Paul Harvey: Picking up the Tesco law challenge
Morrisons Solicitors' managing partner tells Jean-Yves Gilg about his firm's steps from high-street private client practice to resilient full-service business
It’s been a wet morning and dark grey clouds linger ominously above Redhill. Yet, light fills the space at Morrisons Solicitors’ offices, on the third floor of a stylish new low-rise building a stone’s throw from the train station and the town centre.
With large windows, modern art on the walls, and table football in the staff break-out room, the 290-year-old firm feels more Shoreditch start-up than Pall Mall club.
Managing partner Paul Harvey is undoubtedly proud of the firm’s history but he’s also keen to make sure the firm is anchored in today’s world; a world where technology is changing the rules of the game, where competition comes not just from other law firms, and where clients have different expectations.
The table in the reception area has a couple of booklets about the firm. The one for individuals features a photo of a grey-haired lady with sunglasses, happily riding an urban scooter down a country lane while listening to music.
“There are two aspects to the photo”, Harvey says. “One is reflective of the firm, which has got a very long history but is very modern and hopefully a fun place to work. The other, more important one, is, from a client perspective; it says we’re enabling you to move forward free of the burden of worrying whether your dependents are provided for etc. and you can ride a scooter across a field safe in the knowledge everything has been taken care of – I love the headphones too!”
When Harvey joined Morrisons in 1988, the firm was essentially a high-street practice but, since becoming managing partner in 2008, the former dispute resolution solicitor has been keen to grow the commercial client side.
Harvey’s tenure as head of the firm started in a less than auspicious context. The financial crisis was hitting the economy hard and the Legal Services Act was on the horizon, about to open legal services to new competitors.
“We had some commercial clients but that would have been a small part of the client base relative to the private client side”, Harvey recalls. “So when I became managing partner, I started a business planning process. That was a challenging enough time, but to some extent you work out your way forward by looking at where you’ve come from. A lot of our commercial work came from the families we acted for.”
So Harvey decided to take the firm on a new journey, growing the commercial services it offers so that the firm is less reliant on private client work to generate commercial work.
“Increasingly our corporate clients do not come from individuals”, he says, “they’re standalone clients and we’ve built our commercial offering quite significantly over the years, principally by some very good recruitment – some of them coming from London or large regional practices.
"And in terms of branding, we no longer see our commercial services as adjunct to the private client side, but very much as bringing in their own clients and larger corporate entities in addition to the SMEs and owner-managed businesses that we might have acted for initially.”
These new commercial clients tend to be referred by other professionals, such as local accountancy firms, but also on the back of various networks, whether they’re organised by local business groups or by the firm itself.
“On the commercial side you have to be more proactive”, Harvey comments, citing the firm’s own network events as an example. “We try to present a unified face with regards to our business services, so we have a corporate insight seminar programme to which we invite clients and professional referrers.
Where we might adopt a topic that’s important to business owners, such as exit strategies, and we’ll get different teams from our commercial services to participate – someone from corporate and commercial, commercial property, dispute resolution, employment – all addressing issues relevant to those attending and to the theme of that particular seminar.”
Marketing private client services requires a different approach, Harvey goes on, with greater emphasis on the firm’s online presence, engagement with the local community, and referrers.
However, with an online field crowded with alternative providers eyeing your share of the market and offering attractive cut-price services, how does Morrisons respond? Mostly, by not engaging in a price war, Harvey suggests, and by selling advice rather than a commoditised service.
“Take something that is perceived to be really simple, such as writing a will”, he says. “These days, with the complexity of family relationships it’s not straightforward. There’s always talk about online will writing – that’s not taken off; that’s down to the fact there’s nothing simple.
"You’re dealing with people, and there’s always the emotional connection when you’re serving clients. Commoditisation has been overemphasised. It’s very difficult to commoditise legal services, because you can’t put people into a box and say that’s the service you need; it doesn’t work like that.”
What underpins alternative providers’ offering, of course, is technology – and our appetite for quick and easy solutions. For law firms, reclaiming technology as their tool too is also part of the answer. That’s certainly how Harvey sees it.
“The way we look at it is how can we use IT to simplify the process, so we still provide the service but we make it cost effective and charge the sort of fees the market perceives to be the going rate for that kind of work,” he says.
But IT is still only one aspect, Harvey insists, because clients still want to sit opposite somebody who can empathise, has experience and can ask the right questions.
“You could put together a program that asks the right questions but there’ll always be follow-ups and clarifications and questions. And it’s very difficult not to do that face to face. So we are working on the development of systems where we can use the best of IT to help with that interaction but without taking away the personal touch.”
One way Morrisons has taken technology on board is by setting up its own program development function and designing its own suite of processes; some of them are purely internal, others are intended for client use.
This has led to the firm creating its own residential conveyancing case management plan, which it moved to a new platform when it changed practice management provider in 2015, and which can be licensed to that provider’s other clients.
