Deputy EditorSolicitors Journal

Mindset and legacy

Mindset and legacy

Niche requires a different mindset to working in the bigger firms, says William Franklin

One of the biggest challenges of working in a niche practice is mindset and legacy. I came from a large firm background before setting up PettFranklin.

When you’ve been with big firms a long time you discover they have exerted a mind control over you. Big firms have a particular way of working: they are like machines which organise people in a rigid way – and that goes all the way to the top.

This means the people at senior levels are rigidly controlled and this has consequences when you break away and set up on your own. It means you acquire baggage, in terms of thinking, that has been inculcated into you.

This is fine for a large machine organisation; but isn’t what you need in a small niche firm where you need to be much more adaptable. It manifests itself in a number of ways, for example, in relation to the term ‘partners’.

At PettFranklin ‘partners’ means what it should: people working together and cooperating and that’s embedded in the fact that we are multidisciplinary.

However, in large firms you hardly ever see partners working together on the same job. This is because it runs completely against the culture (which is hierarchical) where the partner sits at the top of a hierarchy; and they’re basically competing with each other for a share of the client’s legal spend for their firms’ services.

It’s a different culture to our way of working. But that old big firm culture is hard to shake off as it’s been institutionalised into you. With hindsight, that’s one of the key lessons for us as a niche practice.

Another issue on the legacy theme (which comes back to your niche) concerns cross-selling them. Big firms succeed on the basis of having a range of services and cross–selling; the antithesis of what a niche firm needs to do, which is to concentrate on its expertise.

If you have a client you want to help but you can’t, you need to be honest and recognise your limitations. If you know someone who can help, that’s great and you can introduce them – but this is a very different proposition from cross–selling.

In a niche firm you need to be absolutely on top of your subject – that’s why clients come to you; not as a portal for access to a whole range of services within a large diversified firm.

That has massive consequences in the way you market and operate. On the flipside, there are many things you don’t realise are being done for you while you’re working in a bigger firm, particularly on the tech side.

So when you set up a niche practice, you have to do many things to make it work which were previously done for you; and the cloud has drastically changed things.

The cloud makes niche firms much more practical and means you don’t need to have as much in the way of space and premises. But we do have offices (deliberately) for cooperative working and to encourage clients to come to us.

Another development is the supply of office accommodation suitable for niche firms is improving as the landlords get a better idea of what’s appropriate.

Previously, they were rigidly providing premises suitable only for the big firms. When we moved into our original Birmingham premises – in the middle of the recession – we were the only tenants of a huge 11–storey new office build. We were the only people in the building apart from the security guard! The landlords had no idea how the market was changing and what was needed.

It is now becoming easier for people starting up. You don’t need as much in the way of premises but we felt we needed something: we’re not operating from bedrooms and we are quite consciously not a virtual firm. We’re not a lifestyle business.

Sadly, one of the drawbacks is holidays. If you want rigid holidays and to be able to switch off completely and disengage – that’s difficult if you’re running a niche firm.

However, large firms are often greedy of their people’s time and can be much worse and intrusive, in the internet age, when it comes to respecting the boundaries between work and family life.

William Franklin is a founding partner at PettFranklin LLP

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