Dealing with Napoleon's will, facilitating the divorce between King George IV and Queen Caroline and advising Princess Diana's estate in the aftermath of her death are just a few examples of the matters Lawrence Graham has handled since its registration in 1730. Since then the firm has developed a solid reputation for its real estate and private client work and has also honed its services in key sectors, including (but not limited to): energy, renewables and cleantech; financial institutions; healthcare; insurance and reinsurance; public sector; retail; and technology.
In 2007 Lawrence Graham ditched its old premises along the Strand, moved into the swanky new development of More London and rebranded itself under the moniker 'LG'. However, the recession hit, and the firm experienced sliding revenue figures, expensive overheads (the cost of residing in More London drains £5.1m a year) and many accusations of simply 'middling' around in a legal market which requires firms to adapt quickly. 'Middling' is not a great thing to be doing in the middle market: in recent years bigger firms, starved of mega-deals, have sought to snap up transactions lower down the pecking order, encroaching on Lawrence Graham's turf. In other words, the middle market is a difficult place to be.
How has LG responded? Well, it's recently opened a new office in Singapore and in early 2013 decided to revert to the original 'Lawrence Graham' branding in order to increase international recognition of the firm. That's probably a good idea given that revenue derived from overseas clients is just over 42%. The Dubai office has posted the highest revenue increase, growing by 40% in 2011/12, and an association with Brazilian firm Motta, Fernandes Rocha Advogados has recently been formalised. Domestically, the firm engaged in merger talks with Field Fisher Waterhouse in 2012. A deal wasn't struck, but not many in the market would be surprised if another one was further down the line.
Getting what you want
Trainees complete four seats, three of which must be within property, contentious and transactional teams. Trainees said that these prerequisite areas are “broad schools with a lot of variation within them.” There are smaller departments within the firm like employment, projects, pensions and private client, which are more competitive to get into. A stint in Dubai, which mainly focuses on construction work, is also available. "If you want to do it, then it's a good idea to express an interest early on.”
Most sources were happy with the way in which the HR team allocates seats and had been able to list three preferences before each rotation. “I've always got something that I've put down, but second-year preferences are accommodated more," revealed one interviewee. Trainees also have the option to add the supervisor they would like to work with within a department, and our sources recommended doing precisely that: “I always specify, as it seems that there's more guarantee of getting what you want if you are more specific and have spoken to people beforehand.”
Partners from Linklaters and Herbert Smith Freehills joined the real estate team in 2012, and the firm describes its strengths in this area as being in retail, real estate finance, offices and hospitality/leisure. Clients include Sainsbury's and The Crown Estate, and the team recently advised Development Securities on its £800m regeneration project with Cathedral Group, which aims to transform the Greenwich peninsula into a top-notch entertainment zone.
Trainees can complete a general real estate seat, which all trainees found kept them “very busy.” Sources said that “you get the best of worlds,” working on “small matters involving leases and licences and the alterations you have to make to them” as well as “big developments and the disposal of major properties – it's a rounded seat.” Many found that they received the most responsibility in this department and were given ample opportunity to run files and enjoy a nice amount of client contact: “You deal with agents and run matters all the way through from start to finish.” On the larger transactions, trainees get “good exposure and go to all the client meetings” but play more of a role in the data room. However, working with the “big institutional clients” enables them to gain insight into key transactions: “We sit on Sainsbury's legal panel and help them with their purchasing of large stores and get involved on the planning side as well.”
Those who had completed a seat in construction said there's “a nice mix of contentious and non-contentious work.” Trainees described taking witness statements as “exciting” but also told of slaving away on the disclosure process – “the bane of a trainee's life.” Some cases have involved suing building contractors who laid the foundations of a development in the wrong place, forcing developers “to redesign the entire building.” Non-contentious work allows trainees to get to grips with warranty documents and construction reports, and sources felt that they were “supervised well and could always ask questions.” The team has an appointment to The Crown Estate's urban portfolio's legal panel and also advises high net worth individuals on the construction and refurbishment of private residences.
Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies
Trainees who spent a seat in dispute resolution found themselves “running around, helping the team attend the trials and with the general day-to-day progression of the case.” Some described the department as more hierarchical than others, with “a lot more admin and bundling to be done.” While the tasks themselves might not be fascinating, the details of the cases are; many trainees have been involved in the culmination of a case concerning claims of corruption against the former mayor of São Paulo, Paulo Maluf. The trial ended in 2012, and the Royal Court of Jersey gave judgment in favour of LG's clients, the Federal Republic of Brazil and the Municipality of São Paulo – Maluf was found guilty of stealing millions from Brazilian taxpayers and hiding it in a secret bank account in Jersey. Other notable cases have included the collapse of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities following the arrest of its principal (the eponymous Bernie Madoff) for fraud, which resulted in investors losing around $65bn. LG is representing professional trustees in the case.
Trainees had also been involved in matters surrounding the Libor investigations, and given the magnitude/significance of all the cases described above, sources “felt much more closely supervised” than in other departments. Work revolves around doc management, legal research and drafting memos, but sources did say that they felt “really included and very much part of the team – they would take us all out for drinks.”
Some trainees had sat within Lawrence Graham's insurance and reinsurance dispute resolution team. One source had been involved in “an arbitration with a major US company: I was dealing with US lawyers all the time, sitting in on conference calls, attending case management sessions and drafting part of an offer letter to the other side.” Other seats that fulfil the contentious requirement include construction, employment, real estate litigation, and restructuring and insolvency.
