When you next visit Marks Hall estate in Essex, between Colchester and Chelmsford, make sure you do so in the winter and that you take in the Millennium Walk, a lakeside woodland stretch including white Himalayan birches and red dogwood, which is especially striking at that time of year.
The project was made possible thanks to sponsorship by local firm Birkett Long, who wanted to support a sustainable, long-term project.
“Our brand is about being part of the community, a vibrant community, so we need to play our part,” says Martin Hopkins.
“We have a responsibility to that community, and Marks Hall is a good example of that – we wanted to do something that would be a lasting contribution”.
Hopkins is celebrating 18 years at Birkett Long on the day we meet and is due to become managing partner on 1 June.
When the Millennium Walk was planted, however, he was honing his craft as a specialist employment lawyer in a business environment far removed from the traditional confines of a law firm.
After a few years with another local firm where he had qualified, Hopkins moved to Eastgate Assistance, a firm which provided helpline and advice to the legal expenses insurance market and later became part of Capita.
Hopkins was on the phone “all day, every day, dealing with question after question about employment law”. “It was a great way of building up expertise, but it was also frustrating because you didn’t get to see a case from start to finish,” he says.
“You weren’t building relationships with clients and I wasn’t able to do any advocacy because the service didn’t extend to representation at tribunal”.
The set up, he remembers, was typical of an insurance call centre, with staff dealing with emergency calls about flood or fire on one floor, and a team of about 60 lawyers on another, sitting in a similar call-centre environment.
“Headsets and no control over calls coming in to you,” Hopkins recalls. “You didn’t know what it was going to be and as you put down the phone on one call, the next one would be coming through, and there were screens on the wall with stats about individual response rates. Fitting lawyers into that environment was quite a challenge.”
In the end, Hopkins managed one year before moving to Birkett Long in 2001 but the Eastgate experience was undeniably useful in the context of the current commoditisation of legal services, he says.
“It gave me a really good grounding in employment law but also an understanding of how to communicate what are quite complicated issues, sometimes quite quickly, to people, mostly using the telephone and that sharpens you up in terms of how you communicate and how you advise.”
The soon-to-be managing partner had already acquired a sense for customer service working as a part-time front-of-house manager for an outside catering company while studying for his A levels, law degree and LPC.
Dog eat cake
“You’re feeding 150 people in a marquee and you’re operating out of a tent in the back, where everything has been bought in; liaising between guests and staff but also dealing with strange issues,” he muses.
One of these involved a lavish wedding at a country house hired for the occasion but whose owners had somehow let their dog roam around.
That was bad news for the wedding cake, the bottom of which had a chunk bitten out and had to be covered for the photographs.
The bride’s parents also had to be pacified, and the house owners spoken to. Hopkins smiles at the memory: “That part-time work has taught me things that have proved to be very useful as a lawyer, such as managing expectations, dealing with people under extreme stress”.
Is this to say that law firms should really not get involved in the call-centre approach to law and instead focus on generate higher fees by helping solve ‘dog-ate-cake’ problems?
“Absolutely, but it’s easy to say we’re not going to compete on price but on service, but it’s much harder to deliver,” Hopkins replies, explaining that his firm’s success has been based in significant part on that approach.
“We’ve never said we were going to be the cheapest. We try to build relationships with clients, we try to put ourselves in a position where we are their trusted adviser.
We’ve worked for families across generations and with local businesses for many years, and that comes from that level of service.”
Nevertheless, the cost of legal advice is a reality for businesses and individual clients, which law firms are having to address.
Hopkins suggests the way to deal with such concerns and win over clients is to understand what drives a client’s decisions and what their needs are. And it’s a matter of then responding to each situation.
“You show you can be flexible, by offering different pricing options depending on the level of seniority and the timeframe, by offering to advise on only one part of it,” he says.
“It’s about increasing the choice rather than the traditional hourly-rate model, which no longer works on its own.”
The question of the relationship, however, brings up a related issue. It used to be the case that local businesses and individuals would simply have ‘their’ firm of solicitors, which they used for all their legal issues.
As firms have gone bigger, such rapport has got looser. And in today’s specialised legal world, a solicitor, even in a regional firm, is unlikely to handle the same range of issues as the previous generations.
So where does this leave these valuable personal relationships? “We look quite closely at client-partner relationship, so that there is a lead partner who is the main contact with the client; they may not actually be doing any work for that client, but they’re there as the main port of call,” says Hopkins.
“So if, say, a finance director has an issue, he doesn’t need to think about who at Birkett Long he needs to talk to about it, just that he can pick up the phone to me – for instance – as his main point of contact, and trust me that I understand his business and that I will make sure the lawyers who are going to work with him understand how he likes to work”.
In City firms, placing such reliance on a single relationship would be seen as a possible weakness, but not so much in regional firms, Hopkins says.
“As long as the service is consistently good throughout, clients start thinking about talking straight to the right lawyer.
