Growth, diversity and a cunning plan
Managing partner at Pontypool headquartered Watkins & Gunn for ten years, Clive Thomas shares the secret of working hard with a smile on your face
Watkins & Gunn (WG) is one of several firms this year to have committed to drive diversity and inclusion forwards in the legal profession via the Law Society’s Women in Law Pledge, which launched in June.
Managing partner Clive Thomas says signing up to the pledge was a natural progression for the South Wales firm, which under his leadership has been gradually fostering a culture he feels sets it in good stead for remaining a thriving modern practice well into the future. WG opened its doors in the mid-1980s but boasts a history stretching back 100 years. Thomas doesn’t shirk the heritage of the firm when we speak.
He praises the partners who were there when he joined and is proud of their legacy but he’s also keenly aware that modern firms must adapt to survive.
Thomas trained at Dolmans in Cardiff and took on his first newly qualified job at WG in 1991 – he is, in common parlance, Watkins & Gunn through and through. He became its managing partner ten years ago.
Like many regional firms in the 90s, WG was run by an older confluence of partners, each with varying and individual approaches to law firm management. There were two offices then, Pontypool and Newport – both of which were run to the preference of its respective lead partner.
When the old guard retired and a tranche of younger partners took over, they set about uniting the firm’s, soon to be three, offices (Cardiff opened in 2011) under a Lexcel management structure.
Thomas believes the defined and transparent structure that the scheme provides has been the secret to WG weathering storms that other firms have not.
Or, at least, the foundation for that resilience. “People enjoy knowing where they are, don’t they”, he says in his affable Welsh accent.
“We’ve always been of the view that you work hard with a smile on your face. We’re a slightly quirky firm and we’re always very willing to be flexible for people, so I’m not saying it’s a hugely rigid structure, but it’s there and its really been helpful to take us forward”.
Referring directly to the Law Society’s Women in Law Pledge, he says it has been an important feature of the firm’s recent strategy to have a visible equality and diversity policy.
“There’s a danger in some firms that policies just get written every year and then tucked away in a drawer and that’s precisely what we didn’t want to happen here”, he says.
A quick look at the equality and diversity pages of WG’s website reveal just how transparent the firm is. Not only is the equality and inclusion policy available for clients and prospective employees to read, but there is even a staff diversity survey, breaking down current representation within the firm.
The survey doesn’t break down the makeup of leadership team but Thomas tells me that of five partners, two are female. Overall however, just 6 per cent of the firm is male.
So, there’s a lot of female talent to develop. Thomas says having attended the Law Society’s diversity roundtables earlier this year he’s now far more aware of where unconscious bias could affect decisions made within the firm and he’s keen to educate his staff to avoid them as well as impose processes to that effect.
The award-winning private client practice is already led by a female associate, Linda Dack, who is also the firm’s equality and diversity ambassador.
Dack’s team won best private client team at this year’s inaugural Wales Legal Awards, alongside the firm’s family team who also picked up a gong in its respective category.
Describing Dack as a “budding young talent”, Thomas says her team’s willingness to go the extra mile for clients was what turned the judges’ heads. “They told the story of a client we like to call ‘Eleanor Rigby’”, he explains.
“She was a lady who had no relatives and died in a care home and had nobody to contact, and so we had to register her death. We went along and the registrar asked what her maiden name was, and what her job was and we wished we could make something up and say that she had a wonderful career as a dancer in London or something, but the issue was that we simply don’t know”.
There was a danger that, as with the Eleanor Rigby in the Beatles song, nobody came to the funeral. So Dack decided to contact the care home to identify the deceased lady’s friends “to ensure that the funeral wasn’t the sad affair it could have been. People were there”.
Meanwhile Dack has been running with her diversity and inclusion remit, running a series of events on gender balance around International Women’s Day and signing the firm up to not only the Women in Law Pledge but also its Diversity and Inclusion Accreditation pilot, making WG the first Welsh firm to do so.
“The idea of this new charter is that you can actually prove it – that there is a living and breathing policy in your firm that people are all aware of and it’s essential to the firm culture”, Thomas explains, stressing that he wants the firm to be known for having no barriers to progression, no matter who you are.
“There was nothing within the pledge that we saw that negates what we’re already doing within the pilot scheme”, he adds.
And having attended the Law Society’s Women in Leadership roundtables, Thomas feels WG is well equipped to address any unintended barriers that may be a legacy of the firm’s past.
“We’re looking at associate and partner promotions and we’re changing that so we have a new system that we’re putting in place now. We’re looking at our processes and why we are choosing people and whether it’s been truly independent, so we’re challenging ourselves I guess”, he says.
Currently, as well as the two female partners, there are four female associates and eight female fee-earners, including two out of three of the trainees, as well as 19 female support staff. The firm has around 50 staff in all.
“We want to make sure that they feel that there’s opportunity to get involved in things like CILEx and what have you, so there’s advancement for them too”, Thomas says of the support staff. “It’s not just the fee-earners or the lawyers. Opportunity is there for all. That’s the thing to make sure people realise, that we’re there to help them make the very best of themselves”.
And with that in mind, the firm has also decided to fade out the job title ‘legal secretary’ in the last couple of months. Thomas says it was archaic and “underplays their role”.
They will now be known as legal assistants or senior legal assistants – it’s a small change, but you can imagine the impact it might have on morale.
“When you think of a secretary, you think of someone sitting there in a typing pool, in a jumper and pearls or something, typing away with no original thought of their own”, Thomas says.
“That’s clearly not the case from our point of view – they are using their brains and they are thinking about things and they are helping clients themselves. They’re not like traditional secretaries, and I think a title like that is the sort of thing that might hold people back.”
