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Agile thinking

Agile thinking


A pioneer of flexible working, Janet Cooper OBE talks to John van der Luit-Drummond about promoting new working practices as a way to retain talented staff and proving that high-quality legal work can be produced outside the City

Six weeks before Christmas 2016, a letter arrived at Sheffield-based law firm Tapestry Compliance addressed to its managing partner, Janet Cooper. The gist of the letter was: ‘Would you like an OBE?’ Cooper, the firm’s co-founder and former head of global incentives at Linklaters, had been nominated in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List for services to equality, women’s empowerment, and employee share ownership. ‘I was absolutely delighted,’ says Cooper. ‘I know some people decline honours but I responded immediately saying, “Thank you!”’

Cooper’s CV is littered with examples of her work fighting for gender equality: she serves on the boards of UNWomen, which works for gender equality globally, and Gender Action for Peace and Security (GAPS), which aims to have women included in peace processes in conflict zones. But it is her work in the legal sector that is of most interest. One of the first women partners at Linklaters in the early ’90s, Cooper kicked off the Magic Circle firm’s first foray into flexible working in 1994 after introducing it into her own team: ‘It was then taken on board by the firm’s board, who promoted part-time working and flexible working long before the internet made it possible,’ she recalls.

City firms in the ‘80s and ‘90s were good at recruiting women, Cooper says, with associate level recruitment split roughly 50/50 between men and women. ‘The issue was women weren’t staying. They didn’t want to work 50-hour weeks and have no scope to enjoy a family. That’s where the push was to get flexible working.’ Some partners were more accepting of it than others and would wait for client demand to drive change. For Cooper, however, the drive was to retain the best talent in her team. ‘I did it to keep a really great colleague,’ she explains. ‘It was about getting the message across that I’d rather have a superstar three or four days a week than someone who wasn’t quite as able working five or six.’

The penny has finally dropped at some firms which, until recently, have stuck with old-fashioned working practices. ‘The reason why agile working now has impetus is because people are waking up to the issue: it is expensive to lose people, clients, and recruit and train replacements. You can find ways of retaining people for longer. Offer them the lifestyle they want and they’ll give you great service and loyalty. I struggle to understand why some City firms still measure you on the 50-hour week. There is a perception that if you are not working all the time, how can you still contribute at that level? I think you can. It is about management and team work.’

Joining Linklaters as an associate in 1984, Cooper made partner just over six years later aged 31, one of the youngest practice heads at the firm. ‘I had grown my practice from scratch,’ she explains. ‘When I joined there were several companies looking for executive and employee shared ownership schemes. My first client was Debenhams. I’d had a Saturday job in a department store and knew how hard it is to stand on your feet serving all day, so Debenhams setting up an employee plan resonated with me. Staff wouldn’t just be earning minimum wage, they had the opportunity to share in the success of the business. It inspired me and I made it my practice area.’

Cooper soon became the firm’s go-to expert and grew her niche practice into one of the largest in the City, with up to 20 lawyers in the UK and 80 globally working on employee incentives and share plans. Her work has stood the test of time – the first global all-employee share plan she created for British Airways is still used as a precedent for companies around the world. She also became an advocate for her practice area, co-founding the Global Equity Organisation and the Share Schemes Advanced Studies Group, as well as being founder of Proshare, a non-profit organisation promoting employee share ownership.

Disrupting the market

Cooper left Linklaters in 2011 when she founded Tapestry Compliance with fellow Linklaters alumnus Bob Grayson. Although she had introduced flexible working to the Magic Circle, Cooper had never had it for herself. ‘I was working 50, 60, 70 hours a week,’ she says. ‘I wanted the chance to work more flexibly, and to make sure we could promote and showcase agile working as a proper business proposition; I wanted to walk the walk.’

In five years Tapestry has disrupted the market, muscled in on City turf, and attracted high-end clients such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Dell, to name but a few. ‘Goldman Sachs was our first client on our first day, which we did not anticipate,’ says Cooper. ‘I assumed none of my clients would follow me because they would want the big name. But Goldmans had spent two months trying out other lawyers but hadn’t found what they wanted, so as soon as our office was open we were instructed.’ Dell, Morgan Stanley, and Credit Suisse followed in the first month. HSBC, Ameriprise, and Legg Mason have all been added to the firm’s client roster since.

Did the exodus of clients from the City create a rift between Cooper and her former colleagues? ‘We play nice with all law firms because they refer work to us,’ she replies, laughing. ‘Linklaters don’t, but we did all of Norton Rose’s work for a year because it didn’t have a share plan team. As soon as they recruited a new partner we showed them what we were doing for each client and asked who they wanted back.’

