In many ways, Buckles Law is a classic full service regional law firm. With a turnover of around £14m, it has five offices: in Cambridge, London, Nottingham, Peterborough and Stamford.
But there is a twist. The practice boasts not just solicitors, but also avocats, abogados and avvocati – experts in the laws of France, Spain and Italy respectively.
At Buckles’ helm is Duncan Jackson, who qualified there in 1997 and has been at the firm “man and boy”, as he describes it. When Jackson joined, the Peterborough-based firm had just 35 lawyers and did 90 per cent private client work.
Over the years Buckles has transformed itself, moving into the commercial law arena, and on the private client side, wooing a significant high net worth client base.
By 2018, it was time to introduce a more corporate structure, and at this point Jackson – who had headed the private client department, which quadrupled in size under his leadership – took up the reins, stepping into the newly-created role of chief executive officer.
Jackson set up an operational board to look after the day-to-day running of the firm, comprising three equity partners plus the new roles of chief financial officer, chief information officer and chief people officer.
What about the big strategic decisions? Developments such as whether the firm should merge with another practice or take on a new equity partner still need to be decided by the firm’s 11 equity partners.
Do they always agree? “I can’t remember the last time we had a formal vote at a partners’ meeting,” reflects Jackson. “It’s very much a consensus.”
Practice makes perfect
Buckles covers all of the main practice areas you might expect – company and commercial, employment, dispute resolution, property, restructuring – as well as some specialist areas you might not anticipate from a firm of its size, such as construction and engineering, and planning and environment.
But it is the international law element that makes the firm stand out from the regional pack. It can advise on French, German, Italian and Spanish law – a real asset for jet set clients with assets abroad.
This foreign law capability formed the basis of a clever initiative for bringing in new business: the BUCKLESconnect referral group, which has some 300 law firm members, plus another 40 other businesses such as financial advisers and accountants.
“Say a law firm is dealing with the administration of an estate and there is an asset in Spain. We can help them with that aspect of the administration,” explains Jackson.
As part of its service to network members, where Buckles does not have inhouse expertise in the relevant law, it can outsource work to other international firms with which it has a previous relationship – which is reassuring for member firms that lack their own international connections.
And it’s also handy for small firms seeking to refer domestic work that they don’t do themselves.
Jackson says: “The network is based around our international work, but we also get referrals from small firms who don’t do certain things, such as contentious probate or commercial work. We’ve recently been referred property work, where firms haven’t been able to cope with the current demand.”
Firms can receive a 10 per cent fee for referring work through the network. But could network firms end up pinching clients from one another? Jackson stresses that there is “a very robust non-solicitation clause” to ensure this doesn’t happen.
The network has contributed to Buckles deriving around 10 per cent of its turnover from other firms.
Wealth of knowledge
Jackson’s own area of expertise is wealth preservation, with a particular focus on inheritance tax planning and trusts. Here, he has a relatively unusual string to his bow – being one of the few solicitors to hold a Financial Planning Certificate, and having previously sat on the Law Society’s financial services panel.
The firm was regulated in this area until 2002, when a new regulatory framework meant it no longer made sense to continue to offer financial services advice inhouse. But Jackson asserts that his financial background is still very helpful in doing his job.
“In high net worth tax planning, you need to understand the tax aspects… We get a lot of work from financial advisers because we talk their language as well as our own. And while we can’t give specific advice, we can give generic advice. It’s all about professionals working together for the client,” he observes.
Given his management role, does Jackson have much time for fee-earning these days? “I still want to practise law; I do 33 per cent of the desk,” he insists. “You do have to be disciplined and I have two great assistant solicitors.”
Jackson adds that being a fee-earner also helps you to be a better law firm manager. “You don’t have to remember what law is like on the front line – you are still doing it,” he comments.
So where does Jackson plan to take Buckles from here? One key plank in the strategy is developing niches; hence the foreign law expertise. And a new niche is already lined up, with the firm about to launch a business immigration team.
“We receive a lot of inquiries relating to this area coming into the BUCKLESconnect network,” explains Jackson. “We identified a gap and headhunted a team.”
But Jackson is also looking for broader growth, which he sees as crucial in the current business environment.
“Look at the increasing burden of regulation, the attitude of professional indemnity insurers, and the economics of running a law firm. Unless you’re a boutique firm, you need to be a certain size to be viable – to pay for the compliance staff and so forth. So getting bigger is part of our strategy,” he remarks.