Lawrence Graham's long list of AIM clients has helped to keep its stream of M&A work flowing, and the firm acted on two of the largest public M&A deals of 2012: one for Cove Energy during its £1.22bn takeover by PTTEP Africa Investment and the other during AIM-listed uranium miner Kalahari Minerals' £650m sale to Taurus Mineral. Trainees flagged insurance, hotels, healthcare and energy as key sectors in which the group has expertise. There's a “good range of public and private” M&A deals as well as “a lot of AIM investment funds work” to get stuck into. Trainees are “involved in the case management process,” draft ancillary documents and complete board minutes, and are also able to write more substantial sections of reports. “It's a really supportive team; I've never been worried about asking a single question.”
Corporate tax is “interesting and challenging” and throws up some “fantastic pieces of research involving places like Singapore and Monaco.” Trainees here found themselves “in the library reading up on statutes” and brushing up on “lots of black-letter law.” The team feels “very much a part of corporate” but also deals a lot with “specific queries from real estate and the finance team there,” meaning that a trainees can get a feel for how tax connects with different departments in the firm.
On the banking and finance side, Lawrence Graham works with familiar names from the sector, including HSBC, RBS Group and Santander. The firm is also popular with German banks and represented DG Hyp and Deutsche Postbank during the refinancing of the Lloyds of London building. Trainees said that they “were thrown in at the deep end” during their banking seat, telling us “you have to put in the hours.” Tasks included running conditions precedent lists, which can lead to “being stuck in a room for 13 hours straight” as the completion date nears. “Bundling comes with the territory,” but sources felt that “it's a good department to work in,” with opportunities to have “a first stab” at more complex drafting and some client contact. It also introduces trainees to the potentially confusing world of mezzanine financings. Seats can also be taken in private capital/client, projects and employment/pensions.
In early 2013 the firm decided to drop its 'LG' branding (which had been introduced back in 2007 to coincide with the move to More London) and revert to its original name of Lawrence Graham. “The name change was bizarre,” said one trainee, who added: “When I told people where I was working, they just said, 'What, the electronics manufacturer?'” Sources concurred that “it's a good move to go back to the original name” and were pleased that “we now sound like a law firm again!” Trainees thought that the rebrand was a good way for the firm to showcase its long history and “traditional roots,” and everyone we spoke to viewed it as a step in the right direction.
Rumours of imminent mergers for this firm have abounded recently. Training principal Caroline Walker says: “You can't just sit there waiting for a merger – that is madness. We are concentrating on our own strategy, but on the other hand we are alive to opportunities and don't sit navel gazing.” The firm will continue to invest in its “key service areas” while also keeping a look-out for international opportunities in South America and India. Walker also emphasised that London is still of major importance to the firm. "International investors continue to pour money into UK real estate, and this remains an important focus for us."
Trainees thought that a merger was “likely” and that “with all the talks around mergers, morale has been up and down at the firm – but that's a common situation for mid-tier firms at the moment.” The swirling rumours and trainee predictions proved accurate in late 2013, as the firm announced it was set to merge with Wragge & Co – the big daddy of the Birmingham legal scene. The move gives Wragges its long-desired London presence and should provide Lawrence Graham with the financial and management support it needs to get out of its current rut. The combined firm's £170m turnover puts its just inside the UK's top 25. After the merger goes live on 1 May 2014 the firm will be known as Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co. Read more about the story in Legal Week and the Evening Standard.
With expensive property costs, the firm has sublet some of its office space in the More London development in order to ease the burden on its finances. Trainees do love the South Bank location: “It's much nicer being this side of the river: you get amazing views, and you can sit outside in The Scoop during the summer.”
While Lawrence Graham's uncertain future may have “dulled the atmosphere” of late, trainees felt a genuine attachment to the firm and described it as “a friendly place – everybody is approachable, and there are no absolute nightmares here.” They were impressed with the “high-quality” formal training that greets them at the beginning of each seat, “couldn't complain” about their salary, liked that there isn't a “face-time culture” and praised the “amazing feedback” they receive from their supervisors.
There's a good social life too. Although trainees' Christmas party budget was axed a couple of years ago, they still get together to organise their own gathering. “It's turned into a firm-wide party now, and everyone's invited. Last year it took place in a hotel near London Bridge.” The social committee also organises lots of events, including “quiz nights and games evenings,” while individual departments host welcome drinks and invite trainees to client parties as well. The last real estate one was held at The Savoy, and quite a few trainees attended: “They really encouraged us to go and chat and build connections – you are trusted, and in comparison to my friends at bigger firms, I've had a lot more client contact.”
Ultimately, given the choice, most interviewees expressed a strong desire to stay with the firm, though one trainee spoke for all when they said: “I don't think anyone in my year is overly confident. There is a nervousness that stems from the trainees, and a lot of us are aware that it will be hard, but if they want me I'll definitely stay!” In the end, there was no need to be too nervous as ten out of 13 eventually remained with the firm on qualification in 2013 – in line with the national average.
The Wragge & Co merger looks to be the shot in arm Lawrence Graham has been needing for a long time now. There's no doubting the affection trainees have for the firm and hopefully this will be one of many things which contributed to the strength of Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co after May 2014.