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Clients and potential clients appreciated we were doing something from their side, thinking about the industry and what it meant for the region

RICHARD BAKER: SMALL STEPS, BIG AMBITIONS

RICHARD BAKER: SMALL STEPS, BIG AMBITIONS

Stephens Scown’s managing partner talks to Jean-Yves Gilg about the firm’s commitment to the southwest and developing sector expertise that has earned it nationwide recognition – and about that orange camper van

Law firms don’t usually publish tourist guides but Stephens Scown is no ordinary practice. One of a small handful to be employee owned, it has managed to reach the higher echelons of the top 200 rankings while remaining true to its regional roots. The firm’s ‘Love Where You Live’ guide was part of a campaign it ran to help promote local businesses in Devon and Cornwall. It involved Stephens Scown’s staff sharing their thoughts about what they liked about living in the southwest, the places they liked to go to for a drink, and posting photos of their favourite local spots. A lot of it took place online, with pictures being shared on social media, but the firm also printed an ‘Insiders’ guide, copies of which were given to clients. “It’s not what you would expect from a law firm, it was a different approach, more personable, which reflected our culture better”, says managing partner Richard Baker, “and tourism, leisure, food, and drinks businesses really liked that and we had a very positive response”.

New enquiries the firm received on the back of the campaign resulted in nearly 800 conversions generating £2m in revenue. It also got industry recognition, going on to win ‘best internal engagement’ award at the Campaign awards, which saw the legal brand share the marketing and advertising limelight with names such as Nike, Easyjet and Tesco. ‘Love where you live’ wasn’t the first time the firm had a crack at something a bit different. A few years earlier, dairy farmers started voicing their anger at the unsustainable price they were being paid for milk by supermarkets. Stephens Scown commissioned research to find out how much consumers would be prepared to pay for milk to support their local dairy farmers. This was done in partnership with the region’s biggest newspaper and got extensive local media coverage. There was also a fun element, with Scowners, as staff are known, posting selfies on social media while sporting a ‘milk moustache’. “Clients and potential clients appreciated we were doing something from their side, thinking about the industry and what it meant for the region”, says Baker.

Although tangible results from such initiatives are difficult to track, Baker says they leave a lasting impression. “We’ve just had the Royal Cornwall show, one of the biggest agricultural shows in the county, and people came up to me saying they remembered the milk moustache campaign. If a rural client has a complicated legal issue, or their accountants suggest their situation should be looked into by a lawyer, the chances are they will speak to us because they’re aware of us and they know we’ve done something to support their industry.” For readers of the legal press however, Stephens Scown is possibly most well known for its orange VW camper van, which staff and clients can borrow – an employee recently used it for her wedding. It too is about the firm and the region: the van can only be used in Devon and Cornwall, and anybody from the firm who sees it and posts a picture on social media can claim a box of chocolate. Having started in 1938 in St Austell off the back of the China clay industry, Stephens Scown has become a large practice by local standards. In part this is because over the years some direct competitors have moved eastwards, says Baker. “We wanted to remain about Devon and Cornwall. Our owner-managed businesses are proud of their regions, and we can show that we share that sense of pride”, he explains. With other firms choosing to focus on more traditional high-street work, Stephens Scown has been able to position itself as a prominent player in the mid-market. That, however, wasn’t always a given. About ten years ago, the firm was perceived as “somewhat sleepy”, Baker comments. “We used to joke that we wouldn’t pass the school-yard test – that no parent in the school yard would know about us.” And while the firm didn’t lose clients, it was slow at acquiring new ones. “That had to change, and we 2/6 solicitorsjournal.com / June/July 2019 / 49 Once you’ve got that specialist knowledge, people come to you because of it, and they are prepared to pay the price for that expertise decided we would move away from commoditised high-street work and instead focus on owner-managed businesses and high-networth individuals.”

A lot of the clients were also looking for a more commercial approach with knowledge of their sector and what they were doing, Baker continues, “so at the same time, we took a more bespoke, sector-based approach”.

FROM EXETER TO TRURO AND BACK

At the time, Baker was in charge of the Truro office, which the firm opened in the 1980s. The former modern European history graduate had joined Stephens Scown in 1993 after qualifying at what was then Bond Pearce in Plymouth. His interest in property law saw him quickly specialise in the team specialising in agricultural law, mining and minerals – “the kind of law you don’t learn at law school”. That team grew steadily, building up a sector expertise that became recognised nationwide. It was also comparatively immune to the financial crisis that followed the collapse of Northern Rock and Lehman Brothers just as Baker was taking over the management of the Truro office. “We had to make some difficult decisions in respect of people”, he remembers. “A lot of the transactional work fell away but the routine work with mining and minerals clients with large portfolios continued, such as dispute resolution and development work.” Then came the renewables rush, which the firm, with its by now established expertise in property and energy projects, was able to take advantage of, working for large landowners and estates and picking up work for turbine and solar park projects. The sector took a dip when the government withdrew a number of incentives three years ago but it is now looking up again as the cost of technology has come down. “Once you’ve got that specialist knowledge, people come to you because of it”, Baker says, “and they are prepared to pay the price for that expertise.” The Truro business almost doubled under Baker’s management, and these days, the firm’s expertise in rural, minerals, social housing, tourism and the related areas of leisure, food and drinks – and more recently marine – has earned it a reputation beyond the region. This strategy appears to have paid off, but with turnover expected to be beyond £20m this year, how does Stephens Scown manage to keep its feet on the southwestern ground? For Baker, the answer is in being clear about what the firm wants to be, and that means combining a local lifestyle with nationalquality work.

