Manchester: from Cottonopolis to Legalopolis?

by Rachel Darlington on 15 December 2016

Over the past few years, I've seen an increase in law firms establishing a presence in the north of England – and in particular, in my home town, the former international cotton capital: Manchester. In 2015, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer became the first Magic Circle law firm to expand to this northern metropolis, following in the footsteps of other leading City firms, including TLT, Berwin Leighton Paisner and Latham & Watkins. 

This movement up the country is all part of the more widespread "north shoring" trend, where London-based companies outsource back office business processes to more affordable sites in the northern regions – creating a "hub and spoke" approach. It’s proven to be a highly effective way to reduce office and staffing costs, and increase profits, without having to compromise on quality. 

Manchester has become one of the most attractive locations for law firms to north shore their services to, so much so that it’s now being referred to by some as a "northern legal powerhouse". As a newly qualified solicitor or a City-based law firm, you may be wondering what's so special about this location. So, let's look at what's got everyone moving up to Manchester, and why this city's appeal for the legal sector is unlikely to fade anytime soon.

Thriving business centre 

Manchester was once known around the world as the leading manufacturer of cotton, earning it the nickname "cottonopolis". While many of its textile factories are still in operation, today Manchester is better known for its burgeoning business centre than its industrial roots. 

Indeed, it's not just the legal sector that's been quick to take advantage of Manchester's growing economy. Among its new residents, the city has welcomed a number of big name companies and organisations, including TalkTalk – its first FTSE 100 business – the BBC's new media headquarters for the North West region, Google and Towergate Insurance. 

It's no surprise then, that Manchester's economy is going from strength to strength. Recent figures revealed that it’s one of the UK's three fastest growing city economies. And the future looks bright too, with a 15% economy growth and 27,000 new jobs expected by 2026.

Impressive office spaces

Manchester has been more than accommodating to its new arrivals, providing them with award-winning, state-of-the-art premises at a fraction of the cost of lower quality office spaces in London. 

Allied London’s development in the Spinningfields area sees law firms moving into key buildings during 2017.  No.1 Spinningfields, the first-class commercial building at the heart of Manchester’s corporate community, is soon to be home to several of the UK’s leading law firms and businesses – some being Browne Jacobson, Squire Patton Boggs, Freshfields and PwC. Whilst Shoosmiths will move into the innovative XYZ building. Across town in the historic district, KPMG and DLA Piper occupy space in the Grade A offices, One St Peter’s Square. 

High quality business accommodation in the right location provides a competitive edge when it comes to attracting clients and employees. I can see that those firms that have put down roots in Manchester are clearly feeling the benefits of the active business environment and excellent infrastructure around them.

 

Top investment location

The government's ongoing Northern Powerhouse initiative, which aims to boost the influence and economic performance of the UK's northern cities, has delivered particularly strong results for Manchester by way of transport and infrastructure. In fact, it's now considered the top Northern Powerhouse city to invest in by property developers. As cranes continue to pop up across Manchester's skyline, there’s no better indication that this city is a key location for investment. 

 

Robust transport links

There's certainly no danger that law firms or legal professionals will feel marooned after a move to Manchester. 

One of the main commuter roads in the north is the M62, which stretches from Liverpool to Yorkshire, passing through Manchester and Leeds. The road is a key asset for Manchester-based firms as it makes the city a more attractive and convenient place to work for lawyers living in locations along its route. It also creates a strong link between Manchester’s bustling business centre and those of the other core northern cities.  

As for trains, plans for the second phase of the high speed railway ("HS2") were recently confirmed, including a line from London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly which will cut the current journey time by half. Meanwhile, Network Rail’s Northern Programme has many plans to improve the rail services in the north of the country, including faster services between Manchester and Liverpool, and Manchester and Newcastle. 

Thanks to Greater Manchester Combined Authority's recent focus on public transport, cycle routes and footpaths, there's now a real joining up of law firms across the city's landscape, from Spinningfields to Piccadilly.

Fresh talent pool

Firms that set up in Manchester benefit from proximity to some of the best young legal minds in the country. The University of Manchester is currently 8th in the UK university rankings, and 55th when compared with 800 institutions around the world. Indeed, one of the main reasons why property developers consider Manchester a top investment location is due to its extensive talent pool.  

But it's not just the firms that are profiting. I've seen many aspiring trainees in Manchester take big steps in terms of firm size in a short time, particularly in transactional disciplines such as commercial property and corporate. This is something that can take much longer for trainees based in the hugely competitive city of London. 

Further, as firms expand their "hub and spoke approach" and start to north shore more client-facing work, there’s opportunity for lawyers looking to move out of the City to take part in London-type work from regional sites. What’s more, the international investment in Manchester from the Middle East and Asia gives firms the ability to deliver on a global level. 

The results so far, for both staff and firms, are promising. The retention rate for trainees at Manchester firms is high, particularly in 2015/2016, and there’s been several new entrants into the 2016 Legal 500 for Manchester, including commercial property firms Clarke Willmott and Nabarro, thriving mid-tier firm and now top 100 law firm JMW, as well as modern alternative legal provider Gunner Cooke. 

High quality of life

The vibrant, multicultural city of Manchester has so much going for it: a lively music and arts culture, excellent transport links and considerably more affordable property prices than the City. In the Economist's 2016 survey of the world’s most liveable cities, Manchester kept its title as 'the best UK city to live in' for the second year, and came in 10 positions above London. 

There are so many accommodation options for lawyers living in and around the city centre, as well as in the hugely popular suburban locations of Chorlton and Didsbury – both of which now benefit from the direct tram link to St Peter’s Square. You can be on the housing ladder much sooner here, giving you a quality of life that’s much harder to achieve in London. Oh, and the sun does occasionally shine in Manchester!

We'd like to hear from you

As the costs of living and operating a business in the capital continue to rise, the appeal of northern cities like Manchester keeps on growing for law firms and legal professionals. Over the next few years, I expect to see more and more company clients move business processes to this city, not just as a way to cut costs and reduce risk, but also to gain a competitive advantage and generate more income. 

If you're considering a career move in Manchester, it's important to find a highly consultative recruitment agent who fully understands the legal market in this area. Here at G2 Legal Commercial, we’ll listen to what you want to achieve from your job move and make the process as smooth as possible.

We're keen to speak to commercial lawyers interested in hearing about the opportunities in the current legal market in Manchester or to clients based outside of Manchester who want further insight into its attractions. For a confidential chat please contact me, Rachel Darlington on 0161 414 1100 or email via Rachel.darlington@g2legal.com.

 

About the author

Rachel has both practiced as a lawyer and as a recruiter in the North for many years. She recruits commercial lawyers at all levels, from NQ to Partner, across a wide range of commercial disciplines in Manchester.

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