Legal sector round table | What lessons were learnt from the change in our ways of working?

17 mins

Price Bailey hosted a round table in collaboration with Modern Law. By drawing on 12 voices from 12 legal firms across the country, we hoped to find out more about the important questions that have come out of the past 18 months. What lessons were learnt from the change in our ways of working, i.e. flexible working, virtual meetings, remote management?

Have these things led to an increase in bottom-line figures? What impact has this had on maintaining a firms’ culture and attracting new talent into the firm? How can firms look to maximise the opportunities out there, and will they look to add additional service lines in order to mitigate revenue stream risks?

Chair: What’s been the key lessons that you’ve learnt in the last 18 months, and what positives have come out of having to go into lockdown for your law firm? Has productivity increased?

Kicking off the discussion was Roger Bull, Burges Salmon LLP. “From the client perspective, our firm received an overwhelmingly positive response, and it also helped develop relationships because we were all fighting the same fire. I think there was some initial concern that the client relationships would suffer and, in turn, business development, but in fact, we found a lot more of our clients were willing to use technology to have a 20-minute meeting or catch up.” Roger goes on to speak about how it had also driven collaboration within their team. “People have pulled together with an absolute common goal. We’ve taken some real positives around transparency and communication – being a lot more open with what’s happening to the business, what the leadership thinking is and why we’re doing what we’re doing at this current time.”

Jessica Szczelkun, O’Neill Patient Solicitors, agreed with this view before adding her own insight to this question posed by the Chair. “We’ve found that a real positive has been how it’s built greater trust in our firm. We didn’t see productivity suffer; we saw it shift. Though our workforce was working slightly different hours and people would be logging in after the children had gone to bed, we supported that and were able to offer a more flexible style of working. I feel it has really helped strengthen the relationship across the board and has pulled us much closer as an organisation. There’s more accountability, and there’s more communication because we knew we had to make the effort to get in touch with people, rather than just being busy or doing all-day jobs.”

“Yeah, I completely agree with that,” says Nadia Biles Davies, Sharpe Pritchard LLP. “For us, there was a concern around a dilution of culture because everyone’s working further apart. However, actually, we’ve been working more closely than ever because you can have an all firm meeting, but you don’t have to get everyone in the room – everyone can join in. Nadia outlines some of the initiatives they have set up in order to keep the team connected and strengthen the culture of the firm. “We recently did a ‘Desert Island Discs’ where everyone had to share their island discs with a bit of a story behind it. It was actually the brainchild of our wonderful trainees, and by getting everyone from across the firm involved, within a few short months, we really got to know each other in a way that I think we wouldn’t have done before lockdown. In many ways, that culture of us all being in it together – like Roger mentioned earlier – meant that our culture continued to be enhanced as opposed to diluted.”

 

The hardest thing is to work out what makes an attractive client and then working out how to develop a relationship with them and how you can add value to that relationship.

 

Chair: That’s great to hear that you feel there have been huge positives for your firm. So, with that in mind, what’s your message about returning to the office for you as a firm?

“For us, it’s about trying to take your team along on your journey and providing that flexibility,” says Richard Baker, Stephens Scown LLP. “We’ve gone for, in principle, two days a week in the office but are leaving it very flexible. We wanted to allow our team leaders to make a lot of those decisions and have given them the training around that in order to try and balance what we call the ‘scowner’ experience (people who work here) with the client experience.” Richard believes it’s really important to provide people with flexibility because there are very genuine concerns coming out in the sector around well-being. “We’ve tried to pick up on them, but we haven’t necessarily seen the full extent of it yet. It’s not just about work, is it, it’s about what people have been through in their personal lives, whether that’s their parents, friends or other relatives who might have suffered – it’s been a very hard time for people.”

“With us, I don’t want to be controversial, but our experience has been a mixed bag”, claims Abu Kibla, Stuart Miller Solicitors.

“I found that many of our staff didn’t know how to manage themselves working at home. They actively called me and said, look, can I come back to the office? Surprisingly it was mainly the younger members of staff that did this.” For Kibla – whose firm litigates criminal cases – having your own caseload can be very isolating and what he’s seen is that most of his team are happy to be back in the office. “I see the connections that people have made since coming back, and though I share the sentiments of others around this table, in terms of the massive improvements in cost savings and being more efficient, I think on a human level when you take into account the type of work we do – it has been very difficult.”

