SJ interview: Martin Green, Lodders
Lodders senior partner Martin Green talks to Jean-Yves Gilg about how the respected West Country firm is retaining staff, growing private client, and embracing technology
Martin Green was 19 and had just finished school when he first set foot at Lodders. ‘Everybody went traveling around the world and my father was panicking that I wasn’t doing anything, so he got me work experience at their Henley in Arden office.’ It took another 25 years and a chance encounter with David Lodder at a social event in 1988 for Green, who had since become a partner at Pinsent’s, to join the firm proper.
Green is now senior partner and his own route into the firm aptly illustrates one of its main predicaments: attracting, developing, and retaining staff in a practice built originally around private client work in an affluent part of the country isn’t straightforward.
‘There aren’t that many firms training people to be private client lawyers any more. People want to come to us because they know we’re committed to all the specialist areas in which we operate, including private client, but on the other hand we tend to train people ourselves, and then you have this issue about retention of staff,’ he says. ‘It’s particularly challenging to tempt young guns and NQs to a firm that isn’t a big City firm, who perhaps don’t fully understand the career advantages of working for an out-of-City practice, overlooking the impressive clients and size, scope, and nature of work.’
A typical misunderstanding, he says, is trainees who know about the firm’s private client reputation but decide that they want to work in corporate. Conversely, other firms looking to beef up their private client teams will regularly look at poaching someone from Lodders. Green doesn’t want to overstate the challenge, agreeing it’s an issue faced by many firms, ‘but it’s something we battle with’.
Lodders itself occasionally recruits laterally – ‘graduates with a strong academic background and, ideally, trained at a good private client firm, but as we’re one of the only ones around, the numbers are thin’. In practice, most lawyers have trained with the firm. About 70 per cent of trainees stay on after qualification, many remaining throughout their careers, with a few joining the firm’s partnership.
As a firm, Lodders has moved on too. Its client reach now extends beyond its traditional base of private individuals, independent landowners, farming estates, and family businesses to include real estate and property owners, developers, and investors across a number of sectors.
But private client is still what underpins the business, and it’s what kept the firm thriving in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Firms who had exited private client to focus on lucrative corporate and property work were biting their nails. While revenues dropped by 40 per cent in some real-estate-driven firms, Lodders’ private client practice fell by just 1 per cent. ‘Quite a few firms are thinking they shouldn’t have given it up and that they should look at it again,’ says Green. In fact, with an ageing population and a rise in later-life conditions, the private client market could be a promising long-term business strategy.
Care in the legal community
For Lodders, developing a unit dedicated to this growing segment was a natural move. ‘People used to come and see me, and their first concern was saving inheritance tax,’ Green comments. ‘Now the first concern is often what happens if they need care, and then, inheritance tax might follow on from that.’ The rise in this kind of enquiry has led to the creation of a specialist team operating from a Care & Capacity hub based at the firm’s Henley in Arden office. The team is run by Sofia Tayton – one of the partners who trained at the firm – and Jess Beddows, with a further solicitor and a legal executive doing home visits. The volume of work now coming through is such that the team is looking for additional staff.
The firm’s reputation in this area brings in most of the instructions. ‘Typically, the family comes to us asking about what to do, but very often an elderly person may not have any family so we end up dealing with the investment of their cash and setting up a structure to ensure the money doesn’t run out. Some care homes charge over £100,000 a year, so after ten or 15 years in a home you can easily run out of money,’ Green explains. ‘The team has a lot of expertise around third-party top-ups, with local authorities paying a certain amount and us arranging payment of the difference; that’s quite technical work.’
Referrers are also an important source of work. ‘Sorting out funding for nursing care, for instance, is such specialist work that we get referrals from other law firms, professional advisers such as accountants, as well as within the sectors in which we operate, such as property developers, farmers, landowners, and family businesses,’ Green comments.
But even for Lodders’ reasonably affluent client base, pricing for this kind of specialist work comes with its own challenges. ‘That’s why we have these various levels,’ Green explains. ‘The visiting can be done at a low level that’s affordable from the client’s point of view. The solicitors heading the team will be overseeing a lot of it, and initially they will be fully involved, but after that, it’s essentially an administrative job that requires keeping things running rather than high-level legal work.’
While the firm’s work tends to be tailored to individual circumstances, Green says there’s no aversion to fixed fees, although not in an off-the-shelf approach. ‘We decided we wouldn’t go down the bulk provider route. We can offer fixed fees but we’re cautious about it, we’re not trying to win quotes. It depends on the nature of the work – for commercial work, we are without doubt always competitive on price.’
The most important thing, Green says, is to be upfront with clients. This involves explaining, for instance, that a will or document can be drawn up for a set fee but that additional time will be required for related work, for which an estimate will be provided: ‘We’ll stick to those quotes; even if we spend more time afterwards we won’t charge extra for it. It is about building relationships.’
Fixed-fee work typically implies a process-based service driven, these days, by clever tech systems. This brings us to IT investment, the next big thing on the firm’s agenda, starting with the forthcoming appointment of a new IT director.
Keeping in touch
At the moment, the firm is still only looking at the direction it might want to take beyond its current client and billing management system. ‘Things like artificial intelligence are perhaps not immediately relevant, and we would likely be on the coat-tails of others, but interfaces such as portals, which let clients check progress on their phones, would allow us to keep in touch in a modern way,’ Green remarks.
While the firm’s focus will remain on providing a personal service, such improvements would bring useful enhancements for clients: ‘We start with the basic view that it’s all about personal services, so if you can provide a service where people can have a quick look online – say, how their house purchase is going – that would be very helpful.’
Residential conveyancing is a prime example of a digitally assisted process that can work well with large volumes of transactions, but for Lodders, an online portal fits into a wider client service approach. ‘We’ve already got a computerised system, so if people could see that for themselves that might be useful. Residential conveyancing is a small part of our business but it’s hugely important for us to look after clients buying property.’
AI at this stage still feels too remote, but Green doesn’t rule out its introduction in the firm further down the line. Again, however, ‘only to the extent that you can use it to help you produce work but we’re always going to be about personal service’.
Already the firm has stopped running paper files. ‘We do it all on screen now. We haven’t really measured the benefits, but it’s just more efficient. I can check where anybody in my team is at with a particular file, even when they’re on holiday. That’s been a very useful innovation for us. It doesn’t lend itself so readily with certain documents like huge lease files, but if it’s got an element of process in it, it’s a great help and important in terms of supervision.’
With 21 partners and 130 fee earners Lodders is one of the bigger players in the region, competing with larger local rivals and even with some London firms on bigger accounts. With an affluent client base and a focus on service, it’s perceived externally as perhaps being a little old fashioned, but it’s also coming around to the benefits of modern practice. Critically, it sees technology as facilitating a process and bringing costs down, allowing it to remain competitive on price while remaining focused on service. There, perhaps, is the lesson for all firms seeking to differentiate themselves from bulk providers and run a successful client-centric business.
Jean-Yves Gilg is editor-in-chief of Solicitors Journal