Amanda Stevens reveals how a relentless focus on client care has propelled Hudgells ahead
Six former post office subpostmasters rejoiced that they could ‘start living again’ when the court recently quashed convictions for fraud. The convictions, which had blighted their lives for many years, had stemmed from a faulty IT system.
Three of the six were represented by Hudgells, which has helped a further 33 former subpostmasters to overturn similar convictions; and is currently adding more to its books.
This high-profile action is just one of an impressive list of newsworthy claims brought by the Hull-headquartered firm, which used to be best known as a hungry gobbler of personal injury work in progress from firms that were exiting the personal injury market.
Other highlights include acting for Windrush victims; for families of victims of the Manchester Arena bombing; and representing prisoner Steven Gallant, who confronted and stopped the London Bridge terrorist when on day release last year – enabling him to apply for early release from prison following a royal pardon.
The firm was set up by solicitor Neil Hudgell in 1997. It has grown into a thriving practice with an annual turnover of more than £10m, 132 staff and offices in Hull, London and Manchester.
In 2011, it launched webuyanyfiles.com, and fuelled its expansion by capitalising on the panicked exodus of many firms from the PI market in light of the Jackson costs review. We Buy Any Files has completed around 50 deals to date, worth nearly £10m.
But the firm’s ambitions did not end there. In 2016 it persuaded personal injury star Amanda Stevens, a hugely respected former president of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, to join from Irwin Mitchell (IM).
Stevens, who has always had a passion for management and chaired the national medium term strategy group at IM, spent a year getting to know Hudgells as group head of legal practice, before stepping into the newly created role of chief executive in April 2017, tasked with developing a three-year strategic plan.
Having achieved that plan, in May this year she transitioned to managing partner, focusing on developing the firm in London and the South.
At the point when Stevens joined the firm, the trade in PI files had dampened down somewhat. Hudgells had large PI and clinical negligence practices and a strong criminal injuries compensation authority (CICA) practice; and its civil liberties team was just getting off the ground.
“In 2017, we asked ourselves: do we want to grow bigger?” recalls Stevens. “We had already shot from a high street firm to a national name. We decided that size didn’t really matter. It was about taking pride in our work, doing the job well, and providing excellent client care. It is nice to be recognised more widely, but that core is still there.
"That is what pulsates through every day in our offices. Doing what you do well, and if you can add more core areas, and more niches, then you will if you can do them well.”
Since 2017 the firm has added travel law and child abuse law to its repertoire; built up its civil liberties team; and grown its group claims capability. Future niches might include a specialist mesothelioma team, specialisms within the motor injury sector or sports injury.
Stevens is keen to stress how a complete focus on client care is the strand that runs through every aspect of Hudgells, and ultimately lies at the heart of its success. But doesn’t every law firm cite client care as its number one priority? Is Hudgells really any better at this than its competitors?
The proof of the pudding runs along the bottom of Hudgells’ homepage – a live stream of Trustpilot reviews. The vast majority of these are five stars, often heaping praise on individual fee-earners.
“We were one of the first law firms to have the Trustpilot scores on our website,” remarks Stevens. “We feel it’s important. You can’t pick and choose the reviews – they’re independent”.
Hudgells sees these continuous Trustpilot reviews as an essential way of proving its track record to a client base that, by its very nature, rarely involves repeat customers because most people only ever litigate once.
But the reviews have the extra benefit of shining a light on how individual fee-earners are performing, so that praise – or occasionally a managerial nudge – can be given when appropriate. And many of the reviews receive a personal reply from the firm, adding to the sense that this is a transparent and approachable law firm.
Shaking things up
When Stevens became CEO, Hudgells had grown big, very quickly, but its structure had not kept pace, so there were plenty of easy wins to be had. Keen to capture useful feedback from every source available, Stevens hired external consultants with experience of working at the likes of IBM and Virgin; but she was also careful to make sure she listened to the most important voices – the staff.
She held one-to-one or small group sessions with every employee. “I wanted to see what the staff thought, wanted them to feel they were able to be open and express themselves,” Stevens explains.
A big first step was to introduce a proper management structure into the firm, rather than having responsibilities rest with lawyers who were also busy looking after clients. “I decided we had got to build a proper managerial ops team,” says Stevens. “I brought in a head of IT who was experienced, and had just done a remote server upgrade for the firm.”
Remote working became a key part of the firm’s strategy, particularly after the decision was taken – shortly before the covid-19 pandemic – to scale back the Leeds office.
“People wanted to work remotely, so that was good for our recruitment strategy. We started gently; as we weren’t sure if it would work, or if it would affect our sense of togetherness as a firm. But then the decision to [scale back] the Leeds office gave it more of an oomph, which was followed by the pandemic. We had the model for it, so we were able to adopt it more widely more quickly.”
Stevens also set up an inhouse costs capability within the firm. On the communications side, she introduced a staff intranet and newsletter to build collegiality; and set up an ‘annual review’ document to showcase the firm’s achievements during the year. Staff can access a confidential, more detailed version, so that they can see where the firm is headed and plan their own career path within it.
Is the firm still buying up caseloads from other practices? The acquisitions market has slowed, but Hudgells is still interested in doing deals, if they are right for the firm – and right for the client being transferred across.