Jeff Lewis, Brabners, picks up on the point that Kibla makes about junior members of staff. “That’s the one thing that we probably do need to keep a real eye on going forward – supervision, mentoring and training our junior people. As I always say to junior people or those that are newly qualified – you can read as many books as you like and go to as many training courses as you like, but actually sitting in the office and watching the people who have been doing the job for a long time is priceless.” Lewis explains that you need to make sure that there is still the ability for people to learn from those who have been doing it for a long time and has learnt over the past 18 months that this is not always the same when working from home. “We also need to make sure that our senior people have got people on hand who they can delegate the work to. Otherwise, it’s very easy for senior people to cling onto the work and say, well, I can do it faster myself, but that’s not doing the firm or the junior people any benefit in the long term.”

With everyone talking about the generational differences in wants and needs, Chris Godsave, Price Bailey, suggested people need to feel connected to other people and to place.

“Place plays a big part in creating that ethos and culture. If people are going to be working remotely, you might suggest that maybe the older generation – with their nice family homes and gardens – are happier to work from home than the younger generations who are in much smaller spaces. Consequently, there’s then a danger that your office is unevenly split between juniors and those with more experience.”

Chair: That’s an interesting point, Chris… how important do you think office space is in keeping your culture?

“I think it’s really important for the younger generation”, claims Ayesha Nayyar, Nayyars Solicitors. “A lot of the reasons they get these jobs in the city is to be a part of the whole graduate training vibe and comradeship. You want to enjoy those friendships where you go out for lunch/ dinner or drinks after work, and you want that network culture. I think we have to have an office so that even those members of staff who don’t come in regularly have still got somewhere to go.” In fact, Ayesha introduced an outside garden area at their office, which is something that she says would never have happened two years ago. “When the weather is lovely, it’s absolutely fabulous. Even on the colder days, they want to be outside because some of the staff have made it beautiful. Recently we’ve enjoyed a Euros party out there and have many more social gatherings planned now things are opening up – it’s great for the team spirit.”

After a short break, the Chair decided to move the conversation on to pastures new…

Taking the opportunity to pose a question was Chand Chudasama, Price Bailey, who asked if anyone had found the need to diversify how work is won? “I think for many lawyers, work is won through referral and cross-selling other services to the existing client base. This might be harder if we stay in a remote environment, but not necessarily. Have people found that digital marketing and other ways of attracting new clients has been high on the agenda?”

 

I definitely feel from a recruitment perspective it’s been massive. Most people we speak to that work in and around the legal sector are finding tremendous problems with recruitment.

 

“Definitely so. We’re quite systematic about it, and we do a lot of big data analytics to work out who we want to work with in order to segment the market”, states Stephen Crow, Clarion Solicitors. “The traditional approach for professionals is that you meet somebody for dinner or at some sort of event, you exchange business cards, and you might then convert them into being a client. However, the risk is that you then realise they’re not the client you wanted, or they might not want to pay for your service at all. The hardest thing is to work out what makes an attractive client and then working out how to develop a relationship with them and how you can add value to that relationship. That’s what we spend a lot of our time doing.’

Ian Jones, Backhouse Jones, followed this by explaining what they had done to diversify how their work was won. “We did two things, and we diversified into two areas: the training side we took online, and we set ourselves a modest revenue aspiration, shall we say. Thankfully, we completely smashed through that five-fold and we’re now charging for the training that we provide to the transport industry.” Ian goes onto explain how the other way that they expanded was equally interesting. “The one thing that I’ve always wanted to do for 20 years was take our brand and diversify it into an insurance brokerage. We had all this time last year where we could rethink our business model, and so we started BACKsure. Though it’s a different regulatory framework (which we had to get our heads around), it’s now up and running. So certainly, from a diversification point of view. we’ve done two things – BACKsure and BACKacademy.”

Coming in from a banking angle was Graham Martin, Barclays Bank. “Another model that I’ve seen being adopted is the consultancy model. A firm that I work with is very much a consumer, high-volume model, but about two years ago, they started to also introduce the consultancy model. What I’m now seeing is an escalation in this due to the flexibility of working from home and geographical restrictions being lifted. I’m not saying it’s right for every firm, but it’s certainly worked for that firm and has diversified their income stream so that when the conveyancing market does subside – they’ve got that model there as half their income. I definitely see that model having a place for firms going forward.”

