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Colin Jones talks to Matthew Rogers about steering Hewitsons through the perilous waters of the mid-tier market

25 September 2017

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Hewitsons is one of those firms that epitomise regional success. Tracing its roots back to 1844, the practice has grown from being a respectable local player into the upper rankings of the UK’s top 200 law firms. Turnover rose 16 per cent to £16.5m in the last financial year, from £14.1m a year earlier, while pre-tax profit climbed by £0.2m to £4.5m.

The firm’s diverse portfolio of clients, including landowners, farmers, businessmen, and entrepreneurs, has been growing too, with national and international aspirations that the full-service firm has been keen to support. The firm already had offices in Cambridge, Northampton, and Milton Keynes when it opened a base in London in 2013. Two years later, this development strategy culminated in a merger with City outfit Moorhead James.

London, says managing partner Colin Jones, is “a gateway to attracting quality lawyers and clients”. Now, Jones is set on maximising the growth of the firm’s main practice areas – private wealth, property, and corporate – while embedding “a culture that places the individual at its heart”. “We see a lot of strength in that focused type of model. We’re going to concentrate there on particular sectors of the market, and the London opening has been a way for us to secure the best possible talent.”

Take, for example, the firm’s private wealth work, and in particular its charities team. Hewitsons acts for 500 not-for-profit organisations, whose advisers tend to be based in the capital. London is also important to the firm’s international arm; 25 years ago it founded LawExchange, a referral network of like-minded law firms that now covers 33 firms across the globe, and the new London base will no doubt enhance this international offering.

A City base will also allow Hewitsons to tap into the capital’s sizeable talent pool. “We have become attractive to people who might not previously have looked at us. Cambridge, Northampton, and Milton Keynes are so close to London and we recognised that we were losing people to London, which we have now responded to, but we’ve also picked up people who had previously worked in London but were looking for a quality of life without the daily commute, but with access to a base in the City when they needed it.”

Mid-tier challenges

Despite the financial benefits a merger can bring, Jones is pragmatic about what the short-term future holds for the firm. “We’re doing what all firms of our type have to do, which is to provide the best quality services to get the best possible returns, because the costs of running a business are becoming ever greater.” He cites the costs of professional indemnity insurance, improving technology, maintaining premises, and recruitment. “To cover that, your income needs to be keeping sufficiently ahead and so you require the quality offering to achieve the fees you need. On the back of recent growth, this year we’re making investments in premises, IT, and new people.”

With this in mind, Jones isn’t expecting this year’s financial performance to rise in the same proportion as last year’s. “I don’t think we’ll see the growth we saw in our merger year, but we certainly have to continue to strive to make the business as profitable as possible.”

Remaining competitive in the mid-tier and being attractive to potential new recruits are the firm’s biggest challenges, admits Jones. “We are all, in many ways, in a big firm world, and millennials are often attracted to what the larger firms have to offer, so we need to address and be responsive to all of that.”

What does he think about the rise in alternative legal services providers, especially those in the private client and property sector? Jones says the firm is “well alive” to the growing competition. “What we’ve been doing is looking to the future, vision thinking. Where are we going to be in five or seven years, what about succession planning, how will we fund our business, where’s our work going to come from, and how will changes in demographics affect us?”

One of the keys to answering these questions lies in the firm’s principle of “absolute client focus”. “If we don’t put our clients at the centre and understand what they’re thinking for the future then we may not do as well as we want to. So, we’re trying to do our bit to resist ABSs and others who will start to eat into our market share before too long.”

Home comforts

In Cambridge, Hewitsons’ patch has attracted newcomers thanks to the thriving tech sector which is fuelling business and job growth in the area. The boom of the so-called ‘Silicon Fen’ has seen London firms play role reversal with their regional counterparts. Eversheds Sutherland, Taylor Wessing, and Irwin Mitchell have all set up offices in the city. Meanwhile, existing regional practices such as Howes Percival, Taylor Vinters, and Stone King are also fighting for their share of the market.

Jones acknowledges the competitive situation his firm is in but says reputation counts for a lot, particularly in places like Cambridge and Northampton, which are relatively small towns at heart. “You must have legacy in places like these, and we have a phenomenal legacy in both. We’re very well embedded in our communities. We have a very high level of standards in training and for looking after our people. We also have a very strong people culture, which is key; people don’t stay if they don’t like you.”

The firm’s legacy is in part due to its community involvement. Set up in 2012, the Hewitsons Charitable Trust organises annual events, including the ‘Chariots of Fire’ relay race, which pits teams throughout Cambridge against each other every September. The event has raised over £1m since it began in 1992. This year, it has partnered with Alzheimer’s Research UK and hopes to raise more than £140,000 to help fund research into the link between dementia and Down’s syndrome.

Hewitsons also organises and takes part in a similar event in Northampton: Cycle4Cynthia, which raises money for the local Cynthia Spencer Hospice. Earlier this year, the firm also ran its own Tour de Hewitsons between offices to raise funds for Veterans Aid. “We have a very strong community commitment,” says Jones. “We respect the fact we only get out of the community what we put into it.”

Matthew Rogers is a former reporter of Solicitors Journal

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