“We put a lot of hard work in to check the risk profile of a book of work, and we’ll often say we’ll take some, but not all. What we don’t want is to take on cases and then to have to be the bearer of bad news to the client. If a client is expecting an award of, say £15,000, and we have to revise that to £500, they will then say, ‘but our old firm has said everything is wonderful for the past three years’.”
Stevens also points out that while the firm has bought a lot of files since launching We Buy Any Files, there are many more that the firm has rejected.
Hudgells has been proactive in expanding its offering to clients. It recently brought in a professional deputy to run a Court of Protection practice to help clients who lack mental capacity; a useful add-on for many severely injured clients.
In April 2020, Hudgells Financial Management Services was launched; a joint venture with independent financial advisers Frenkel Topping, to provide ‘life after settlement’ independent financial advice for clients.
“We’ve tried to make [our service to clients] more holistic,” explains Stevens.
“It feels wrong when you have worked so closely with a family and they have received huge, life changing sums, and then you simply say ‘bye’, and they are cast into the world. It didn’t feel like the way we wanted to end the journey…
“The financial services venture has taken us longer than we had hoped to set up. We had some false starts, but getting the right people is key; you don’t want to launch with the wrong people.”
Stevens stresses that the financial advice service is offered to clients at no obligation. They are given a free interview with an independent financial adviser (IFA) to discuss issues such as pension planning and trusts; but are free to see other IFAs if they wish.
Hudgells itself does not provide any of the financial advice and the ownership of the joint venture is “away from the law firm”.
One area that Stevens has championed throughout her career is rehabilitation – helping clients to rebuild their lives after injury. She enthuses: “This is one of the things that drew me to Neil [Hudgell] in the first place; he had a passion for rehab, as do I. Some firms merely pay lip service to it.”
Hudgells has put together a user-friendly brochure for clients packed with advice on rehabilitation and links to organisations that can help, many of which know the firm well. But the firm has no financial connection with any rehab providers. “We haven’t done that, and I’m proud of that,” says Stevens.
Hudgells supports a charity run by brain injury victim, Paul Spence, whose goal is to help those who have suffered a brain injury receive support from others who have found themselves in the same situation. Spence acts as an ambassador for Hudgells and gives one-to-one support to the firm’s clients.
More broadly, the firm maintains strong community links through the Neil Hudgell Trust, which has donated more than £500,000 to local causes since being set up in 2012.
Stevens has always been drawn to management, but she didn’t learn all her skills in a law firm setting. She started out in what must be one of the most stressful managerial roles there is: hospital management.
After graduation she took a three-year management training course and worked at St Mary’s teaching hospital in Paddington, and the district general hospital in Peterborough. It was something of a baptism of fire.
“It was very hard work, and a difficult time,” she admits. “Being in a London teaching hospital, we had strikes, we had efficiency savings, with budgets being cut at a time when demand was still high. There were some quite hardened individuals there, and you come in at a [young age] but you are given wide ranging responsibilities. It was a good learning ground.”
As part of her training, Stevens had to learn about medical law – and that’s when the penny dropped that she really wanted to be a lawyer.
“I wanted that direct contact with the patients,” she explains, adding: “I wanted to do something worthwhile that would help people. In my childhood there was a member of my family who had been quite let down by a hospital, and I had a sense of not wanting that to happen to someone again.”
One thing that Stevens has learnt over the years is not to be afraid of change. “You have to try and see changing situations as opportunities not impediments,” she suggests. “In the NHS, you can have a change in government or some big reforms, and things that you’ve been working hard on for a long time can suddenly go out of the window, which is unsettling. That can happen in law firms as well.
“But you have to ask, is this change for the better or the worse? It’s easy to think [change is bad] but there’s usually a real upside to it if you embrace it and run with it.”
Looking back, Stevens says she is glad she embraced the chance to be APIL president in 2008, even though at the time, she worried that the timing wasn’t right because she had a young family, and didn’t think she’d be able to fit it all in.
“But I thought, if I turn it down now, the chance may not come again. And I loved that role – I was told that I had brought a lot of people together who historically were very opposed and wouldn’t engage with each other. I found a way of engaging with them and making some progress with them. If you put the barriers up, there’s no progress at all.”
Stevens was the lead claimant spokesperson in Ministry of Justice-led talks with defendant insurers over low value road traffic accident claims; and later chaired the sub-committee that drafted the rule changes for the Civil Procedure Rule Committee. “It was an amazing time”, she smiles.
What has she learnt from any setbacks? Firstly, that there will always be plenty of them. “Something unplanned happens every day. You become a problem solver,” she reflects. “Neil [Hudgell] is very good at just saying it how it is. And I’ve learnt that just saying it straight out early on can save a lot of time.”
“In the past, I’ve perhaps tended to overprepare things,” she muses. “I don’t regret that, because you get the experience from it. But now, I’ve learnt to trust my instincts more”.
Those instincts have helped to guide Hudgells to a position where – as we enter a new world in which fees may be under ever more pressure, but clients are more open to remote legal services – it has the size, the infrastructure and the unwavering focus on client experience to be well placed to succeed in the new environment, whatever the future holds.
Rachel Rothwell is a freelance journalist