The Northern Powerhouse: the challenges ahead
In my last blog post, I discussed some of my key takeaways from this year’s Yorkshire Legal Conference, held on September 28th at the University of Law in Leeds. The overarching theme of the event was the concept of the Northern Powerhouse: how it can be defined, what steps are being taken to establish it, and how its creation will involve and impact on the legal profession in the North.
The concept of the Northern Powerhouse, though, is still wide-ranging and nebulous, and I came away from the conference with a great deal to think about. Having taken a couple of weeks to consider the topics covered on the day and get my thoughts in order, I’m now following up my first post about the conference with a summary of what I perceive to be the challenges ahead for the Northern Powerhouse.
My overall takeaway from the day’s papers was that there are plenty of reasons for the North’s lawyers to be optimistic. In a region which has already contains and continues to attract top legal talent, and with many legal brands expanding into and investing in the North, the legal industry is, in my opinion, ahead of the curve. Government policy intends to lead investment and focus to the North and forecasts point to this movement increasing.
On the face of things, then, the Northern Powerhouse should be a success for the legal sector – hurrah! But in my mind what remains to be proven is whether in a competitive market, and in a competitive profession, lawyers in the North can collaborate effectively for the greater good of the Powerhouse. I see this challenge on two levels:
Just as not all of the South of the UK is London-centric, ‘the North’ is an umbrella term for a diverse set of regions. There was strong evidence heard at this year’s Yorkshire Legal Conference to frame the North West as already being ahead in terms of its influence in the Northern Powerhouse in comparison to Yorkshire or the North East.
With a higher GVA, a greater concentration of PLCs, and a significant infrastructure advantage in terms of its international airport, the North West already has several advantages over other regions in the North. London leadership has repeatedly endorsed Manchester as the heart of the Powerhouse, and already the likes of Freshfields and BLP have chosen Manchester to put down their roots outside London, as have PwC and EY.
From what I can see, the North West is already ahead – a consequence of market forces rather than policy. If this inspires other northern regions to up their own game then that can only be a bonus, but if the primary objective of the Northern Powerhouse is to seriously counteract the economic dominance of London and the South East, then perhaps the North West is already best placed to achieve this.
The ambition of the Northern Powerhouse does seem to be to engage the whole of the North to improve all areas. With smaller yet locally important districts such as York and Bradford (both were vocalised at the YLC) risking being sidelined in favour of Leeds and Manchester, I can’t help but wonder whether uniting the legal community geographically is a very big ask. As a proud Yorkshireman it pains me a little to say this… but perhaps channelling resources into building up the North West further, rather than fighting to bring other areas of the North up to the same level of investment, would be the smart thing to do.
In my view, the second challenge for the legal community is to achieve alignment in the agenda of the firms that make up the Norther Powerhouse’s legal offering. The diversity of the legal services in the North is a strength but potentially also a point of vulnerability and stress.
The largest legal firms enjoy the greatest profile regionally, nationally and internationally, and are certainly credible brands to be proud of and to be promoted as part of the Northern Powerhouse. There is, though, a certain irony in their importance to the Northern Powerhouse in that many of these brands have, for some years, invested increasingly heavily in their London presence. From our own experience as legal recruiters in Leeds, these large firms tend to look very favourably on lawyers leaving London when they come to recruit in the North. Similarly, individuals’ career opportunities often seem to be substantially enhanced if they are willing to relocate to London with their firm. Rightly or wrongly from a recruitment and career perspective London is still something of a trump card.
This is an accepted trend in the legal industry: ‘being good in London’ has long been a barometer of the credibility of a commercial firm and a sign of international expansion to come. Have the leading brands therefore already outgrown the North in terms of its importance to their agenda? Some would argue so, but their potential benefits to the Northern Powerhouse in terms of employment opportunities and investment in the region may prove to be vital to its success.
In contrast, those legal firms which are solely based within the North will no doubt be keen that the Northern Powerhouse succeeds, as they will benefit directly from that economic growth. Whether they can beat the international firms when it comes to providing legal advice to incoming foreign investors remains to be seen – it isn’t what they are best known for and they have a distinct disadvantage by virtue of not being truly international in their outlook and capability. This seems a shame for regional firms, as it may encourage competition and division rather than collaboration in the legal sector.
I’m no better placed than anyone else to make predictions about the potential for collaborative behaviour in the North’s legal industry, but I am of the opinion that it may take influence from the likes of the Northern Powerhouse Taskforce to ensure that the benefits and opportunities arising from the investments are spread fairly and sensibly. When Martin Phelan, International Director of NPT, mentioned those ‘downstream opportunities’ for lawyers during his YLC talk about international trade links it certainly raised a murmur of interest in the room, but that will bring a new challenge in aiming to spread the benefits throughout the profession – and that certainly won’t be an enviable task.
A bright future
This isn’t to say that we at Florit Brooke are feeling gloomy about the future of the Northern Powerhouse, as we know what great assets Yorkshire’s lawyers are to the wider legal profession. Despite the unanswered questions surrounding elements of the Northern Powerhouse plan, it deserves the wholehearted support of the Northern legal community. It is our hope that the legal profession in the region can acquit itself as a collective to strengthen, support and make the most of the opportunities the Powerhouse creates.