ALISON LOBB: LIFE, LAW AND LIVERPOOL
By Alison Lobb
Technology will do wonderful things for lawyers, says Morecrofts’ managing partner, but her primary commitment is to bringing together the best people for delivering the best possible legal service
We’re sitting in a room in Liverpool’s former Cotton Exchange, home of Morecrofts. Alison Lobb, the firm’s managing partner, enthuses about the 19th century statues in the courtyard. She talks about the cathedral, which her greatgrandfather had worked on as a stonemason, about her grandmother who used to volunteer at the local citizens advice bureau, and about the grand buildings that are testaments to the city’s affluent times. Lobb smiles, happily admitting that Liverpool feels like home. After a short foray down south – she went to university in Colchester, Essex, and to law college in Chester – Lobb felt she didn’t want to end up in London and returned to Liverpool to do her training. Being a solicitor in Liverpool, she thought at the time, would allow her to do the kind of law she wanted, involving interaction with clients rather than being one of many cogs in a large enterprise. She started off as a family lawyer but it wasn’t for her. “You have to be sympathetic but at the same time you have to be business-like about it; only some people can do that”, she says with just a hint of regret in her voice. This realisation led her to take up a job at the Legal Aid Board for two years. At the time, she was one of only a few legally trained auditors and got her first taste of what we now regard as legal management. Until her grandmother mentioned “those lovely people at Morecrofts who come in and give great advice” at the local CAB. So when Lobb saw an ad for a job there in the local paper, she applied. “I wasn’t especially looking to move, it was just one of those things”, she says. This was 1999, and 20 years on, she now runs a 110 people-strong business with six offices covering the whole of Liverpool City Region.
On her first day at Morecroft Urquhart, as the firm was then called, Lobb walked in to a caseload of compensation claims for people who had been abused, mostly in children’s homes in the 60s and 70s. “They were difficult cases”, she reminisces. “A lot of them were drug addicts, some were homeless. They had all had problems in their lives because of what had happened to them. At the same time it was ground-breaking law, with cases going all the way to the House of Lords.” Most of the cases settled but Lobb had somehow created a niche for herself. Then as people moved on, her remit expanded until she eventually became head of the litigation team in 2005, taking on more management responsibilities. Not long after she became a partner, she was invited to join the firm’s management board. A case in which she was involved at the time finally tipped her over. A man with learning difficulties, who was a resident in an adult care home, had been allowed to leave the home without supervision and had got involved in a very serious accident as he tried to cross a motorway. The claim, against the care company, eventually settled, but “it took up an awful lot of my life and I felt ‘where do I go now’”, she says. “Everybody has one case like that in their career, and that helped me decide that I would explore the management side.” Lobb and two other board members signed up for a legal practice management course at Manchester Metropolitan University, using some of the changes that were taking place at the firm as real-life assignments. She took over as managing partner as she was completing the course, in April 2014.
The period that ensued was one of intense change for the firm: new bank, new accountants, new offices, and converting the firm to an alternative business structure involving non-lawyer partners. “We were one of the first locally to have non-lawyer partners. It was quite a contentious decision at the time, it felt quite radical.” While the partnership was mostly supportive, this forced everybody to face the fundamental question of individual value. “There is that traditional idea that what a partner contributes to a law firm is fees”, Lobb comments. “If they can’t see it in the figures, they wonder what they’re bringing.” The next move was to win over the sceptics. “We did a lot of explaining, what people actually do and what business they’re going to bring in. The management team probably does more business development than anyone else; we’re the ones with more flexibility in our schedule, we’re not going to court or our clients don’t expect us to be at our desk all day. It’s a really big part of our role.” This was accompanied by a drive towards more transparency about the business. “We’re very open about the figures, what we bring in, how much things cost, and what we need to think about before we see profit.” The firm has also provided training about the work pipeline, cashflow, and the mechanics of business, “but when even junior lawyers see other firms still operating on the traditional model, there can still be some differences”. This new business mindset is perhaps the most significant change since Lobb qualified. Not so long ago, people went into law because they wanted to solve problems, being a solicitor was about providing legal advice and partners in law firms remained fee earners doing a bit of management on the side. “When I qualified that was what it was about”, Lobb remarks. “You sat at a desk and you were given some files and you worked on them and then you were given some more. Now you have to go out and find the work to produce those files, because no one else is going to do that for you, unless you’re in an enormous firm with a business-generation group bringing work in that way.”
Lobb’s ambition is for the board’s business approach to permeate all areas of the firm. “Everything we do now is more strategic”, she says. “Are the people we’re bringing through not just good lawyers but also business people, what can they add to what we do, what roles can we give them?” Does this mean there is no room for lawyers who want to just be good technical lawyers, an aspiration which still drives significant numbers of prospective solicitors? “We’re not expecting everyone to be a business person”, Lobb replies. “There are always people who are very good technical lawyers and are really not interested in the business side, which is why we think it’s important to build teams that can accommodate these various skills. If we were looking only to bring through people who have commercial awareness and business sense, we’d lose that knowledge base. The profession as a whole is in danger of losing that, because of the way the legal world is changing and because of this concentration on technology, we may actually disrespect some of the good experienced lawyers who are doing the very complex work.” It’s not that Morecrofts isn’t embracing technology and innovation; more that technology should deliver for lawyers, not the other way around. In fact, the firm was an early adopter of case management systems back in 1983, and Lobb remembers it when she started as one of very few firms where solicitors had their own computers on their desks. But what lawyers should focus on, she suggests, is crafting innovative solutions for clients, which may or may not involve technology. The firm’s employment department, for instance, offers a retainer service for employers, which includes access to a solicitor – “not a call centre like some of the large firms do” – and whitelabelled HR software developed by the head of the department with an external technology supplier.
