is also better hedged against economic volatility by being part of a global law firm. I’m also hugely positive about the Scottish economy itself, despite recent underperformance. The tourism and hospitality, food and drink and renewables sectors are poised for significant growth over the next few years. We see a rapidly expanding fintech sector, people are investing in real estate, and we have two prominent international cities in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

I think the global firm has also learned a great deal from the CMS and D&W combination, and these lessons were leveraged when CMS entered its landmark three-way merger with Nabarro and Olswang in May 2017, creating the world’s fifth largest law firm by lawyer headcount and sixth largest in the UK by revenue. That was an immense challenge made easier by what D&W and CMS had experienced before.

We can use these experiences to achieve further strategic growth. So, while it may be a shame that the D&W brand no longer exists, it would be foolish to be nostalgic about the past when the future is worth relishing.

Allan Wernham is Managing Director Scotland, CMS