Now 21-lawyers strong, Tapestry is beginning to eat into its larger competitors’ market share. While Linklaters, under Cooper, was ranked top of the Legal 500 in a category that was largely its own, the firm’s market domination has been diluted with the emergence of Tapestry, which is now ranked alongside the likes of Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields, and Herbert Smith Freehills in the top tier for employee share schemes. Yet Cooper is not content. ‘We’ve been very disruptive in the last five years because we’ve got a really great proposition, therefore other businesses have been shrinking. Our ultimate goal is to be the preeminent firm in the sector.’

However, running Tapestry is not without its challenges. ‘Because we are an agile firm, we only take on work we know we can do,’ explains Cooper. ‘The challenge is understanding how much capacity we have so we maintain a nice balance of giving a great client service without putting too much pressure on the staff.’

Northern lights

The fact Tapestry has been so successful while also promoting agile working makes its achievements all the more impressive. ‘Our staff know we are committed to agile working; should they want or need it they know it is there for them. And people stay. In five years, we’ve had no lawyer leave, which is unusual in the legal profession,’ says Cooper, who has made it her mission to prove that top-quality legal work can be produced outside the Square Mile. ‘I had to leave Yorkshire in the ‘80s to get this kind of work because it wasn’t available back then. Now, we have a client list that is as good as the top four firms in the UK.’

But how has the firm become successful so quickly? And why would any Fortune or FTSE 100 company uproot its legal work from the City and entrust it to a firm in Sheffield? ‘First, we have to provide fabulous service comparable to or better than the top firms; we do that by recruiting the smartest people. We’ve had no trouble recruiting star lawyers who would get jobs at top firms but didn’t want to live in London. Second, we’ve got a fantastic costs proposition. It is astonishingly good value up in Yorkshire, particularly Sheffield. We still pay top of the market for the area but it is a lot less than you would in the City. And we are probably 40 per cent cheaper than the big firms.’

And then there is technology. ‘We’ve invested in shared platforms so everyone in our Leeds and Sheffield offices can see everything. We’ve also got people in Australia to help us with the 24/7 coverage of urgent work that needs to be done overnight.’ Still, Cooper admits that you can’t beat 20th-century tech: ‘Working with the likes of Goldman Sachs, we’re still doing it by phone and email, just like in the City. It just so happens we are 200 miles north of London.’

Of course, having a diverse team makes practical business sense. I ask Cooper if she finds having a more diverse team than her competitors works in Tapestry’s favour when pitching to new clients? ‘Many of our clients are women. They notice if only men turn up, but in our case, that is not going to happen as we are 75 per cent women; we have to make sure that some of our men turn up! You need to be aware that some clients look for diversity and firms need to respond to that.’

Still, there must be a fear that Tapestry’s top clients may leave if and when Cooper and Grayson decide to hand over the reins. ‘I don’t actually do much legal work,’ she replies. ‘I’m creating a firm that is sustainable without me. I’m passionate about creating this legacy to carry on and we’ve been recruiting with that in mind. It’s funny how many partners approach us, but we want to grow our own and we have some fabulous senior associates.’

Tapestry’s USP is bound up in ‘who we have recruited’, according to Cooper: ‘I spend my time finding the right people and training them.’ She highlights firm trainee Matthew Hunter as one to watch for the future: ‘He has a first-class degree from Sheffield Hallam University but couldn’t afford to do his LPC. He is one of the smartest people I’ve worked with. We brought him in as a paralegal and offered to pay his LPC on a day-release basis while he was doing his training contract.’

Another rising star is Rebecca Campsall, an elite level track sprinter who competes in both national and international athletics championships in the 100 metres. ‘She just missed out on the Olympics but will hopefully be going to the Commonwealth Games,’ says Cooper with pride. ‘Other firms wouldn’t look at her because she needed to leave every day at five o’clock to train. But she is super smart, dedicated, and able. There is no reason why a trainee can’t train and live their dream of winning gold. The team are behind her and share her passion to achieve that.’

As with Tapestry’s everyday practice, Cooper has decided on an agile trainee recruitment plan, taking on apprentices, paralegals, and trainees when required. ‘We are not looking to recruit three or four years out. As a new firm, we have to be more agile than that and we are finding some really fabulous people. Apprenticeships shouldn’t be ruled out just because a firm has previously only taken people with a degree.’

If there is one lesson Cooper is keen to disseminate, it is that firms should not recruit the obvious candidates, from the most obvious locations, and via the most obvious routes. The firm’s retention rate speaks volumes about the culture she has engendered but, as with all things in the business of law, the pace of change is slow. Progressive firms may do well to follow Tapestry’s lead, but how many will be brave enough to?

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor of Solicitors Journal