‘Two people leaving doesn’t mean the whole business collapses,’ says Neville Eisenberg, Berwin Leighton Paisner’s (BLP) managing partner of 14 years, of the latest departures to hit the firm and, in particular, its Managed Legal Services (MLS) division.
MLS, which has struggled to make any headway in its model of absorbing in-house teams and effectively taking over the running of their legal function, has lost Patrick Somers, Thames Water’s relationship partner who helped to lead the project, as it also emerged that the firm’s star lateral hire Andrew Bamber, an acquisition finance partner who joined from Allen & Overy in 2009, has left the firm.
Corporate partner Keith Stella has taken over the Thames Water relationship, working alongside corporate head John Bennett, who has been heavily involved since the beginning of the project.
As is becoming a feature of BLP 2013, the firm is as tight-lipped about the circumstances behind the partners’ departure and their destination as it is about its profit figure this year (said to be down by up to 50%), inevitably resulting in speculation that things are worse than the firm would like the market to believe.
Somers helped to set up MLS in 2010, having joined BLP in 2005 from Hammonds, now Squire Saunders, where he was head of corporate. The model was a bold move and to a great extent ahead of its time, coming as it did well before the Legal Services Act made innovative business models a near everyday occurrence.
The division’s first instruction seemed to herald great things, involving taking on almost the entire legal operations of Thames Water, worth an estimated £5m, leaving only general counsel Joel Hanson with the company.
This contract, a coup for BLP, saw the top 20 firm take over the work from Thames Water’s legal panel, which included A&O, Ashurst, Dentons, DLA Piper, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Linklaters.
However, unlike BLP’s innovative and market leading flexible staffing model Lawyers on Demand, in which the firm has an 80% stake and generated £9m last year, MLS has subsequently failed to repeat this initial success, missing out on mandates from Yorkshire Water and Colt Technology Services. By comparison, single service retainer models such as Eversheds has with Tyco have fared moderately better. When BLP lost out on Colt’s business in 2011 it was notably to Greenberg Traurig Maher on a single services employment law deal.
Having failed to take off as a concept it appears entirely sensible that MLS is now regrouping around Thames, and also focussing on a more moderate approach to helping existing clients.
More surprisingly, the firm seems determined to retain the idea of MLS as a separate business line, albeit it seems to bear little resemblance to the original concept. Eisenberg told Legal Business: ‘The orientation is changing a bit, previously we were concerned with new opportunities outside of the firm’s regular business. We’re re-orientating the MLS towards our existing clients and developing solutions for them. It’s a slight change in emphasis but MLS continues.’