The Leeds and Manchester Legal markets – A tale of two cities!

The rivalry between the red and the white rose is well documented, but the two northern economic heavyweights have also always enjoyed a healthy degree of competition as far as their respective legal markets are concerned. Traditionally, Leeds was seen as possessing the second largest, most dynamic legal sector outside London. But as we continue to enter more prosperous time, is this still the case? Or has Manchester managed to overturn its old adversary?

The wonder years

In 2006, before the clouds of recession had started to gather, Leeds was arguably the second biggest legal and financial market outside the City. The total number of law firms stood at 244, boasting some 2,500 lawyers. The bulk of the big ticket work was fought for between the six national and Leeds-based firms of Addleshaws, DLA Piper, Eversheds, Hammonds, Pinsents and Walker Morris, with a few medium sized firms such as Lupton Fawcett, Clarion and Cobbetts making their presence felt.

But what made the city particularly impressive was the quality of high value, often international legal work which found its way into Yorkshire deal rooms. Back in 2006, I had just completed my training contract in Manchester, before joining one of the ‘Big Six’ firms in Leeds city centre. I was staggered by the nature of deals on which I found myself working.

Economic commentators often point quite correctly to the location of the city not-to-mention the physical size of its commercial centre as reasons why the corporate market flourished as well as it did. Not only is Leeds ideally placed geographically, benefiting from excellent links to London and the rest of the North, but its compact size also lends itself as an excellent place for lawyers, accountants and banks to network and do business.

What struck me, in particular, as a young newly qualified lawyer was the collegiality of the city. It seemed somehow more tightly knit than Manchester as if it were, in a way, more contained and self sufficient.

Hard times

Fast forward almost ten years and it appears that the balance of power may have changed. According to figures released by the Law Society in2014, Manchester now has 4,627 lawyers compared with Leed’s 3,028. Furthermore, in an article which appeared in the Yorkshire Post on 27 March 2014, the Chief Executive of the Law Society, Des Hudson commented that Manchester had overtaken Leeds as the fastest growing legal centre outside Leeds.

The economic turbulence of the last few years was cited as one of the key reasons for this sea change with “businesses that were previously owned and run and managed from Leeds disappearing or being taken over”. This in turn, Hudson observed, saw many key decision makers moving to London or Manchester.

Many leading lawyers in the Yorkshire legal services market were quick to take issue with these assertions. Mark Burn, senior partner at Clarion described Hudson’s comments as “nonsense”, whilst Chris Allen, managing partner at Blacks pointed to the many high profile Manchester law firm collapses which plagued the city’s legal community.

A balanced view

It is fair to say that the legal services market in Leeds has remained surprisingly stoic compared to that of Manchester. Apart from the merger with Squire Sanders which swallowed Hammonds – now appearing in its most recent incarnation as Squire Patton Boggs – the core Leeds players have remained unchanged.

Moreover, though the number of lawyers in Manchester has admittedly increased beyond the headcount in Leeds, it is not clear how many of these lawyers actually account for high vale corporate work. On the other hand, however, Manchester has certainly proven an attractive city over the past few years for large London, indeed international firms who want a commanding presence in the North. Clyde & Co, Slater Gordon, Berwin Layton Paisner, Nabarro, Fieldfisher are among a growing number legal service providers who have chosen Manchester to establish a northern foothold. And though one may point quite legitimately at the high profile collapses of Cobbetts and Haliwells, one could equally point to the likes of DWF and Brabners who have grown to fill the void left behind. Manchester is not without its own number of impressive single site law firm either: JMW and Turner Parkinson are good examples of firms who have flourished in the downturn.

When all said and done however, things usually move in cycles, so if Manchester has stolen the march from Leeds in recent times, this may only be a temporary state of affairs.

Great expectations

More importantly, there is a bigger picture to consider here. Whilst Leeds and Manchester have been regarded as rivals there are clear advantages in both cities pulling closer together.

In June last year, George Osborne outlined his intention for an economic power house in the North of England. On of the main challenges to achieve this is the high speed rail link between Leeds and Manchester, dubbed HS3. Cutting journey times to 30 minutes will make trans-pennine business even more attractive. That together with other lucrative northern markets such as Liverpool and Sheffield will only make the North an even more alluring place to do business than the city of London.

After all, if the markets of Leeds and Manchester, legal or otherwise, see themselves as partners instead of rivals they will reap richer rewards. Indeed, they may well become far greater than the sum of their parts.