The top law firms and lawyers serving the insurance industry

The 2009 edition of The Legal 500, published in September by Legalease, identifies the top lawyers and firms across a number of sectors, including insurance. This year’s report also offers a useful indicator of the litigation activity within the market post-credit crunch.

While some corners of the market have predicted that the effects of the financial crisis will trigger a huge increase in legal action, Lovells insurance and reinsurance partner Peter Taylor takes a more measured view. “I really don’t perceive any sort of mass upsurge of litigation in the way that some people are trying to talk it up,” he says.

“I know my own head of litigation has been quoted as saying there’s a sort of massive market there. But I think he’s saying that this is in particular areas; it’s not right across the board.”

Taylor says that property, motor, product liability, medical, bankers’ blanket bond, aviation and construction have all remained relatively flat, while the increase in professional indemnity (PI) claims has been confined to traditional recession-related cases, such as over-valuations of property. He adds that the predicted surge of auditors’ and lawyers’ errors and omissions (E&O) claims has not materialised.

Clifford Chance litigation and dispute resolution partner Stephen Surgeoner generally agrees. He says from mid-2008 the insurance market was receiving a “flood” of notifications over PI and directors’ and officers’ (D&O), along with political risk, trade credit and trade disruption insurance.

However, he adds: “These were simply notices informing the relevant insurers that they might have claims coming through.”

He has seen a rise in PI and D&O, but says this is not surprising in an economic downturn. He adds that most D&O exposure is in the USA.

That said, both Taylor and Surgeoner acknowledge that the recession has had a definite impact on the insurance in certain areas, such as trade credit and political risk – something that the latest Legal 500 supports.

“Some lawyers are reaping the benefits of the challenging economic conditions,” the report states. “The upheaval in the financial markets has led to significant claims activity, and insurance companies are now more likely to contest an insurance claim.”

So which law firms are making names for themselves, post-credit crunch? Here, we outline the key practice areas covered by The Legal 500, in which it ranks the best insurance law firms, and highlights the top lawyers and their clients.

Insurance and reinsurance litigation

A number of law firms saw a rise in professional negligence claims during 2008, the report says. “Many saw an increase in instructions in 2008, and further growth is anticipated for 2009, as recession and Madoff-related claims filter through.”

The top-tier firms in this area include Barlow Lyde & Gilbert, Clyde & Co, Herbert Smith, Ince & Co and Mayer Brown International. Herbert Smith and Mayer Brown were singled out for having made “considerable strides” in the sector.

Mayer Brown is acting for a number of insurers in matters related to Madoff. Head of insurance and reinsurance at the firm, Karen Abbott, says: “The Madoff scandal has undoubtedly affected FI (financial institutions bond insurance), D&O and PI, as insurers and reinsurers are faced with reviewing the complex investment vehicles and strategies of their insureds in several jurisdictions in which disgruntled clients are seeking redress for significant losses.”

Mayer Brown also scored a major victory in the case of Nationwide v Dunlop Haywards, acting for Nationwide Building Society on the instruction of its insurers in their £25m recovery claim against Dunlop Haywards and the solicitors involved in the transactions (Eversheds and Browne Jacobson).

“These were some of the first matters involving very substantial commercial mortgage fraud to come to the courts in recent years, and were right at the cutting edge as to how professionals will fare in mortgage fraud-related claims that have come to light in the past couple of years,” Abbott says.

Personal injury (defendant)

The report says personal injury remains a “stable market”, with Beachcroft, Berrymans Lace Mawer and Greenwoods Solicitors leading the way.

Beachcroft’s five-partner department is led by Tania Sless, who has solid expertise in claims involving occupational stress and upper limb disorders. The firm’s clients include Allianz, BP, Marks & Spencer, and Zurich.

Meanwhile, Berrymans Lace Mawer has a 16-partner practice led by Michael Pether. Its specialties comprise occupational disease, catastrophic injury, motor claims, abuse and public sector clients. Notable clients include RSA, Aviva, NFU Mutual and Zurich.

Product liability (defendant)

The demand for product liability advice has shown no signs of being adversely affected by the economic downturn, finds The Legal 500. “The current EU and UK initiatives to facilitate consumer claims, together with the counter-cyclical increase in litigation, have led to a rise in clients’ instructions.”

Arnold & Porter UK, Davies Arnold Cooper and Lovells grab the top spots here. Arnold & Porter is most noted for its work in the life sciences sector, acting for UK and international pharmaceutical, biotech and healthcare companies.

Davies Arnold Cooper is also a key player in pharmaceutical, advising GlaxoSmithKline and Roche. The team, led by Simon Pearl, is ramping up its product safety and recall work in food and domestic goods.

Professional negligence

Barlow Lyde & Gilbert is singled out as the only law firm good enough to rank top tier. It is heralded as the “best all-round in the market, with a responsive, practical, user-friendly team noted for its strength and depth”.

The 20-partner department is led by Sarah Clover, and has a massive client base that includes the Big Four accounting firms. Its major insurance clients include Zurich, Fortis and Ace. It has also acted for 31 of the top 50 law firms, along with multiple brokers, construction professionals and surveyors.

Insurance – insolvency and restructuring

The Legal 500 found that strategic deals are still being done, with Part VII transfers – part of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, under which a portfolio of contracts is transferred between insurers – continuing to dominate this area.

Clifford Chance, for example, advised Equitas on a large and complex Part VII transfer. The firm is known as having a “busy and strong practice” for insolvent and solvent run-offs. Philip Hertz and David Steinberg lead the charge. The firm’s clients include AXA, Grant Thornton and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The three other firms to make the top tier include Clyde & Co, Lovells and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.

Insurance – corporate and regulatory

Competition is rife in this category, with seven firms making the first tier. They comprise Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith, Linklaters, Lovells, Norton Rose, and Slaughter and May.

It was a big year for Clifford Chance, which advised Aon on the acquisition of Benfield Group in a deal worth £844m. The year also saw the firm attract new clients, such as Qatar Financial Centre Authority and XL Services Switzerland.

Clinical negligence (defendant)

Capsticks and Hempsons were the only two firms that made the top tier ranking for this category. At Capsticks, the nine-partner team is led by the “exceptional” Alison Morley. The firm acts for approximately 200 NHS trusts, primary care trusts, health authorities and other healthcare bodies. IT