Chair: Are you finding that the changes you’ve made to your firm are, in turn, changing the geography of your client base? Are you now picking up clients where geography isn’t important to them anymore? And same with staff as well?

Though most of the attendees around the table nodded in agreement to this question posed by the Chair, it was Joanna Kingston-Davies, Jackson Lees Group, who began the discussion. “I definitely feel from a recruitment perspective it’s been massive. Most people we speak to that work in and around the legal sector are finding tremendous problems with recruitment.” Joanna explains that they are now seeing city firms able to pay city rates to people who are not necessarily working in the city but instead are able to work in the countryside or less urban areas remotely. People are attracted by London or Manchester salaries without the need to commute anymore, so it’s huge. “I think client wise we’re seeing that a little bit less, although, obviously the fact that people can communicate with you via Zoom exclusively means that the opportunities are there – whether anybody has, I’m not sure just yet – but the opportunity I think is there for the taking.”

“One of our pushes has been on social media”, states Verity Slater, Stephens Scown LLP. “We’ve invested heavily in digital marketing over the years and punch well above our weight. In January of this year, DSMN8 ranked us the UK and Ireland’s 7th most active law and legal professionals on social media. That’s definitely brought in quite a lot of national clients for us that otherwise, you might not have attracted to the Southwest.” Funnily enough, Verity tells the group that they’re not having too much of a problem with recruitment because there’s an awful lot of people that want to get out of the cities and come and live with their families in the southwest (where they’re based).”For those that do want to leave the traditional city firm but also want a firm that has great work and a strong culture – we’re a strong choice. However, we are losing the odd person up the other way who are being attracted by corporate jobs. They’ve been enticed into going in-house for big nationals because they’re getting larger salaries and they’ve only got to go up to those places once or twice a week, whereas previously they wouldn’t have even considered that they could get a job with one of those firms if they lived down in the Southwest.”

Bringing the roundtable to a close, and from an interesting angle of a law firm working in the international arena, was Sunil Sheth, Fladgate LLI? “Personally, I think we’re seeing a talent war out there. Recruitment is a challenging process anyway, but over the past 18 months, it’s become more challenging because people have left the profession, and the development of associates has stalled because of not having the experience that they would have had working in the office. This has resulted in the salaries moving on an upward trajectory, and that’s been quite hard for us.” Despite the challenges, Sunil is quick to point out that there are plenty of opportunities too. “We found that people started thinking more about things like estate planning, wills, trusts and power of attorney because they were worried about what was going on.” He goes on to explain that about 30% of their revenue is also generated from foreign clients. “We’ve seen a lot of clients based abroad who think that Britain is a great place to be because our vaccine program is so far advanced, and we’re a safe haven for their funds. Consequently, we’ve recently set up a family office catering for high-net-worth individuals who have assets that need looking after from here – so there are obviously opportunities out there to diversify. But again, it’s a question of being fleet of foot and getting in there as early as possible.”

Conclusion

Earlier this year, Price Bailey hosted a roundtable with the aim of gaining a better understanding of how law firms were coping with the third national lockdown and the impact this was having on their law firms. Fast forward a few months, and after careful navigation of the government roadmap, Modern Law sat down with them again to discover what lessons have now been learnt, what positives there have been and how the attendees’ law firms had changed both from the inside and the out.

The discussion was hugely positive, and from the write-up, our hope has been to show you a slight glimpse into their experiences over the past 18 months. Not only did we hear that people had ironically come closer together during a time when we were told to stay apart, but the culture within the firms had grown too.

What‘s more, we heard how many of our attendees had adapted their businesses in order to win more work — whilst others told us of their excitement and need to be back in the office environment.

Yes, there were common concerns about the recruitment of talent after such a challenging year, but there was also huge optimism due to the perquisites of technology that have made geographical restrictions a thing of the past.

The pandemic isn’t going away any time soon, and we may never return to the normality we all knew before in the legal sector… but what this roundtable has shown is — is this necessarily a bad thing?

 

We always recommend that you seek advice from a suitably qualified adviser before taking any action. The information in this article only serves as a guide, and no responsibility for loss occasioned by any person acting or refraining from action as a result of this material can be accepted by the authors or the firm.

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