My first ever post, for The Lawyer magazine
You can all stop laughing now. Yes, I have been asked to write a regular blog. Who’d want to listen to me you may well ask? Well, I have been musing on why, given that I’m not a legal household name, I have been given this opportunity.
Rather than flattering myself by thinking that I have something fantastically original to say, I suspect that the real reason I have been asked to do this is that I am actually prepared to speak. I’m sure that there are plenty of lawyers out there who could do more eloquently but, the thing is, they won’t. And there’s so much to talk about isn’t there?
There is, I believe, a quiet, unspoken tyranny at most law firms and indeed an increasing emphasis on toeing the party line. There’s a policy on everything; risk management, press relations, social media, diversity – you name it, your firm will have a policy on it. Hell, even mine does. We’re all ready for that dread visit aren’t we? No-one wants to see their name in “that ” page in the LSG. Say what you think and you risk opprobrium. Open your mouth and you’re a troublemaker. Raise your profile and a self-publicist. It’s not seemly is it? So what happens? Bland statements made by bland lawyers. That degree of conformity might be great for your brand image and it might mean that you protect yourself from bad press but it doesn’t make for great copy. And everyone knows it isn’t true.
So what makes me an expert on lawyers and law firms, you may ask? How can I possibly know about what goes on in other firms? Well, I’ve worked in four different types of firm (even though I’ve only moved twice) and having started in the West End, in the glory days of the mid-1980s, a City merger saw me dragged kicking and screaming to ” A Better Partnership” in Cannon Street.
Having finally come to terms with EC4, I found myself being asked to get into bed with Americans. “Challenge Us” they proclaimed. Challenge me it certainly did and when that firm started on its path of global expansion I realised that I had to go. If only to get away from the slogan. I’d moved from niche to global without ever actually deciding to do so. It wasn’t my natural milieu. I’m not a big-firm lawyer. Too outspoken, too opinionated, too open- too everything.
Before you think this is a rant about large firms, let me assure you, that’s not what this is about. There are some very wonderful things about big firms,– the breadth of experience of that large body of lawyers, a culture of excellence in many, wonderful support systems; strength in depth, all that sort of thing. In the better firms, a marvellous collegiate atmosphere. Don’t get me wrong, all these things are important to me too. What was more important though, was my need to feel that I had some degree of control over my own destiny and indeed, that of my clients.
The larger the firm, the less control individual partners have. That’s unavoidable, but I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice my freedom of movement to be part of a greater whole where both me and indeed most of my clients felt rather out of place. I was having some not inconsiderable difficulty reconciling my naturally questioning nature with the need to whistle the party tune. So I left. And in 2007, for the first time in 20 years,I really moved. From over 400 partners to 12.
To a practice, given my predilection for retail, I would describe as “boutique”. When I caught myself singing in the car on the way to work, I knew I’d come home.
And whilst I’ve relished the absolute freedom that I’ve had to manage my work and my clients in a way that I judge to be the most effective, my move coincided with the start of the recession and meant that I was faced almost immediately with very different challenges to those that I faced in the previous 20 years. That experience has been fascinating and sobering and I’ve learned more in the last four years than I did in the previous 20.
I now know about every aspect of running a firm, from recruitment to accounts, from client relations to compliance, indeed, even so far as choosing the font style on documents and making sure we have decent handwash in the loos (Molton Brown, since you ask) .
So what will this blog be about? Well, given that, somewhat inevitably, so much is written about the larger firms in the legal press, I thought I’d use this blog to muse a bit about life in smaller firms and the very different world we inhabit. Of course, much of what we face is entirely the same – client pressure, deadlines, the business side of the practice but so much is so very different.
In joining a smaller firm I do feel sometimes that I have gone back to the future to a firm which is less hierarchical, less hidebound by bureacracy and one which can be fleet of foot. Harder to manage in the big behemoths. Law firms are going to have to be a lot more flexible to cope with the new challenges that lay ahead; not only things like Tesco Law and ABS but the ongoing grind of the recession and the inevitable drive towards even greater efficiency. We smaller firms can turn on a sixpence when we have to and whilst we can learn an awful lot from the big boys, we might also have something valuable to contribute to the big debate about where this profession is going.