New *particular People

After the ups and downs of 2016, I’m delighted to announce the arrival of new people at *particular, all of whom you may have seen around and about at Campus North (where you’ll find our office upstairs at the far end of the lounge) had you been here over the last couple of months.

Asif Malik joined us as an Associate Solicitor in January. Having qualified nearly 3 years ago, Asif had worked in the early part of his career as a claimant personal injury lawyer. However, he is dual-qualified, having had a previous career as an accountant, so he’s as at home with cap tables and balance sheets as he is with tax and corporate law. Which makes him perfect for corporate finance work and that’s what we’ve hired him to do.

Before accountancy, Asif ran his own businesses and worked for a while as a taxi driver in Newcastle. As a result of which he knows everyone and everywhere in the toon. In fact, he seems to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the city’s commercial landlords. If he looks a bit tired and haggard, that’s not down to the fact that he’s on a second career and therefore a little more, er, mature than your typical junior lawyer. It’s because his wife recently gave birth to their second child.

Barry Arkle also joined us as an Associate in January. Barry is a Chartered Legal Executive who specialises in dispute resolution – what used to be called ‘litigation’, which, if you’re wondering, is what Harvey on ‘Suits’ does. Most people seem to be familiar with Harvey. Fortunately for us, although he has less hair, Barry is far more friendly than Harvey and doesn’t shout at all.

Barry worked for a number of years in insolvency and so is well placed to assist should you want to close a business before starting another. Or if you have a client who is pleading poverty. For the last few years, Barry has nurtured a specialism in IP, having joined us from Sintons, where he worked alongside Pippa Aitken, our chum who leads the IP team there. Since joining us, Barry has been doing some commercial IP work too, much as I did when joining Watson Burton, all those many years ago. Since Deb’s departure last year, I have been keenly aware that I have been the only, shall we say, ‘seasoned’ member of the team. Fortunately, that has changed with Barry’s arrival, which makes me very happy indeed. Despite this, whilst I get out of breath at the sight of a staircase, Barry can be seen everyday swapping his flat cap for a cycling helmet.

Matthew ‘Dodge’ Donnelly joined us in January as a Trainee Solicitor, having previously worked for us as a Paralegal. He is the first solicitor that we have employed not to have studied at Northumbria University, having graduated from Hull University, a distinction of which he is insufferably proud. He is also a dedicated follower both of pop culture and of sport and, sadly for him, is now the only Mackam in the office.

As a trainee, Matt will be doing a little bit of everything (he has already proven himself quite comfortable with cap tables and the like) and, being adept with this sort of thing, he has been able to persuade the Law Society to knock a couple of months of his training contract (which would otherwise have been 2 years), meaning he now qualifies in October 2018. This because of the amount of time he spent working as a paralegal whilst not travelling around the world. That again being something that he tells us of incessantly. Although most of his stories seem to involve working with Italians on a farm in Australia or drinking unspeakable concoctions in Vietnam.

Amy Gatenby joins us officially on 8 May, although she has been doing unpaid work with us as a work experience person for a while now. She is coming to the end of her studies at Northumbria University, graduating this summer with an “LLM” – that’s a Masters in Law. So like Nick before her, she will actually be more qualified than me, though being the boss, I choose not to put my faith in such things. Amy is working initially as a Paralegal and will be handling our admin as well as more straightforward legal tasks. In November, she will transform magnificently into our next trainee solicitor.

Amy hails from the Teesside Riviera (otherwise known as Redcar) but has chosen to make Newcastle her home. Notwithstanding both of these things, she is a dedicated follower of fashion (and, I hope, fashtech) and writes a fashion-blog that has frankly, far more followers than Deb and I ever managed to attract to particular.pro. Given the subject matter (and Amy’s ability to bring it to life), perhaps that’s not surprising.

The Lawyer Vs. The Law Firm – a response

I read a post published recently by Canadian legal sector consultant Jordan Furlong.  To say that it resonated was something of an understatement.  But I didn’t agree with all of his conclusions.  You can read his post here and this was my response.

