Taking the Helm
Paul Dunlop describes his rise to the top of Blanchards Baile
Dorset-based Blanchards Bailey’s appointment of Paul Dunlop as managing partner in September couldn’t be further from the hierarchical, succession processes of old. With outgoing chief executive Alan Horne expressing a desire to start reducing his management responsibilities four years ago, the firm’s partnership began preparing a reshuffle. Horne retains overall oversight of the firm’s finances, but Dunlop is now managing partner and responsible for all that entails, in particular the strategic direction of the firm and his preexisting role of overseeing IT and marketing alongside head of private client Jerome Dodge. “We went through a process, after we initially had a discussion about what the firm might look like, and where we wanted to go”, Dunlop recalls. “We all had one-to-one management training.
We did psychometric testing. Those sorts of things. So, we knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses and where we could really rely on somebody or help them.” After digging into each partner’s leadership qualities, Dunlop says it “made a lot of sense” to allocate roles that suited them. “Although, I’m managing partner, we do work very closely as a partnership”, he promises. “That includes equity and non-equity partners. And then, going down to senior associates and associates. We want everybody to be involved and contributing.” Meanwhile, the firm has spent several years looking at ways to diversify its income and put it on a more adaptable footing for the future – little did they know at the time that a global pandemic was in the pipeline. Dodge’s private client practice remains the largest in the firm, equating to around 25 per cent of Blanchards Bailey’s overall income.
Conveyancing and litigation make up around 20 and 15 per cent respectively, while family is another 10 per cent. However, the addition of commercial partners Robin Cole and David Ashplant in January highlight the firm’s ongoing drive to build on its agriculture and commercial practice areas, which currently make up the balance of the firm’s income. Back in 2013, Dunlop himself was hired to boost the firm’s litigation department, which consisted of just one partner at the time but is now nine-strong. As Dunlop explains, the firm’s strapline is ‘law for life’ and with the practice areas contributing increasingly equally, that is a pledge the firm feels better equipped to live by. “It’s done two things really, one is obviously it expands our client base and our offering and expertise”, he says. “Two, it adds more turnover to the firm. But it does it without watering down what the other departments are doing, while adding more resilience.” As a result of the diversification, Dunlop has seen the firm endure the uncertainties of the last few years, not just the recent emergence of covid-19, but Brexit and the regular uncertainty around general elections. “Property goes up and down. And when firms are 40, 50, 60, even 80 per cent reliant on property transactions, they get hit really hard at times like this”, he says. “What Alan and the partners did then, and what we’ve continued to do, is although we’ve grown those departments as much as we can, we’ve made the weight of that income less, so we’re never reliant on one area or the other”.
Before the pandemic set in this year, Blanchards Bailey already had around a third of its staff set up to work from home on a flexible basis. Dunlop set about moving the firm’s IT system into the cloud around four years ago – a gradual process he says has only recently been completed. However, the move had immediate benefits for staffing. “We were able to hire people who, because of where we are [in Dorset], wouldn’t necessarily have been attracted to working for us previously. Not being able to work remotely easily was a big disadvantage. But having that in place enabled us to pick up some great staff”, he says. Dunlop gradually transferred the firm’s entire IT system to the Microsoft 365 cloud. He remembers the hours of discussion over whether they should do that or buy more onsite servers. Then the hours of meetings with numerous IT consultant, he estimates he spoke to around 30 during the process. It was a long haul. But looking back on it now, he has no regrets about the decisions he made. The Microsoft system stays up to date with modern cloud computing and his new cloud-based document management system, split across Citrix and a web-based system, means the staff can access whatever they need as easily from home as in the office.
A new intranet means that staff have constant access to firmwide updates and information. Unknown to him at the time was how reliant staff would be on remote contact with each other, but the new intranet is also compatible with Microsoft Teams and Skype, making connection to colleagues seamless outside of the office. “When covid came, and lockdown, we just said ‘fine – go home’”, he says. “We all went home and set up our laptops, or if they didn’t have laptops, they took their desktops home. So apart from buying the occasional longer cable or wifi connector, we were up and running as if we’d carried on in the office”. As the covid-19 crisis has moved on there has been a gradual move to bring staff back to the office. Dunlop estimates there are still less than half going in on a regular basis, but as property transactions have increased there has been more call for members of the team to deal with paperbased work. “We have a rota to keep numbers in the office safe. Everyone that is going in has to wear PPE, wash their hands and have their temperatures taken on arrival”, he says. “There’s an element of office work that has to be done. And then there’s an element of people wanting to return to the office for their health and wellbeing. Some people struggle working from home because they live by themselves, so they find it quite isolating. Which Teams helps with but still, there are various reasons people come in and we’re trying to accommodate that”.
