‘Wragge & Co was the Mishcon of its day.’ That statement from a former veteran of the Midlands giant sums it up in many ways.
In the late 1990s Wragges wasn’t just the best law firm the English regions had bred, it was a firm that broke the rules. The mix of flair, quality lawyering and an ability to astutely break away from the herd had few if any direct comparisons at the time. Wragges had a recognition and respect in the City absent from most national and regional competitors. More than that, Wragges stood out from rivals and could quicken the professional pulse in a way that Mishcon de Reya does today.
That’s not to say that the intervening years have been a disaster. The 119-partner firm remains a perfectly respectable performer. But along the way too many strategic shuffles and an uncertain crack at the City has stolen Wragges’ mystique. The firm also arguably allowed its practice to become too diffuse and lacked clarity over which section of the market it was focusing on, to the detriment of its corporate practice. Wragges’ famed morale is now, well, just like the rest.
Will its current merger bid with Lawrence Graham (LG) offer some solutions? It could. One major factor in a good tie-up is that both sides have a clear incentive to make it happen. Wragges needs a City deal – the firm has been hunting for years with increasing intensity for a union to give it the credibility it has yet to secure 14 years after launching in London. The list of credible remaining candidates with real interest is hardly extensive. LG, meanwhile, with revenues down 23% in five years, cannot keep on this current track forever. Saddled with expensive property, the firm’s profitability badly lags behind its peer group, though a sub-let deal cut this year with Bond Dickinson has at least eased that issue.
For all the spin coming out of both firms, neither has a huge range of attractive options and this tie-up would look to address a number of their respective challenges. It goes without saying that creating a £170m business would bring a solid London practice and give the pair a balance sheet that could conceivably fund the kind of international expansion required.
Culture? Practice fit? Profitability? Aside from the combined firm coming in a little heavy on real estate, they are all close enough, and these kind of issues usually only block marginal deals. Securing what would be an effective takeover would also give Wragges a chance to reboot in a wider sense as new management comes in over the next 18 months.
It would certainly be nice to see Wragges back to its best. A Midlands/City player with full-service muscle, an imaginative feel for what the modern GC wants, and a dash of the old magic could be a potent force in the modern profession.