Corporate report: Magic circle casts its spell during slump

While Business Minister Baroness Vadera can claim to see “a few green shoots” of recovery in UK business, most corporate lawyers are still shivering in the economic big freeze.

The latest figures on deal activity in 2008 show that deal volume and value have plummeted compared with the previous year, when the recession was just starting to take hold.

According to financial information provider Thomson Reuters, law firms advised on UK deals worth £206bn between May and October 2007. For the same period in 2008 this had dropped by a third to £138bn.

In a worrying trend for the smaller players in the legal market, the top firms appear to be tightening their grip on what little activity there is.

The Thomson figures also show that magic circle deals made up 67 per cent of the total in 2008, up from 38 per cent in 2007.

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer head of corporate Mark Rawlinson, clearly a supporter of the ‘flight to quality’ argument, said: “Judging by past recessions, it has more of an impact on M&A practices in mid-size firms than those at the upper end. But we’ll all be hit.”

However, there were still juicy deals to be found for the lucky few with active clients. The latest chapter of Gordon Brown’s bank bailout saw instructions for Slaughter and May, which as usual advised HM Treasury, and Freshfields, which acted for the Bank of England (BoE).

Slaughters corporate partner Charles Randell led the firm’s team, while Freshfields financial services partner Michael Raffan got the call from the BoE.

Elsewhere, the magic circle dominated the line-up of advisers as the Royal Mail faces up to the possibility of private sector ownership.

Slaughters corporate partner Jeff Triggs acted for Royal Mail; Allen & Overy and Clifford Chance advised the possible bidders, Dutch mail company TNT and private equity house CVC Capital Partners respectively. Freshfields partner Martin Nelson-Jones, meanwhile, represented the Government.

The biggest deal of 2009 so far, and one of the biggest of the last few months, was German energy giant RWE’s €3.9bn (£3.4bn) takeover of Dutch utility Essent.

Norton Rose won the mandate from RWE, Freshfields acted for Essent and Simmons & Simmons represented Essent’s selling shareholders.

Finally, a deal that won column inches despite reportedly being valued at just £1.

Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev is now the proud owner of London newspaper the Evening Standard. He instructed Simmons partner Chris Wilkinson, while the paper’s former owner, The Daily Mail and General Trust, called on Freshfields partner Julian Long.