Having finalised the back-end systems, the last piece of the Blanchards Bailey IT roadmap is a client portal and app. Dunlop says there is a system there already but the new one will have far more functionality and is expected to roll out in a month or so. “It will give the clients a bit more information about what’s happening on their file, allow them to instant message us directly, contact us, get news updates and even fill in their own information and get quotes on new jobs”, he explains. So, with all that technical infrastructure in the bag, what does Dunlop see as the strategic priorities under his leadership? “We take a lot of pride in our people. We’ve just been shortlisted for the Investors In People Award, and we take a lot of pride in our staff. We want to train them, we want to develop them. We want them to be the best they can be and want to be, with full support. That becomes easier when you’re not spending your time dealing with mundane processes. It’s freed up time, and will continue to do so”, he says.
And, while the technology has enabled the firm’s management to spend more time developing staff, it has also given the staff themselves more time to provide services to clients. “It’s not been an attempt to make a digital world where we don’t speak to clients. It’s really to take out the mundane, non-thinking, work to allow people to do what they’ve trained for years and years to do, which is to use their brains and give legal advice and do so in a happy environment”, he says.
While Dunlop was fortunate that the pandemic arrived after the firm’s IT systems had been overhauled in such a way that homeworking was a simple transition, he admits the ‘new normal’ is not without its problems. One thing that keeps him up at night is whether or not staff working from home will, over time, begin to lose their connection with the firm and their colleagues. Will they become less loyal? “Retention is not something we have an issue with at the moment”, he says. “But if a partner is sat at home and they’re contacted by another firm with a great offer – one that, for whatever reason, they couldn’t turn down – would it be too easy to just take it? They wouldn’t have to do anything, just send their laptop back to the current firm, get one from the new firm and carry on.” It’s an interesting point. Could it be that remote working will make everyone feel, essentially, like contractors? “When people come into the office, they make friends. When you leave a firm, the thing you really miss is the regular clients and the friends you’ve made. So, if we can’t get that instilled in staff, moving forward in the future, no matter what firm you are, there is a potential that people will just sell out to the highest bidder”. That said, he accepts that remote working is here to stay. “To get and maintain the best staff, we are going to have to offer the flexible working, as we always have, but it will probably be more widespread”, he says. “Everybody can see the benefits of that now.
And if you can’t, then you’re probably going to get left behind”. While Dunlop is just a month into his role as managing partner, he speaks with disarming confidence. Asked what brought him into the law in the first place, his answer reveals a hint as to why he is so confident about his new role, despite the prevailing general uncertainty surrounding him. “My career probably started like no one else in this position, which may be no bad thing”, he explains. “I wanted, originally, to join the fire brigade. I did a disaster, engineering and management degree. For one year of that, we stayed at the Fire College in Moreton-onMarsh [in Gloucestershire]. Within that course we studied natural disasters, man-made disasters, manslaughter, corporate manslaughter – things like that.” The various business implications of these potential risks caught his imagination and he became more interested in the legal side. “When I left the course I was thinking, ‘how do I get involved with these big companies and, in effect, tell them that these issues are going to come up and legally what the pitfalls are?’”, he remembers. His curiosity led him to Clarke Willmott, where he temped before going travelling. “I was basically just moving files from A to B, but within a week I’d changed the system. I’d cut my workload by half a day or a day, they said ‘that’s quite efficient, how about doing some of this’.”
When he came back from travelling, he returned to the firm as a paralegal and gradually progressed to a training contract and the LPC before staying for another three and a half years as an associate in the firm’s litigation team. Litigation played to his strengths as a risk spotter and problem solver. Now he says, as a law firm leader, those proclivities still come into play. But what he really wants to do as a leader is bring out the same level of enthusiasm as he has for the law in his team. “I feel lucky in my job. I wake up and I can’t wait to go to work and I tear myself away from it at night. I had a beautiful daughter in July and my wife’s amazing. And I’ve got two great dogs. I love my home life and the countryside and all these things”, he says. “But I love work because I get a lot of reward out of it. I want everybody in the firm to feel like that. I want them to feel valued. I want them to want to develop, and for them all to think ‘how do we do this better?’.