Jordan, your article is a clarion call that strategists in commercial law firms around the world should heed or face extinction.  And of course, for that reason I expect little change in 2013, meaning by 2014, the traditional law firm is no more than a plump turkey waiting to be pulled apart by more astute commercial players.

Why is this?  Because traditionally law firms reward big billers and rain makers with promotion to management status, whereas those actually skilled in longer term business development and strategy are overlooked.  Lawyers are inherently self-interested and are forced to work together out of need and those at the top of the trees all to often are arrogant and unwilling to consider that there may be any other path.

But here’s the thing.  Whilst it may be that big enterprise likes to align itself with one firm or another, ultimately law is a relationship business.  When you look across the UK legal scene (which is where I work), you see a vast array of firms and to the business owner or manager, almost every single one of them is seen as a substitute for another.  Which firms could be excepted from that analysis. Pannone perhaps, or maybe Slaughter & May.  I can’t think of any others that have their own distinct personality.

In my father’s day, the lawyer was at the heart of the client relationship.  Networks were personal.  Not because they were jealously guarded, but because professionals in market towns naturally grouped themselves into non-competitive alignments with fellows who thought like they did.  But this changed in the 80s when English firms were allowed to start marketing themselves.  As a result, the idea of a central law firm identity, a brand, started to take priority over the individual lawyers.  But of course lawyers didn’t know what a brand was – and many, most perhaps, still don’t.

The attitude of the individual lawyer towards cross-selling is guarded not merely because of his or her doubts over the quality of service that might be provided by a colleague of which s/he knows little.  The lawyer protects his or her contacts because of the very pressure s/he faces to cross-sell.  I can’t count the number of times at the larger provincial practices for whom I worked when, faced with a client need out of the ordinary, I would approach a dept head or team leader for permission to refer said client out to a specialist I had found at another firm only to be told “Jenkins does that sort of thing, or something similar or he’ll work it out”.  Why? Because equity partners are not motivated by long term gain through first class customer service.  They are motivated by the scale of their drawings, which themselves depend upon the revenue generated within the tax year.

When I decided to set my firm up in 2011, I decided to do everything, EVERYTHING, different.  Why fight our client’s desire to bond with their adviser?  Why not to sell ourselves through our support of that relationship?  For our consultants, why try to restrict what they do with their contacts and clients? Why impose covenants on them? Why force them to cross-sell.  Instead, new would-be consultants are told that should they wish to leave, not only will they not be restricted, they are positively encouraged and will leave us with our blessing.  If they wish to refer their clients to advisers outside the firm, that is absolutely their decision.

We do this because when we set the firm up, we decided first to build a brand (not an identity, an actual brand) and then see where we went from there.  So we created a values document that all of our advisers must not only sign up to, but must make sing out through their work.  And that values document is provided to all of our clients so that they can hold us to account.  So we can be confident in the absence of controls over our people, because they wouldn’t be with us in the first place if they weren’t the RIGHT KIND of people.  And so we don’t push our brand on the clients of our lawyers.  And it’s by operating this way that our clients love us so much.

Which brings us back to where you started, and the idea of the growth-by-merger fallacy.  When two large firms combine, what analysis is made as to the qualities of the lawyers at the coalface?  Practically none.  Or if there is, it’s merely about their ability to bill as opposed to their ability to build a long term relationship with their clients through which those clients might place total trust in the fidelity of their lawyer.  Because a merger between two firms is not about the building of economies of scale, it’s about the building of megaliths that massage the egos and satisfy the avarice of their equity partners.

Thus far, the focus in England post-Legal Services Act has been on the destruction that is to be reaped upon the High Street sector by the likes of the supermarkets and other large consumer brands.  But there is a tsunami that is going to overwhelm the commercial side also before long.  Insurers, business consultants, accountants, unions even, are all bigger than us and better resourced and much more astute in a commercial sense.

The future for quality legal resource is, as you mention, niche.