Part of this growth has already been achieved through mergers and acquisitions activity. For example, five years ago Buckles merged with Nottingham’s DCH Law; two years ago, it bought London firm Lyndales and last year it acquired Miller Sands in Cambridge.
When it comes to potential mergers, how does Jackson decide if a firm will be a good fit? “It’s about culture and people,” he asserts. “And of course it’s also about the practice areas. We don’t do legal aid, for example, and we’re [winding down] our personal injury.”
Of the recent mergers, two of the acquired firms were already known to Buckles; and one was found through a broker.
While a good cultural fit might be one of the top criteria, how can you really know what a firm’s culture is – particularly if you haven’t worked with them in the past? “You spend an awful lot of time talking to an awful lot of people,” answers Jackson.
“You talk to the decision-makers early on, but you get into the culture by talking to the staff as early as possible. I genuinely believe that happy people are more productive. You need to create an environment where people can succeed. You don’t want anyone to have that Sunday night feeling of, ‘oh no, I’ve got work tomorrow morning’”.
But it takes time to get a real feel for the firm: “When you first meet people, it’s a bit like being on a date; everyone is putting the best representation of themselves forward. But over a period of time, you get to know people better.”
And sometimes you do need to be prepared to walk away, particularly when you get to the due diligence stage. “We all get client complaints; it’s part of being in a service industry”, notes Jackson. “But you have to look at how the firm has dealt with the complaints it has received. And you look at the staff who have left and ask, what were the reasons behind it.”
When it comes to a smooth integration between two firms, getting the right staff – old and new – sitting next to one another is basic but important. “It will be a new IT system for the new staff,” says Jackson. “So you make sure people are sat next to them so they can just turn left or right and say, I’ve got this problem, and someone can help them.”
In non-covid times, Jackson also encourages all staff to spend time in the different offices, to get to know one another – be it IT staff, junior lawyers, partners or board members.
All this has been more of a challenge in the firm’s most recent merger. Buckles acquired Miller Sands on 1 April last year – just over a week into the UK’s first lockdown. Jackson admits that the covid-19 restrictions have slowed the integration process somewhat; and the firm has now seconded four of its Peterborough staff to Cambridge to help with the process.
All in the blend
Like most law firms, Buckles is now mulling over how its lawyers will work in future; and Jackson is currently leafing through the results of a detailed staff survey on the topic.
“Before the pandemic, all the lawyers worked from home for some of the time, but probably no more than one day a week. And the vast majority of the support teams were not working from home,” Jackson states.
“We moved pretty seamlessly to remote working [during lockdown]. We had a skeleton crew in Peterborough throughout the pandemic, and we had post redirected there – it’s surprising how many wet signatures are still needed. We set up a system so that those people who were in the office could deal with everything.”
Having shown that remote working is viable, will this be part of future working patterns at the firm? “I suspect we will go to a form of blended working. There are no jobs that can’t be done at least in part at home, but some tasks need to be done in the office.”
One of Jackson’s main concerns relates to the needs of more junior staff. “What the more junior lawyers haven’t had in the last year is that learning through osmosis: sitting and listening to colleagues handling difficult phone calls or meetings.
“The quality of their training has been reduced as a result. So a big part of [any future plans] is making sure that we have got the right people in the office at the right time.”
If more people do work partly from home, will Jackson look to reduce the amount the firm spends on office space? “In the London office, we’ve now got 28 people and there aren’t enough desks, so there’ll be some form of hotdesking,” he says. “Most of our office space isn’t that flexible. But we won’t take on more space as we grow.”
Good to talk
The pandemic has not only prompted what is likely to be a lasting change in working patterns; but it has also taught Jackson better ways to communicate, he says.
Gone are the evening partner meetings held every two months, replaced by one-hour meetings every week over Microsoft Teams; and Jackson also communicates to the wider staff several times a week.
“Lawyers are intelligent people and you’ve got to be authentic, open and honest,” he comments.
Jackson adds: “Lawyers are trained to argue, and that can create a special set of management challenges. But the people are also the best part of the job. I love the fact that you can see staff who joined the firm as paralegals, coming through the ranks and blossoming. They’re the next generation.”
Rachel Rothwell is a freelance journalist...