Given that I get paid to poke around law firms’ inner workings, it’s not that often that I find it hard to get my head around a law firm but CMS Cameron McKenna in its 2014 form is one such creature.
The clichéd view of the firm is of a slow-moving practice struggling with a hard-to-sell international alliance and a classic case of chasing pack malaise – too close to the Magic Circle for comfort, but too big to have the lean focus of a quality mid-tier. Like most clichés there is more than a grain of truth in this view but, as Camerons absorbs Scotland’s most storied law firm Dundas & Wilson, at closer glance the truth looks far more complex and interesting.
For one Camerons has been through a barrage of under-the-bonnet restructuring post-Lehman that has comprehensively re-fashioned its business, cost-base and partnership. The firm will only have to see a marginal increase in its business and its top-line to see profits rocket. The coming bounty of a great commercial deal on its new Cannon Place office also promises to be the gift that keeps on giving.
And though the Dundas deal has suffered some criticism, in many ways it looks a promisingly pragmatic bit of work – certainly low risk but with a moderate-to-high potential upside.
But then Camerons is a practice with some contradictions. Typically law firms are badged as either actively managed or collegiate partnerships. Camerons is both and has, in contrast to its peer group, achieved this balance without much apparent damage to fee-earner morale or even some of its own partners noticing the shift in tone.
It will be interesting to see if the expansionist pairing of new senior partner Penelope Warne and second-term managing partner Duncan Weston will move the firm to capitalise on its leaner and more focused form to push through a more outwardly ambitious agenda.
Part of the reason for confusion around the firm is, of course, CMS, the European alliance that Camerons founded 15 years ago. In moving to understandably push the one-entity CMS message, Camerons has at times hurt its own domestic brand due to the problems of pitching such a distinctive institution. And neutral observers would still see CMS as somewhat short of the pitch.
But on closer inspection, the consensus view is that the CMS grouping has continually out-performed expectations both in economic terms and in building co-ordination. More has been achieved than is supposed outside Camerons. If this message can be communicated to bluechip clients, CMS may yet live up to its own brochure.
Not that it is all positive. Questions remain about the extent to which the firm is motivating its expanded junior ranks and it’s not ideal that its revenues remain more than 10% below its boom-time high.
Still, the conclusion has to be that CMS Cameron McKenna looks to be one of the most interestingly positioned top 50 firms for the years ahead.
For in-depth analysis of CMS Cameron McKenna see The Programme – how Dundas & Wilson fits into the CMS masterplan