LURE OF THE SOUTHWEST

“We have a massive advantage in the market place. We are Devon and Cornwall based, with a fantastic lifestyle, which a lot of people want to be a part of ”, says Baker. “But the challenge is to ensure we have enough really good quality work to provide our people with fulfilling legal careers, so they can come in as junior people or trainees or apprentices, and have a lifelong career here if that’s what they want.” It’s not that the work isn’t there Baker explains, more a matter of leveraging the firm’s position as an expert in key sectors where it already acts nationally and bring the work back to Devon and Cornwall. “If you can get that work in and push those sectors where we have a prime advantage then we can offer our lawyers the best of both worlds: doing national work which is challenging and provides opportunities for people to develop and equally live in the southwest and enjoy all the region has to offer”, Baker enthuses. Which is easier said than done. Growth is one of Baker’s top priorities for the firm, but while he is confident that the firm is “in a good place in the market” he is also aware that its position isn’t unassailable. “We need to grow and bring in work for our younger lawyers who are coming through and continue to attract others”, he says. And getting talented future lawyers to the southwest is not a given despite the undeniable attraction of the region. “Most Scowners are from the region. We’re a Times ‘100 Best companies to work for’ and that’s worked really well for us in the region”, he confides, “but that’s not been the case outside the region so we need to work on our employer brand if we want to attract applicants from outside the area.”

CULTURE CHANGE

Whether Stephens Scown needs to recruit from outside the region is ultimately a matter for the firm, but how it moved from a traditional partnership to an employee-ownership structure suggests it’s not afraid of asking itself difficult questions. Again, this goes back to about ten years ago when the firm went through a rigorous process of self-analysis in relation to clients as well as its own people. “We spent a long time trying to establish what we were and what we wanted to be, and we were a bit disappointed because we kept coming back the fact that we were ‘nice’, which doesn’t sound especially exciting,” says Baker with a smile. The answer, he goes on, was to “take small steps”. This led to the introduction of ‘positive postcards’ – cards the firm had designed and which it encouraged everyone to give to colleagues whom they thought had done something beyond their everyday duties. “We wondered what impact it would have”, says Baker, “but now you go around the office and people have stacks of those on their desks.” Then came the ‘Love where you live’ campaign, and before long, after one of the lawyers emailed the board about Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s first War on Waste series, “we had ‘Love Where You Live’ coffee cups, which everybody could get for a small donation to the firm’s charity”. Another key message internally was that the lawyer in question was openly credited for the idea as part of the firm’s desire to have an active listening culture. At that point, then managing partner Robert Camp – with whom Baker had been working from his early days at the firm – had been to the John Lewis conference and came back with the idea to adopt the same model. “It took a while to get the Solicitors Regulation Authority and HMRC on board but it’s changed the way we are as a firm”, says Baker. “It’s given everybody a voice and a stake in what happens in the firm. It’s also empowered people to challenge some of our financial decisions. A lot of people never had to make investment decisions before, so we discuss those perhaps in greater detail and they realise we’re investing for the long term. It’s been an education process – both ways – because sometimes they make very good challenges and you think you have the answer but maybe you don’t.”

TECHNOLOGY CHALLENGES

Investment in technology has been one area in particular where more questions are being asked, and not just by employees. “Investing in technology is not as straightforward for firms of our size, because we don’t have the budget of the large firms. It could be a big risk for us to dabble in this area, but on the other hand, there is also a risk of something taking off and missing out, like Spotify in the music business”, Baker remarks. “For us, the secret must be about combining technology with the level of service and seeing where technology can really assist in what we can do, so we’re keen to explore tech options, particularly those that benefit our clients.” Baker himself experienced this from the client’s perspective not that long ago. After the family’s flight back from a long-haul holiday was delayed, he thought he would make a claim using an online claims management company. “It was so straightforward to sign up and start the claim – within half an hour I’d put the details in and started the process; it really blew me away”, he says. The next stage however was a different matter; speaking to someone to follow up proved difficult, as was eventually getting the compensation. “So the lesson for me was that if you can get the right balance of that initial approach and then the personal service, that could be a winning combination”, he says. In fact, the firm’s cautious approach to technology has not stopped it from innovating in this area. It was among the first to launch an app, in 2014, allowing clients to access their files, keep track of costs (and pay their bills), view documents and diarise meetings. Since then, the firm has also set up a ‘digital leaders’ course, where its lawyers engage with digital experts and are given support to develop a joined-up approach combining personal service with technology. “We certainly want to embrace tech”, Baker says, “but making small steps: you could spend an awful lot of money on the wrong product and not make any progress. Because at the end of the day, it’s got to be the clients who are happy with what we’re doing.” This ties in with another of Baker’s priorities: to improve client experience. Not that the firm hasn’t been taking this seriously but more could be done, emulating practices outside the legal services sector, Baker says. Part of the exercise will also consider bolting on non-legal services for certain segments of the population such as the elderly care sector. For now though, Baker’s main task is to bring the firm’s three offices closer together and “drive forward a one-firm ethos”. The plan is to bridge the divide between offices, which have historically had their own specialist teams in, for instance real estate or dispute resolution, and “pull that together so that there’s more standardisation across the offices”. Here again, technology is expected to play a part in developing a one-team approach with a sharing mindset allowing work to pass smoothly around the firm’s three offices.

It’s a challenge most multi-site firms face, but the Scowner spirit could make this just that little bit easier for this firm.

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