Leeds legal sector flourishes despite recession

Closed firms, redundancies, corporate downsizings and a lack of opportunities for young lawyers have created the impression that the Leeds law scene is in the doldrums. But despite over 20 law firms going to the wall in the last three years, the green shoots of recovery are beginning to emerge in the city. 

At least 23 law firms have closed up and down the country in the last three years, falling victim to the recession. However, this hasn’t deterred lawyers here in Yorkshire as three firms opened offices in Leeds last year and many more are expanding.

Law firms Gateley, WoodsWhur and Dickinson-Dees all recently opened offices in the city with John Marshall, Senior Director at Dickinson-Dees, acknowledging that it hosts a range of new challenges and opportunities.

“We have been reviewing our strategy to take the firm forward over the last two years and it became clear that in order to achieve our plans for expansion and growth, it was time to take the firm to Leeds which is the heart of the legal scene in Yorkshire.

By moving to one of the top financial cities in the country, we are positioning ourselves for further growth and expansion of our business.”

The firm is also positioning itself for easy accessibility as the geography and transport links makes Leeds a favourite amongst lawyers with Richard Marshall, Managing Director at Lupton Fawcett, acknowledging that the city is right in the middle of England and has good road and rail infrastructure to London, Scotland and many other places.

The location makes it easier for lawyers to offer a more direct, ‘hands on’ approach to clients as it is easier for them to travel up and down the country.

The relocation of Dickinson- Dees opens up further employment opportunities as it hopes to recruit new members of staff.  “We currently employ over 50 people in York and will have the capacity to almost double that in our new premises in Leeds.

Since the announcement of our move to Leeds, we have initiated a campaign to attract high-calibre lawyers to join our expanding team and we intend to increase the number of employees at a senior level.” says Marshall.

Well established firms, like Dickinson- Dees and Gateley, see relocating to Leeds as a key part of their expansion strategy as it boasts the biggest legal sector outside of London. Firms wanting to compete with the best in the business see moving here as an ambitious but vital step.

“This opening is an important phase in our development and follows a busy and successful year. Like many, we have found market conditions challenging but we have continued to maximise opportunities for growth.” says Michael Ward, Gateley senior partner.

Seeking new opportunities is also crucial for firms wanting to survive the impact of the Alternative Business Structure (ABS) which has changed the way in which legal services are delivered under The Legal Services act. The law- often referred to as Tesco Law- allows non-lawyer owned businesses, such as Co-op, to offer legal aid to customers, increasing competition.

This is impacting on the traditional high street law firms in Leeds who aren’t adapting to the new business model with Brook North, the oldest firm in Yorkshire, recently being forced to close its doors after 150 years.

Rodney Dalton, a lawyer at Brooke North, blames the closure on the firm’s business model. He said their approach of offering a bespoke service across different areas of law rather than a “one stop shop” for its clients actually had a negative effect.

Although the introduction of ABS is having a negative effect on some traditional high street firms, with supermarkets threatening to offer the same service at a competitive price, it fails to touch those that cater to a niche market.

Leading licensing lawyers, Andrew Woods and Paddy Whur, opened WoodsWhur solicitors at the start of October and Woods believes specialising in a specific area is the key to surviving the economic recession and threat from ABS.

“If I was giving advice to someone setting up a business, no matter what you are doing, I would say become extremely specialised and have a niche. If you are making a nut to a Rolls Royce that nobody else makes then they have to come to you, they have a great contract. We have a specialist type of legal service which we can offer through knowledge and the way we deal with clients. It is having that niche market that sets us apart.”

The smaller firms like WoodsWhur and FrontRow Legal (a specialist sports law firm) favour Leeds to any other city as it has the same professional reputation as London without the expensive price tag.

“You have to earn big fees just to justify your presence in London, it is a hard life down there” said Richard Cramer, managing director of FrontRow legal. “Being based in Leeds is more cost effective and means I can charge my clients better rates.”

Other Leeds based firms that have beaten the recession and continued to expand in 2011 are Gordons, Ward Hadaway, Neil Hudgell Solicitors, and Clarion; who have recruited more than 30 members of staff in the last twelve months.

“Although we and our clients have faced an extremely tough economic environment, the downturn has also presented some opportunities with businesses which are able to offer first rate levels of service more cost-effectively proving able to buck the trend,” said Clarion managing partner, Mark Burns.

The affordable business environment, highly skilled work force and excellent transport links make Leeds a breeding ground for law firms with Capsticks, WoodWhur, Gateley and Dickinson-Dees all opening up offices in 2011. As the legal sector begins to thrive again, it’s hard to believe that we are in the midst of an economic crisis.

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