Legal Business Blogs

Latest Dundas departures are reminder of pressure facing Scotland’s most storied firms

Dundas & Wilson is bracing itself for the departure of three more partners from the firm’s London arm. Corporate partners Julian Matthews and Simon Sale, along with banking and finance partner Michael Wrigley have decided to leave the Scots leader, which has faced a difficult few years by any yardstick.

These moves compound an unsettled time for the firm’s London office, that last year saw Martin Thomas, one of the firm’s top litigators, leave for Wragge & Co, along with banking partner John Pike, who quit for Osborne Clarke. More recent senior departures include TMT partner Paul Graham, who left for Field Fisher Waterhouse, while real estate partner Nick Padget left for Osborne Clarke. Of this month’s departures, it is thought that Wrigley and Matthews will leave immediately, with Sale leaving next month. Familiar questions about the firm’s London ambitions have been raised.

Caryn Penley, joint managing partner at Dundas, said in response: ‘We have been open about our plans to manage our business. We are focussing on our strengths in both Scotland and London. Last month, for the first time, we were appointed to the Government Procurement Service legal panel in England & Wales. Our London office is a key platform for us going forward.’

The firm’s financial state may shed some light on the number of departures. Last year, the firm’s turnover dropped by 12% to £54.5m, while the bottom line came under severe pressure. Profit per lawyer was down by 36% from the previous year, to £49,000, and profit per equity partner was down by a similarly stark 38%, to just £203,000, well under half the average across the UK top 50.

Dundas’s problems undoubtedly reflect the long-term pressure on leading Scottish firms, which have been heavily impacted by the diminished status of Edinburgh as a finance centre since the credit crunch hit in 2007.

With Scots leaders struggling to build national UK practices, many have flirted with mergers, with Dundas being linked to a string of deals, including an abortive and unhappy attempt to align with London’s Bircham Dyson Bell, which was abandoned in 2011.

Evidence of the reduced status of Scotland’s legal elite was seen in 2012 when old rival McGrigors submitted to an unceremonious takeover by Pinsent Masons, a deal that would have been unthinkable on such terms a decade ago.

While it is apparent that some departures were agreed, it is clear that Dundas’s options to sustain its position as a credible national UK player without a merger (or more likely takeover) are reducing quickly. If Dundas – with over 200 years of history and still regarded as the bellwether for high-end commercial practice north of the border – was to lose independence, the implications for Scotland’s legal market would be very considerable indeed.