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Lexis+ AI
Emma Thompson

Partner and Head of Employment, Thackray Williams

Simon Slater

Non-Executive Chair, Thackray Williams

Quotation Marks
Strategic planning will include consideration of the firm’s vision and goals. A detailed analysis of a firm’s current position, their desired future position, and the steps needed to get there is paramount

SJ Interview: Simon Slater and Emma Thompson

SJ Interview
SJ Interview: Simon Slater and Emma Thompson

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Emma Thompson, Partner and Head of Employment, and Simon Slater, Non-Executive Chair of Thackray Williams, share how their firm transitioned from a small high street law firm into a medium-sized LLP and an aspiring Top 200 UK firm. Additionally, they offer valuable advice for other firms aspiring to achieve similar growth and success in today’s competitive legal landscape, with AI as a key trend in the industry.

How do you go from a small high street law firm into a medium sized LLP and Top 200 UK firm with a corporate identity and commercial brand awareness?

Transitioning from a small high street law firm to a medium-sized LLP involves a strategic approach to growth, development of a strong corporate identity, and building commercial brand awareness. Before any of this can be achieved, a firm must be able to define its strategic vision and ensure that there is a collective commitment to prioritising the delivery of this.

Strategic planning will include consideration of the firm’s vision and goals. A detailed analysis of a firm’s current position, their desired future position, and the steps needed to get there is paramount. Thackray Williams is the product of two high street firms merging in 2004 with the simple aim of growing their market share. In committing to a move away from the High Street, Thackray Williams evaluated its market position and identified areas for expansion with a particular focus on commercial services and private wealth. In addition to expanding our service offerings, the firm committed to new office locations in Sevenoaks and the City of London. Ambitious growth goals were set, and we have committed to these as a business.

In developing Thackray Williams’ commercial brand awareness, there was a focus on our target client, and what they value. The firm’s branding is not only demonstrative of the clients we service and the people we employ but is reflective of our core values. In building commercial awareness, a firm’s messaging should be cohesive and consistent and there should be an ongoing commitment to reviewing your brand’s performance and making appropriate adjustments, where required.

Attracting, developing, and retaining the right talent is crucial to this transition. At Thackray Williams, people are inherent to our continued success and the individuals we hire align with our culture and values. As a firm we have prioritised our Employee Value Proposition (EVP) - essentially ensuring that an employee knows what they can expect working for us (we are open and transparent about who we are but more importantly, where we are going) and what is expected of them. Competitive packages aside, we have invested in training and commit to the ongoing personal development of each individual.

During any transition, sight should not be lost on the importance of delivering excellent client service. A broader corporate offering means that we have been able to support our commercial clients with all their legal business needs, as well as their personal requirements.

We pride ourselves on our client relationships, which we re-commit to nurturing each year. We do not take our clients for granted and look for new and innovative ways to support them with their business needs, which includes investment in efficient systems and ways of working. This approach is testament to our commercial growth in the last three years where we have seen an 82 percent increase in revenue for our employment and commercial teams.

Why do some firms thrive, and others just stagnate or die? One key element is a good core team that can move the firm forward organically and can cope with expansion by acquisition. What internal changes did you witness that contributed to the firm's rapid progress and success in the competitive legal market?

There are several factors that contribute to the growth of law firms including strong financial management, the attraction and retention of high-calibre individuals, a dynamic and ambitious partnership with clear strategic priorities, an effective brand proposition which creates confidence in the firm’s ability to handle complex and high-value work and an investment in marketing, business development and PR.

Law firms without strategic direction, struggle to prioritise their efforts and allocate resources effectively leading to missed opportunities and competitive disadvantage. Strategic planning helps law firms identify growth opportunities. Firms that struggle to grow are often faced with an inability to handle economic downturn and are left without profits to re-invest in technological advances, infrastructure and their people.

Thackray Williams is a modern and ambitious law firm recognised by its staff, clients and the local community as having an overwhelmingly supportive culture. Communicating our vision and the firm’s strategic direction internally was our starting priority. Getting our staff on board and ensuring that they understood the catalyst for change, the benefits this presented and how each person fitted into our vision was inherent to the success of managing this change. Our people are the key to our success.

In managing this change there has been a far greater emphasis and commitment to working with our people to understand their personal ambitions and empowering them to reach their goals. We are proud that we have individuals in our equity partnership who started their journeys with us as trainees and who sit alongside commercial lateral hires who left larger firms to join us.

We continue to actively look for high performing and dynamic lawyers who are looking to reach their full potential, whilst joining our journey.

How has the implementation of AI and other advanced technologies impacted the day-to-day operations and overall strategy at Thackray Williams? Can you provide specific examples?

The integration of AI is in its infancy at Thackray Williams. As a firm we have applied a careful approach to its adoption, ensuring a strategic and measured implementation, and a thorough understanding of the risk exposures it brings.

