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Richard Masters is looking to take McGrigors to the top of the London tree


MCGRIGORS, the corporate law firm, might have origins as Scottish as single malt, but managing partner Richard Masters prefers not to emphasise them. London looms largest for him, and he spends two days out of five there in his mission to turn the firm into a big metropolitan player.

"Over the last year, we have said we want to be recognised as a national law firm as opposed to a Scottish law firm, " he says in his soft Ulster accent. "We have a good share of the Scottish legal services marketplace. We want to keep growing it, but realistically, it's a challenge."

He eagerly points out that the fi rm's London office in the City's Chancery Lane has the equal-largest concentration of McGrigors's lawyers along with Edinburgh, with 121 apiece, although the Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen offices have 267 between them.

But when you look at the UK league tables, you see the scale of the challenge for McGrigors in taking on the top London firms. According to Legal500, the industry rankings service, the firm is third largest north of the Border behind Maclay Murray & Spens and Brodies in numbers of lawyers (and second by turnover to Dundas & Wilson), but in the capital it is a long way short of the top 25.

Not only that, it axed nine staff from its London property department last August in response to declining business, and saw a handful of the office's oil and gas lawyers defect to a rival the year before. And the London office, which contributes about 35per cent of firm revenues, has only held its own in the past year.

Far from seeing McGrigors rising to become a major force in UK corporate law, the preferred London industry rumour in recent times has been that it would "merge" with Eversheds, a firm around six times its size with which it has a loose strategic relationship. The word was that Colin Gray, Masters's predecessor, took the firm to the brink of a deal in 200708 only to be overruled by his partners, possibly over fears that some would be surplus to requirements. He was then replaced by 44-year-old Masters about a year ago before quitting to join Eversheds as a partner.

Masters, a quiet individual who seems the antithesis of the chalk-striped extroverts of his profession, brushes all this talk aside. "Every time this story comes up we deny it, but the legal press just don't believe us. The reality is that there was no Eversheds merger on the cards. Colin's second term of office as managing partner was up and the fact that he ultimately went to Eversheds was nothing to do with any kind of merger."

He makes it clear, however, that he would like to do a deal in London, so long as his firm is in the driving seat. The preferred template would be McGrigors's deal to buy London-based commercial litigation and property fi rm Reid Minty last year, which added 18 staff.

"There's every possibility that we will look to do something similar, rather than a full-blooded merger with a fi rm of our size or larger, " he says. "We are ambitious to grow our business under the McGrigors brand. We are in the market as a buyer not a seller."

Hands off, in other words, particularly since Masters claims that McGrigors is weathering the unprecedented industry slump better than many. Having acted for Tom Hunter's West Coast Capital on several of his garden-centre deals, and for British Energy and Amec over their rejected Lewis wind farm, McGrigors's results for the year ended September 2008 showed a 2.5per cent rise in turnover to GBP62.5 million. This was driven by strong demand in employment and corporate litigation - proof that when the going gets tough, the tough get suing. And McGrigors's performance will have been bolstered by the fact that it gets a Grade 1 rating in both areas from Legal500, the lawyers' equivalent of Michelin stars.

THIS top-line performance was nevertheless a quarter the rate of the year before, and there was a 1per cent fall in profits per equity partner to GBP300,000, since tough times have also meant that corporate work for things like super-lucrative mergers and acquisitions, and anything to do with commercial property, has dwindled. Masters points out, however, that both areas still grew, and that even in the subsequent six months property work has been flat, not down. And although the firm has also been reining in costs, he claims that it is a long way from all the anecdotes about firms of lawyers twiddling their thumbs and fearing for their futures.

"At the time of our London redundancies announcement it was headline news in the legal press, but now it would not even register, " he says. This is probably an exaggeration, but it refers to the fact that rivals including Dundas, Shepherd and Wedderburn and Biggart Baillie have all shed larger numbers since.

He calls such measures "shorttermism", despite McGrigors's own cost-cutting, and rejects industry perceptions that McGrigors is more rigidly focused on the bottom line than its peers. Masters, who has been with the firm since qualifying in the late 1980s, says that the firm has been set apart by its "hunger for business", by being "approachable, innovative, pragmatic", and other glowing adjectives.

When I put it to him that any corporate law firm would say this, he says these were the things that came out of surveys of clients and staff last summer.

"It's what we are being told by our clients, so there is perhaps a bit more solidity than just throwing fancy words around, " he says.

Of course, the other thing that will really set a firm apart in tough times will be the quality of its legal advice. Aside from employment and corporate litigation, the other areas in which McGrigors is considered outstanding by Legal500 are banking and commercial property.

But in other major areas, including general corporate work - Masters's own specialism - insolvency, energy and oil and gas, it only scores Grades 2 or 3.

"It drives me mad, " he says. "Last year was the first time energy was given a separate classification and we felt it didn't do us justice.

"In terms of corporate, I find it hugely frustrating and I have been fi ghting this battle with Legal500 for several years.

Particularly in Scotland, the quality of our work is absolutely top of the tree.

We have probably taken more companies to Aim listing than any other law firm in Scotland and handled some of the biggest transactions, principally in the work we've done for West Coast Capital."

He adds that McGrigors is well placed to avoid any further redundancies in the months ahead, as it prepares to move from its long-standing home in Glasgow's Wellington Street to much-sought-after real estate space at 141 Bothwell Street.

While he appears to concede that the target of reaching GBP100m turnover by 2011 will need to be modifi ed at some stage, he says: "So far this business is performing well. I don't see any reason why it shouldn't continue to grow."

In the midst of the current economic upheaval, many would settle for less.