Back in the mists of time around the millennium, Fieldfisher was seen as a slightly crusty mid-sized firm. Since then it has managed
to develop a slightly more sexy image: it’s now increased its capacity in technology,
IP and European regulatory work. It also takes legal geek levels to new
heights – in 2007 it was the first (and only?) UK law firm to open a virtual office
in the online community Second Life. In 2014 it shrugged off a name from its letterhead Field Fisher Waterhouse to a more streamlined Fieldfisher.
But despite the gimmicks, the firm set itself some
very tough goals, with mixed success. In 2005, when its revenue was
just over £52m, its target was to hit £75m by 2008. Turnover for that
year actually reached an impressive £88m. It was aiming for £200m by
2012, but it was a tough time for everyone and the firm only managed £97.6m. In 2012/13, its revenues dropped to £95m, and average profit per equity partner fell 2% to £402k.
Fieldfisher struggled during the boom when staff had to
work hard to cope with the influx of work, salaries didn't keep pace
with the rest of the City and FF found it difficult to recruit.
Underpaid and overworked assistants do not make for a happy ship, and
the firm accepts that "salary was a huge concern
". And it didn't win
points when, just after posting a massive 30% rise in turnover, it made
some 15 of its real estate lawyers redundant.
The firm was inevitably affected by the credit crunch too, with
42 redundancies in the 2008/09 period. It did then gear itself up for a period of serious expansion, announcing a
three-year growth plan focusing on corporate, IP/IT and regulatory. The
plan was named the "virtuous triangle
" - a (much mocked) moniker
that FF thought so inspired, it had the term trademarked. The jury's still out - its headcount dropped by four partners and one other fee-earner in 2012/13, and it suffered a failed merger with Osborne Clarke at the end of 2013 (following an earlier doomed attempt with Lawrence Graham).
Pay has remained a bone of contention for the firm's staff, although things have improved. Pay is at least now a bit more reasonable (if still not fantastic) - back in 2007 it transpired that newly
qualified assistants at Weil Gotshal made more money than newly made up
partners at FF…
Lower salaries may have helped cause FF's woeful performance in the Firm of the Year Survey 2011, where it scraped second to last position, narrowly avoiding Golden Turd status. It flapped about the bottom of the table in 2012 and 2013, but then suddenly rocketed up to fifth place in 2014
An awful lot of very positive responses came from partners praising new Managing Partner Michael Chissick. Hmmm.
The goodwill wasn't quite unanimous amongst other staffers. There is "widespread discontentment amongst associates"
who feel "overworked, underpaid, not valued and face uncertain career prospects
", according to one. But at least they seem happier with their pay: wages have "never been the highest on the market but they are decent
", says another. And lawyers who were almost uniformly scathing of their offices at the arse
end of the City which are "reminiscent of 1970s Stalingrad
" are delighted to be moving to the "seriously plush and well-located
" Riverbank House.
The partnership is relatively young and diverse. At the more junior end FF claims that it takes a serious
interest in the development of junior lawyers - there's a pretty
comprehensive training scheme (which you would expect) and many
assistants have their own marketing budgets (which you might not). And the firm has done well to keep all 11 of its trainees this year
achieving a perfect retention score of 100%. Last September it managed
12 out of 17. This year, with a smaller intake of 11, it has been able
to retain 100%.
FF has made an about-turn on its vision of the future. It's tightened up its financial management - including billing and collection. It has also keenly pursuing a merger, although so far it's struggled. Talks were held with LG, but they fell apart fairly acrimoniously, with FF
being less than kind about LG's financials and LG suggesting FF's
partnership was not as united as it might be. FF dusted itself off and
set its sights on Osborne Clarke, but OB also gave it the cold shoulder. In a (minor) victory it has inked a deal to swallow up eight partner Manchester firm Heatons. Which is something.
It's been a tough time for FF with the drop off in public sector work, rumours of divided partners, revenue targets missed and falling partner profits. A big merger could be the answer to its prayers, if it finds the right partner.