Law firms in the past – or some partners – have been a bit guilty of holding on to clients and that’s where you get that risk, where it’s all about the individual partner’s relationship with the client.
But it’s part of our job as senior partners to plan our own succession and retirement,” Hopkins comments.
Succession planning is another question which, Hopkins says, has always been a challenge, “but more firms are now waking up to it and realise they need to do something about it.”
In part, he continues, this is a reflection of law firms moving away from thinking of themselves as something special because they’re a partnership and now realising they’re a business that can’t be reliant on just a few individuals and must instead give younger staff opportunities to progress.
Greater business awareness may have been spurred on by the liberalisation of the legal services sector but Hopkins believes law firms are also just generally catching up with the world around them.
Birkett Long itself, a firm which started in Halstead in 1821, has gone through acquisitions and consolidation.
It now has 110 people at its head office in Colchester, 45 in Chelmsford, and 20 in Basildon.
Of the 26 partners, 11 are full equity, five have part equity, and the remaining 10 will enter part equity shortly – a move which is part of the broader succession plan to make the younger partners feel more engaged early on.
The firm also converted to LDP ten years ago, opening the partnership to non-solicitors, and readying itself to become an alternative business structure (ABS) so that more non-lawyers can be owners.
That move will also enable Birkett Long as a brand to start providing services beyond legal advice.
The firm already has a financial services arm. This part of the business used to be mostly fed by the law firm.
Now, Birkett Long’s independent financial advisers (IFAs) operate out of a separate LLP regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), generating their own work and feeding some of their clients into the law firm.
Birkett Long is also looking at setting up two more subsidiary LLPs. One will come out of the firm’s existing human resources product, which is providing HR support to employers.
As with financial advice, the business will be staffed by specialist non-lawyer HR advisers – who might sit in on a disciplinary hearing and assist with practical issues – with lawyers then brought in to advise on the legal issues if necessary.
“We’re really pleased with the service,” Hopkins says, adding that it already has more than 100 clients and is expected to generate £1m in turnover in five years.
This is the point at which it is likely to be hived off as a separate business sitting outside the remit of the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
This, it suddenly seems, would be the perfect poster boy for the SRA’s new ‘freelance solicitor’ model. Is this something the firm has been looking at?
“That development is a positive for us,” Hopkins responds. “It allows us to continue to sell the service on the basis that people have access to a lawyer, which is part of our selling, but without that part of the firm being necessarily SRA regulated.”
The firm recruited a dedicated sales person for the HR service, which Hopkins says is one of the reasons for its success, getting businesses on board with the HR product and providing another source of work for the law firm – “because those clients are going to have commercial and corporate finance issues, litigation, commercial property issues.”
The other LLP Birkett Long is set to launch “relatively quickly” is in the intellectual property sector, hoping to leverage some of the work which is already coming out of London.
“We have clients coming from London, we work in London, but we can do a lot better, and we decided at our last partners’ meeting that we would have a London presence by the end of May 2020.”
A few organisations have sought to exploit vertical markets, with law firms being one satellite business in a bigger galaxy, but Birkett Long, Hopkins says, are committed to being legal advisers.
“Ultimately, we’re a law firm, and these are very much complementary businesses, that will grow and become an important part of our wider business, but we are a law firm.”
One recent initiative being considered perhaps best illustrates this meshing of professional values with a business mindset.
It is the setting up of a weekend call-answering service, developed through LawSouth – a grouping of law firms that come together to share ideas and use their combined buying power.
“Not many of us want to be here at the weekend but the statistics show there’s a high number of calls coming in on Sunday morning relating to legal services. So being able to offer that service is becoming more and more important,” Hopkins comments.
“It’s no longer good enough to say ‘you come to us when we’re ready for you.’ It has to be ‘we’re available when you need us’.”
For better or worse, most of us now expect our banks or insurance companies to be available at the weekend, even for nonemergency services.
Such expectations can be a challenge for law firms, but handled properly, they can be met without putting unfair expectations on lawyers, especially if technology helps spread the work.
So why not take matters further and explore full multidisciplinary partnerships and commoditisation? “The question is,” Hopkins responds, “do people want an industry that’s been disrupted?
Do they want an industry that’s been commoditised? I suspect a lot of the people who walked through the doors this morning would say no.
They would say they’re here because we’ve been recommended to them or because they like the way we treat them. And you don’t get that with a call centre or a commoditised product.
A lot of people come through our doors because they’re dealing with a stressful issue in their lives, or one of the most important issues. I always feel we have a responsibility to look after them properly.”
Which brings us back to Marks Hall. Initiatives such as the Millennium Walk are not about generating income. There is, of course, an element of promotion, but that’s not the primary objective.
Just as the firm is making its meeting rooms available to local charities to hold some of their events. If some instructions come out of this, so much the better, but the aim is to show that the firm is one of the local businesses, with similar aspirations, and that’s how it can get the trust of the community....