Malcolm Simpson, Managing Partner at leading law firm, Walker Morris, discusses the importance of entrepreneurialism in law and the future of the legal profession.
It would be easy to suggest that the legal profession is typically associated with being cautious and considered, with lawyers being focused on containing and evaluating risk, but many of the best lawyers and firms also have an entrepreneurial approach.
Entrepreneurship is driven by opportunity and a willingness to take risks – in a calculated fashion – to constantly shift the odds of success. It is something that should be embraced in law, to drive practice forward and to find different ways of doing things.
A ‘disruptive’ approach
In the last few years there has been a dramatic shift away from a one stop shop in the City, with work being disaggregated as it is less costly to deliver it regionally, but most firms of our size do now have a presence in London. We have never felt pressured into setting up a City office however, and we operate in a unique position from our single site location in Leeds. As a result of our approach, we have really come into our own in the current market.
A decade ago, we noticed that US clients were very comfortable working with regional firms, so long as they have the best people and the right credentials. These clients were not drawn to the City in the same way many larger UK companies were but, with increasing price pressure and the resulting drive to disaggregation, we have started to see this with domestic clients in recent years too.
The rise of the legal entrepreneur
This unique, one-site philosophy is at the heart of the enterprising approach we take in what we do – in our partnership, our practice, our teams and with our clients. At the very heart of the process of entrepreneurship is the recognition of opportunities, followed by the desire to seize these and create something more.
The success of our firm is because of our people, and their fresh approach and ambition, which we nurture by pushing people to work just outside of their comfort zone. This enables us to see what our people can do, and more importantly, they can see what they can do too, and continue to push the boundaries as they grow in confidence with every new accomplishment. To provide legal professionals the chance to explore their entrepreneurial spirit, individuals should be given more latitude in ‘climbing the ladder’, enabling them to build something for themselves and develop their own unique practice.
I think it is true of any industry that the more ownership and autonomy given to employees, the greater their level of engagement and productivity. Law is no different, and so we have a duty to our industry, to develop our legal entrepreneurs and enable them to thrive in their practice.
We have seen real, tangible success for our firm and people as a direct result of trusting them to craft new services and implement different ways of working. For example, Jeanette Burgess, partner and Head of the Regulatory & Compliance Team, joined our firm 14 years ago, bringing valuable experience from a number of different perspectives, having previously worked for a national private practice, the UK Financial Services Authority enforcement team, and Provident Financial plc. Jeanette built her team from the ground up; it includes former industry practitioners who have experience at the delivery end of financial services – to now operate one of the largest regulatory practices outside of London. Our industry experience in this arena is second to none, and the growth of the practice in our firm is down to Jeanette’s tenacity and enterprising action.
Similarly, Dan O’Gorman, Partner in our Corporate Team, joined the firm five years ago, and his drive to expand our services was palpable. Dan is now Head of International, spending his time investing in relationships in the US and Europe as well as the UK, and is recognised as a leading lawyer with particular experience in cross-border transactions, advising corporate, institutional, private equity and financial sponsor clients on both public and private M&A transactions and equity fundraisings. Dan has a unique ability to bring cohesion to multijurisdictional teams. Recognising this, along with his experience and appetite, enabled Dan to really accelerate his own career and was key to the development of our International practice.
A new law firm for a new world
Of course, one of the biggest challenges for any business is getting the best people through the door in the first place and, perhaps more importantly, keeping them. I expect any law firm or other business that is not willing to adapt will risk losing talented employees as a result and may also struggle to attract new talent if they are reluctant to update working practices in line with what the future workforce wants.
As we approach the end of 2020 it is safe to say the attitudes towards agile working have certainly shifted and – given that employers, across all industries, can no longer argue about the negative impact of flexible or remote working if roles have been successfully fulfilled during the crisis – this presents an opportunity for law firms to reflect on their current work practices and adapt them for the new post-pandemic working world.
The focus of putting in ‘face-time’ at the office is likely to change, with firms needing to rethink how they manage and analyse team performance – how partners, directors and associates can work together and maximise productivity remotely – as well as considering training on how to lead in a virtual world.
The changing attitudes brought about because of the pandemic highlight the importance of discussing employees’ changing desires on the way they want to work going forward. This is something that must translate into law firm culture, allowing all individuals in the legal profession to have more autonomy over how and when they carry out their work – providing they are still delivering a high-quality service.
Ahead of the curve
As the physical location of a solicitors’ office is becoming less of a priority, this is not only important for clients, but it will also open up the talent pool for law firms looking to recruit the best people from all around the UK. Now, more than ever, individuals can enjoy a high-powered career whilst enjoying the tranquillity of living away from the city. I expect this is something that more individuals will decide works better for them in years to come, especially if living close to the office is no longer necessary.
Whilst this year has been tough for many, it has led to many law firms and other businesses evaluating the cost-effectiveness of spending large amounts of money on expensive city offices.
I would implore the legal profession to be brave. Embrace the challenges of this year and examine the opportunities they present. Our approach demonstrates that by really having the courage to think differently – and not just only think – to act, lawyers can fly, and longevity, for their careers and their firms, is the result.
Let’s encourage those that want to grow to grab opportunities with both hands and build something new, something more.
Malcolm is Managing Partner at leading law firm Walker Morris, and has overall responsibility for the firm. He has nearly 30 years’ experience handling commercial disputes. As well as being an accomplished trial lawyer, he is frequently involved in arbitrations, mediations and expert determinations. He is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators (FCIArb) and a CEDR accredited mediator.
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