German independents maintain elite status in a fiercely competitive market, despite the attention of some formidable global players.
‘Our market is one of the most competitive in the world,’ asserts Tobias Bürgers, co-managing partner of Noerr, Germany’s largest independent law firm with 427 fee-earners. In 2015, Noerr increased turnover by 5% to €207.7m.
‘Over the last eight years, we’ve had 70% revenue growth. We’ve outperformed the market proportionately, relative to other firms,’ he adds.
A new generation is revitalising the performance of a trio of Italian leaders committed to remaining steadfastly independent
It’s been a hard decade for Italy, not least for its law firms: the product of a flat economy and relatively few deals. Even before the crisis, the economy had the lowest sustained growth of any OECD country. But there has been a recent renaissance, of sorts, with GDP optimistically predicted to rise by 1.6% in 2016, while concluded deals totalled €50bn in each of the last two years, according to KPMG.
Strong competition from UK and US firms in Paris and a penchant for tight, focused practices means French firms do not feature large among the Euro Elite.
With its lack of large full-service domestic law firms, the French legal market is unique when compared with other European jurisdictions. A traditional culture of non-partnership and a low threshold when it comes to international investment has created a legal landscape where the few larger French firms face fierce competition from smaller French boutiques, as well as the significant US and UK presence that dominates the Paris market.
Dominant in their home markets, law firms from Spain and Portugal have weathered the tempest by heading for far-flung locations.
As the EU’s fifth-largest economy, Spain is home to two of Europe’s legal giants, Garrigues and Cuatrecasas, Gonçalves Pereira: between them they have more lawyers worldwide than Linklaters – 1,410 and 970 respectively. In dwarfing the local competition, their reach is also significant. Madrid-based Garrigues has 34 offices in 13 countries and its Barcelona opponent, Cuatrecasas, 25 offices in 11 countries.
Price wars, political and economic tensions and prolonged attention from large Anglo-Saxon players in the region have made the going challenging for independent firms in CEE.
With a few notable exceptions, the last five years have seen some international law firms retreat from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) – in part a belated reaction to the financial crisis – while others have downsized due to profitability problems. But for independent law firms, good opportunities remain in the region as local markets recover. On aggregate, the CEE economies grew by 3.6% last year and are projected to increase by 3.1% this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
All the cultural stereotypes are ingrained in Swiss law firms – well-organised, independent and highly-impressive.
Six Swiss firms make the Euro Elite – impressive for a country of just 8.4 million people. But then the Swiss have a longstanding reputation for being well organised, well educated and well resourced, while the economy – lightly regulated and low taxed – consistently ranks as the world’s most competitive, enjoying the highest per-capita income of any major country, except Norway.
Independent firms dominate the Irish legal market but a slowdown in inversion-style deals threatens a robust post-crisis recovery.
‘The Irish economy is very small, open and independent, which is to a large extent very dependent on international capital,’ says Brian O’Gorman, managing partner of Arthur Cox. ‘One of the things that helped Ireland recover from the financial crisis and beyond was the willingness of international private equity and in particular major US private equity to invest in Ireland.’
Consolidation among the biggest players in the Baltic states has led to the creation of an elite tier of independent firms.
2015 was a significant year for the Baltic legal market, with rapid consolidation between firms in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania creating, as Sorainen’s co-managing partner Laimonas Skibarka describes it, a ‘Baltic Magic Circle’.
Rival firms Raidla Lejins & Norcous and Lawin confirmed they had traded their Estonian offices to form two new firms – Cobalt and Ellex. In late 2015, Cobalt acquired the Baltic offices of Finnish firm Borenius, taking its numbers to 31 partners and 176 lawyers. Ellex (technically three firms under one common brand) sits at 30 partners with 167 lawyers, keeping it in close competition with its rival.
They may not be out of the woods yet, but independent firms from the south-east tip of Europe are showing their resilience.
In a region of Europe marred by economic crisis and political unrest, many firms in Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and the Balkan Peninsula have remained resilient. The expectation that testing circumstances could lead to bad news for many firms has been offset by international interest or domestic legal work that came with the uncertainty.
John Dryllerakis, managing senior partner of Greece’s Dryllerakis & Associates – a firm that despite having just 44 lawyers scores highly in The Legal 500 EMEA – has the most ominous outlook. Capital controls, a possible exit from the Eurozone and two general elections have caused significant uncertainty in the country.