LAW AS COMMODITY
Lobb also witnessed the emergence of commoditisation in legal services, with lawyers long resisting pressure to think in terms of processes and systems. “I was like that”, Lobb says. “I was saying ‘you can’t have standardised processes and management systems in my line of work’”. These developments had a significant impact on the concept of what is meant by personal service and made it more essential to work in teams rather than individually. Much as some lawyers still feel they have to take on the work themselves – and put in long hours – it is the support provided by paralegals and junior solicitors that makes it all possible. From the client’s perspective, “it’s about making sure people know from the outset what kind of service they’re going to get and that if they don’t get to the solicitor all the time it doesn’t mean that they’re being fobbed off ”. “The danger, is over commoditising”, Lobb goes on. “We can have workflows, processes, and standardisation, but the difficulty is having the expert there to realise when you departfrom the process and to say what more needs to be done, and then explain that to the client. To the general public, a lot of what we do has become very simplified. Someone will come in saying they’re buying a house and when can they have it. We have to explain about the hoops they have to jump through. Fifty years ago conveyancing was more of a dark art and nobody knew what happened until the end of the day when you got to complete on your house. Now with the internet, everyone thinks they know how to do it and maybe wonder why they’re paying a lawyer to do this because it looks really quite straightforward. The art is to add value and to show the client what they’re paying for. It’s quite difficult to sell skill and expertise, because it’s not tangible. “So, we’re doing a lot of work on explaining the anatomy of the process, what it involves, in some ways justifying what we’re doing so clients see what they’re actually paying for.” Convincing clients to use a solicitor rather than an unregulated provider is difficult enough even when they’ve made the effort to come to your office. In the days of internet, however, the really hard work for law firms is upstream, when people scoot around the web for cheap quotes. Morecrofts gets a lot of work through its website, Lobb says, and the question for the firm is how much information should they put on it. Transparency is now a regulatory requirement but the question has reached the heart of law firms’ business ever since new entrants started appearing online. “I wasn’t too keen initially on price transparency but at the same time there are some opportunities there about how we could use that to sell our services. So, rather than just saying how much something costs, you explain why. It’s about trying to get clients before they go to the bargain basement conveyancers, showing what service we provide, what they get for it.”
As in most full-service firms, property work is still an essential service at Morecrofts, even though, like elsewhere, margins are low. The firm doesn’t buy in work – “it’s just not us” – and relies instead on its network of like-minded accountants and estate agents. “In some of our branch offices referrers send us work they would normally sell, but they send it to us because they know about our service; that’s the secret, good service”, she remarks. Property is also the perfect illustration of the forces at play in the legal services market. Like most firms, Morecrofts runs a lean conveyancing department, but the technical skills of experienced lawyers are still retained, accepting that this adds to the overall costs of the department. “We have a lot of paralegal support doing the day-to-day work, but because of the risks involved, only qualified professionals make the decisions and get sign off ”, she explains. “Conveyancing isn’t an area you make a massive profit on, but it’s the quick turnover, it’s a service clients expect, it’s good for cashflow, and it brings people into the firm as well. A lot of people, their first contact with a solicitor will be for their conveyancing.” Conveyancing, however, tends not just to be highly commoditised, for most buyers of legal services, it’s a one-off or very infrequent purchase. How, then do you convince clients to come to you? “It’s all about the brand, how you market it, and how you become trusted”, Lobb responds. Morecrofts’ strategy has been to keep a network of branches around the region. The last one, in Prescot, opened just three months ago. “An awful lot of our work comes through recommendation and through the branch network”, Lobb continues. “A lot of firms close branches and centralise work to reduce overheads, but it has worked for us, because we are in communities where we’re seen as part of the community and trusted as part of that community.” The new Prescot office is also part of a wider plan. The Knowsley area, once one of the most deprived in Britain, has been receiving significant investment, ranging from a variety of residential developments to the new Shakespeare North theatre, whose patrons include Vanessa Redgrave and the Earl of Derby. Being on the East side of Liverpool, it’s also close to main transport links to Manchester and the rest of the country, a bonus point for businesses anticipating increased traffic via the port of Liverpool after Brexit. Whatever happens with Brexit, however, Morecrofts won’t stand still. “It’s hard to know what’s going to happen in three years, let alone ten”, Lobb muses. “But for us we’re growing the next generation of lawyers so they have the skills to be innovative and flexible. There is a future for legal services despite the fact everyone tries to undermine us. Lawyers find it difficult to adapt, so we need to be working on this all the time, and the secret needs to be to find out what clients want from us rather than sit here and provide what we think they want. Technology is going to do wonderful things for the profession, but it’s for us to use it in the best possible way for our clients and turn it into an opportunity.”