The updated plan, in its final stages, has the ability to interact directly with clients via a portal and is due to go live shortly. Separately, the firm has also created, with an external soft- ware developer this time, its own due diligence product for its own corporate-commercial transactions.
Morrisons is not the only firm taking its tech future in its own hands, but those who have done so are still few and far between, especially in the mid-tier sector. This could nevertheless be the way forward, even if it starts with simple information gathering systems.
“There’s lots to rationalise by asking clients to prepare more systematically rather than arrange several meetings simply to bring another bit of paper that could have been brought at the previous one, which creates unnecessary interaction from a costs and process perspective,” Harvey comments.
“It’s using the best of IT to actually deliver a cost-effective service.” But costs are just one aspect of the client relationship, Harvey continues. Ultimately, law- yering is about “providing the knowledge, the wisdom, the insight, the application of the law, not spending all that time on the information gathering, where you don’t need the same level of technical expertise.”
Costs and efficiencies are important considerations, “but overall it’s about providing quality service.” There is a feeling of quiet confidence in Harvey’s explanations, which is further illustrated in his discussion about client feedback.
At present, Morrisons’ website includes client tes- timonials selected by the firm. There are talks about using a third-party feedback provider such as Trustpilot as part of the firm’s review of its current satisfaction process. At present, every client is asked to fill in an online form at the end of each transaction.
There is also an annual benchmarking survey as part of the firm’s strategic planning each year – it includes a 60-second survey for everyone for whom it completed a transaction in the previous 12 months – with the same questions every year, to provide a genuine benchmark.
The third-party route, he says, “is about having someone who’s independent. You’ve got to be transparent, something that can’t be manipulated, or it’s not genuine.”
Harvey is, on the whole, in favour of price transparency, but he takes issue with the rationale behind the new SRA transparency requirements. “It assumes people make choices based purely on price, and it assumes that firms want to compete on price,” he says.
“I have no problem with transparency, but if someone calls wanting the cheapest quote, we’re not going to get involved; it’s a race to the bottom and it’s not a race we’re interested in.” Because for Harvey, the battleground isn’t price but client experience. “I don’t get any testimonials saying ‘that was really cheap’ or ‘good value’,” he says.
“There’s some of that of course but what clients usually comment on is the way they felt on the transaction – it’s not just in private client, it’s on the commercial side too, because if you’re selling the business you spent 30 years building up, that’s an emotional transaction and when you actually sign on the dotted line and get the proceeds in your bank account, that’s quite an event.”
To consolidate its approach, the firm undertook some research on client experience, working with a consultant who had been with John Lewis for 28 years. It involved trying to define what the firm wanted to achieve.
“Everybody knows what they do and how they do it, but not many businesses actually tackle the ‘why’ of what they do”, Harvey explains. The next stage was to define the client experience and what the firm wanted the client experience to be like, before working out measurable standards.
Harvey and his team are still dissecting the results and the aim is to produce a clear set of deliverables around the concept of alleviating or taking the burden from the client, listening, caring and getting results.
“In essence, you do what you said you were going to do, and you deliver the results you said you would deliver.” There are still discussions around more spe- cific metrics – such as returning calls within 24 hours – but this may not be possible or mean- ingful across every department.
“We’ve come up with something that works across the board but it’s for each of our departments to figure out what this could look like for them”, he says.
Harvey is especially proud that the project involved a sizeable number of the firm’s 150 staff, who all contributed to the discussion. “One thing I’m passionate about is team ethos and involving everybody.”
Harvey still does an induction with everybody who joins, enthusing about the importance of everyone’s job for the firm to succeed. “Metrics are not just about financials – what’s the part I play for Morrisons to succeed, what’s my role in this and how do I go about doing that.”
In large part Harvey’s approach stems from his role in bringing together the firm’s Wimbledon office following the acquisition of a local firm and a move to new premises in 2006.
At the time, Harvey called a staff meeting to which everybody was invited and explained what the plan was – to become the leading firm in the area – and asked for ideas about how they would achieve it.
“That had never been done before. I wanted to create a culture that was less hierarchical and more collegiate and supportive. It started a culture shift and that gave me the mandate, after I became managing partner, to carry that across the whole firm.”
Harvey has gone on to change the firm’s personnel culture further, setting out clear career paths for all, from paralegals to aspiring partners, with clear competencies for each position. Meanwhile, the firm now has now grown to six offices around Surrey and Southwest London.
Being spread across different sites comes with its own challenges, especially as Harvey is keen for the firm to have a sense of community, both locally and within it. But the Wimbledon native is clear that having a presence in key locations around the region is critical to achieve the firm’s ambitions.
“Our game plan goes back to the Legal Services Act and Tesco law, and the idea that a major national brand would come in and set up in the area, so what was our response – it was to establish ourselves as such a strong local brand that we would be able to compete at a local level. We wouldn’t compete nationally but we would at regional level.”
Just over ten years on, no national brand has set up, let alone swept up, but Morrisons’ growth is there to demonstrate that firms with a clear strategy and confidence can survive and thrive in the era of liberalised legal services.