Asked whether he think the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) will succeed in levelling the playing field for new entrants into the profession, Thomas reveals similar concerns to many of his peers.
He is sceptical about whether the multiple-choice part one exam will identify the strongest candidates and is not convinced that the new regime will be more manageable in terms of cost.
“We would always be concerned about whether we’re dumbing down the profession, because we’re already finding that new lawyers coming through are struggling with drafting”, he tells me.
On the subject of the format of part one, he adds: “How many things in law are black and white in that way? You can’t really say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. You have to be able to argue your case and in order to do that you have to be articulate and that’s about the way in which you write.”
However, he has not written the SQE off. “I’m keen that we get involved in the pilot”, he says. “Talk of multiple choice has spooked a lot of people but we haven’t really seen the exam, so perhaps we’re a little too spooked. Really, it’s up to the educators to tell us whether they feel it differs in terms of how challenging it is to budding young lawyers.”
It’s not just the make-up of the firm’s people that Thomas has been looking at diversifying. With a growing range of challenges facing the legal profession, he has had to adapt and diversify its practice too.
It is “with a heavy heart” he says the firm had to withdraw from legal aid crime work a year ago. “They got what they wanted by stealth with that”, he says somewhat sadly, reflecting on relentless government cuts to legal aid funding. “We still have legal aid in respect of divorce and care work and public law”, he says. “But with crime, we hung on as long as we could.”
The introduction of online courts is another factor that Thomas says contributes to an overall “gloomy” picture. “It doesn’t help what they’ve done with the courts, which is reducing their estate before they’ve put any of the promised online improvement in place. I don’t know why they couldn’t have had some sort of overlap and proved the concept first. That’s a concern, but you can’t go back, you have to go forward”.
In other areas however, the firm has managed to build impressive new income streams. Public law is a particularly booming area of business for WG, which is acting in the government’s high-profile infected blood enquiry, led by partner Michael Imperato.
“When we see opportunities, we are small enough and agile enough to take them”, Thomas says of the way the firm positioned itself to take advantage of the new raft of public law work.
“We moved into public law over the last few years and that’s proven to be really interesting. Obviously in a time of austerity local authorities are looking to close libraries and hospital wings, or leisure centres but not doing so under the proper due process, so we act for campaign groups seeking judicial review. The department has grown remarkably.”
The firm’s work for Haemophilia Wales and Haemophilia Northern Ireland led to its part in the contaminated blood enquiry. There are around 300 people affected by the scandal in Wales alone.
“Suddenly we have a blood team of lawyers working on that, doing work that’s really important because it’ll never happen again”, Thomas says.
As well as gaining extra exposure through such a high-profile enquiry, the fact that it is guaranteed for work for two years is providing the firm some much needed security while Thomas and his team look for other enquiries to get involved with in future. “We could become an enquiry firm”, Thomas muses.
Characterising the firm’s overall strategy, Thomas says it’s about “growth and diversity”. Reaching for a typically lawyerly analogy, he adds: “I think of it like getting a new piece of pie in Trivial Pursuit. Because if you’re over-reliant on one thing, what we’ve found is that with changes in the law that can cause issues.”
Referring to the changes to fixed fees as an example, he adds: “Suddenly a case that would have been £4000 will be £400. How are you going to cope with that?”
The firm has long looked to technology for ways to simplify processes and provide clients with greater access to its services, while offering lawyers more time to do what they do best: law.
“Any technology that streamlines the admin process is great. I’m not saying it can replace lawyers, but it certainly gives lawyers more time to lawyer more effectively,” Thomas says.
He praises the Solicitors Regulation Authority and Law Society for getting behind lawtech in recent years. The firm even applied for the Legal Access Challenge recently but was not a finalist this time.
Thomas had hoped to secure funding to develop the firm’s Gateway2Law website, a sort of triage system that leads clients through a series of questions in order to scope out the work required and offer them either a fixed price or, for more complex issues, to refer them to a lawyer to discuss the matter further.
The idea of the website, according to Thomas, was to defeat common barriers to clients accessing legal services. “We wanted to batter down all the things that stop you coming to a firm; like the price, you want transparency, you don’t want to worry about big hourly rates and unexpected fees. So we listed all of these and battered them down and we thought the way to do it would be through Gateway”, he explains.
The plan for the next iteration was to add voice recognition, “a sort of Alexa style website”, Thomas explains. “It would be super interactive, so you’d speak to it. But with the Gateway thrown into it as well. That’s our cunning plan”, he laughs. He admits that Gateway2Law did not attract the numbers of users anticipated in its first iteration.
“I wonder if we were slightly ahead of the curve”, he says. Thomas knows that differentiation is key to success in an increasingly busy market.
“Our tagline is ‘problem solved’”, he says. “Because all lawyers are going to have similar qualifications, aren’t they. But it’s what you do with it.”
He says the firm looks to hire people who embody its sense of humour, can work hard with a smile on their face, but are also innovative problem solvers. You can see how those characteristics could create a culture that stands out in law.
For the client the difference is, says Thomas, whether you can solve the issue they’ve raised with you – “We can all tell them what they need to resolve, but can you turn it around and be a problem solver and find a way to do it that’s perhaps a little innovative?”. That’s the person the firm wants.
“You’ve got to be alive to all those ways people want to engage with you”, he adds, reeling off access points such as webchat, weekend opening hours, and phone and text contact. “It all reflects society now, and that reflects the lawyers too; they’re different to how they were back in the day. Because it’s tied into the demographic that we are servicing.”
Hannah GannagÃ©-Stewart is managing editor of Solicitors Journal