IT’S NOT so long ago that Shepherd & Wedderburn (S&W) was part of a tight-knit grouping of firms known collectively as the Scottish Big Four and distinguished not just by their size but by having a London office too.

As the others have been picked off via takeovers by larger entities – McGrigors by Pinsents Masons, Dundas & Wilson by CMS and Maclay Murray & Spens by Dentons – and Scotland-only firms Brodies and Burness Paull have overtaken it in the turnover stakes, S&W appears to have been left out on a limb.

Not that chief executive Stephen Gibb feels that is a lonely place to be. Rather, he said it has allowed the firm to redefine its own identity.

Loading article content

“We have a strategic priority, which is market leadership in Scotland,” he said.

“Yes, we’ve had approaches from a mixture of English and international firms. We’ve looked at a number of them but not taken them very far.

“The view of the board and later with the partners was no. We reckon we have a bright future as an independent law firm and decided it wasn’t for us.

“We believe there’s a really good place in the market for a few strong Scottish firms.”

While S&W is keen to shout about its Scottish credentials now, it wasn’t always that way, with the firm spending the years in the run up to the financial crisis of 2007 focusing on building its presence in London and marketing itself as a UK player.

In part that was to keep up with its Big Four rivals, which all had considerably larger City offerings than S&W: in late 2007 the firm’s London office was home to 41 fee-earners against McGrigors’ 117, Dundas & Wilson’s 96 and Maclays’ 82.

With those firms no longer in the City in their Scottish guises, S&W has been able to refocus on its Scottish roots.

“I knew that in focusing on the whole of the UK for a while we had neglected our core Scottish practice,” Mr Gibb said.

“We needed to refocus and tell people in Scotland what we were about and what we wanted to do.”

Buying Tods Murray out of administration in 2014 helped in that regard, with that firm’s brand carrying significant cache despite the financial difficulties it experienced in its final years.

S&W has subsequently attracted a number of high-profile hires to its Scottish practice, including a three-partner restructuring team led by Yvonne Brady from HBJ Gateley and MacRoberts real estate partner Jamie Grant.

The firm has also moved back into the Aberdeen market after a haitus of several years, bringing on board local firm Commercial Law Practice and hiring established partners from Mackinnons and Stronachs.

Mr Gibb said the firm now views its London office as “a USP”, particularly as new rivals Brodies and Burness Paull, both of which generate significant amounts of business from referrals from City firms, have no presence south of the Border.

While S&W’s London office, which now numbers 60 people, 11 of whom are partners, focuses in part on winning English work, Mr Gibb said just like Brodies and Burness Paull the firm has focused on building up a referral network in the City.

“We have a really good referral practice there and we do a lot of work for City of London firms,” he said.

“They recognise that they want to get the best-quality advice for their clients and they don’t see us as competing head-on with them in the London market.”

In terms of financials, the 2016/17 year was not kind to S&W, with turnover dropping from £53 million to £50.5m and partner profits from £21m to £19.6m.

Mr Gibb said this was largely to do with the firm’s large renewable energy practice being hit by the knock-on effect of reduced subsidies, but added that the current year will be better.

“We’ve got a very good and strong renewables practice and the last financial year wasn’t great for that because of a number of UK Government decisions,” he said.

“That’s changed and a lot of big projects are coming back on again.

“There were also some major litigations that had slowed down that have come back on. We’re performing strongly, which is great.”