Nonetheless, we have invested in our technology solutions, particularly for our Real Estate and document support teams. In addition to exploring AI features in our core technology platforms, there has been investment in co-pilot licenses and automation tools to assist our administrative and transactional property work teams. Co-pilot is being used across the firm to provide first draft articles, blog posts and website content.

The second implementation stage is for it to be used to produce initial meeting minute drafts and meeting advice summarisations. In the last month, the firm has committed to forming an AI Steering group, who are expected to guide and oversee the implementation of AI initiatives across all practice areas, while providing strategic direction and ensuring governance and risk remains top of our agenda.

What are the emerging trends in the legal industry that law firms should be aware of, and how can they position themselves to leverage these trends effectively?

Currently, the trends we are seeing are fairly obvious and widely acknowledged. However, the impact of these trends could be seismic and, in some instances, controversial. The key trend is AI which will accelerate automation of processes in the legal industry at a pace never seen before. Ultimately, some aspects of law will become DIY.

There is also a greater likelihood than ever that we will see the demise of the chargeable hour, save for the most complex “bet the ranch” advisory work. This will have a significant impact on the way law firms approach pricing and value.

We will also see further, more radical consolidation of the market as smaller firms seek the sanctuary and deeper investment pockets of larger, more generously funded firms including those using external capital to invest in AI.

As a result of all of this the role of the lawyer will change, as will the shape of their career, which may present opportunities to become legal technologists, legal researchers, project managers and client service professionals.

Law firms can respond to these trends in one of three ways: to be early adopters of AI; to be fast followers; or to merge in order to gain access to the necessary capital. If firms are to remain relevant at all, they will need to be ambitious, open to change and highly adaptable.

What are the key factors that contribute to maintaining a strong and cohesive firm culture, especially during periods of rapid growth and change?

This starts at the top. A forward thinking, ambitious, cohesive, approachable and resilient leadership team is essential. By this we mean the team members appointed to lead and manage the business and the equity partners who elected them.

They must set a crystal clear direction for the firm and ensure there is a shared vision which resonates with everyone.

Then, it is vital to ensure consistency in terms of behaviour and transparency and in terms of communication across the practice. This will set the tone of the firm and help people to understand the contribution they are making within the context of the progress being made by the business.

Clarity of role and a sense of meaning (belonging even) is crucial. The value of inclusivity to a strong culture cannot be underestimated. Momentum is also vital to ensure existing talent is retained and new talent attracted.

What advice would you give to law firms looking to expand their services and client base in today's competitive market?

Be prepared to conduct some analysis of your business and the environment in which it operates. Understand with certainty what the existing strengths of the firm are, especially in relation to practice expertise, client sectors and geographic reach.

With equal rigour, gain an understanding of the firm’s weaknesses with regard to gaps in practice capability, client base (profile and profitability), sectors and geographic location. Finally, undertake horizon scanning to determine where the most obvious (natural) growth opportunities lie.

This analysis will inform your decision making. Decisions might include:

  • Identifying the practice areas you wish to strengthen further or to acquire, to enhance your client offering.
  • Identifying a handful of sectors in which the firm has demonstrable strength in depth and prioritising these for business development. Growth can be achieved through internal cross referral (providing multiple services to a client) or by attracting more clients within the same or closely allied sectors due to increased awareness of the firm’s industry specific knowledge.

In addition to its leading private wealth practice, Thackray Williams did just this and identified five priority sectors for further growth. These include real estate, retail, hospitality & leisure, sport, education & independent schools, and financial & professional services.

Reducing the number of smaller, unprofitable clients through natural attrition over time. In other words, moving upstream. Expanding or reducing the firm’s geographic footprint to match demand or opportunity was also crucial in our growth.

Thackray Williams decided five years ago to invest in a new presence in Sevenoaks, an already highly competitive market place for legal services. From this office it would serve the needs of clients in West and North West Kent and East Surrey. Today, this office generates some 20 per cent. the firm’s revenue (equating to more than £2m).

What do you see as the future of client relationships in the legal industry, particularly with the rise of AI and other digital tools? How can law firms balance technology with personalised client service?

The challenge for legal professionals is ensuring a balance in the adoption of AI, whilst maintaining ethical responsibilities and legal supervision.

AI will become essential to the way work is undertaken, with some legal professionals already using it for template creation, document reviews, legal summary preparation, and settlement evaluation. AI is becoming significantly more sophisticated and user friendly, leaving legal professionals having to prioritise that personalised client experience.

There will need to be a focus on tailoring technology solutions, ensuring that each client’s unique needs are met, and maintained. The more diverse a law firm’s legal offering, the more daunting this will seem, as there is no “one size fits all”, when considering the integration of AI across differing practices. Law firms will need to evaluate their existing technology offering and prioritise efficiency by integrating case management systems and document automation tools. The importance of risk management and data security will remain paramount.

Ultimately, law firms will need to strive for a balanced approach, which sees an investment in AI that enhances efficiencies across the business, whilst maintaining personal interaction and enabling legal professionals to continue nurturing those client relationships, which are inherent to the ongoing success of any firm.

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