Wright Hassall: a local legend
As Wright Hassall’s managing partner, Sarah Perry has a clear vision – to be the biggest and best full-service law firm in the region. Rachel Rothwell reports on a historic firm with a modern approach
In 1846, Mr Wright and Mr Wright-Hassall (not related) created a law firm with what would come to be regarded as one of the quirkiest names in the legal industry.
But despite its deep historical roots, today’s Wright Hassall is a modern practice. Based in Royal Leamington Spa in Warwickshire, it is unashamedly a single-site, regional, full-service law firm.
Silencing the doom-mongers, who often predict the demise of such firms, it has pursued an ambitious programme of organic growth that saw turnover rise to £21m pre-pandemic. Led by managing partner Sarah Perry since 2016, the firm is also ahead of the game of gender equality. Around half of its 47 partners are women; as are 67 per cent of its qualified lawyers.
“We act mainly for SME clients”, says Perry. “So that means we’re more likely to be dealing with the owners of the business. As a full-service law firm, we can look after their life personally and professionally.”
What does Perry think of predictions that such firms may struggle in future? “You hear a lot about the ‘squeezed middle’”, she remarks. “The number of articles I’ve read about the death of the [multi-disciplinary] law firm – but I don’t think that’s right. I actually think there’s a real gap – especially for regionally based firms.
“I know exactly what we are. We’re not an international law firm. We’re a regional firm. We know our region really well. We can deal with the interconnectivity between our clients in a way that you just can’t if you’re a national firm. We’re able to talk to our clients about all of their needs, rather than part of their needs.
“All of my lawyers are specialists. We don’t have any generalists. But they are working in different specialisms, and they overlap.”
Perry certainly knows the firm inside out, having qualified there in 1991 – she decided to apply for articles partly because she liked the amusing name – and worked her way up through the ranks. A commercial litigator, she became equity partner in 2003, when annual turnover was around £8m.
She took on various leadership roles within the firm and, before becoming managing partner, led an ambitious growth acceleration programme that boosted turnover by the millions. How did she achieve this?
“We started to take a much more holistic approach to our clients, rather than looking in terms of bespoke pieces of work,” Perry explains. “It’s about thinking in terms of how we can ‘enable’ the client”.
As well as boosting cross-selling, the firm began offering clients a ‘menu’ of pricing options – moving away from hourly rates and embracing fixed fees – and radically overhauled its use of technology, limiting the ‘touchpoint’ of the lawyer to where it was really needed.
Did she encounter any resistance to the new ways of working? “When you’re in a growth phase, people have got to accept that change is inevitable,” Perry asserts. “We’re a very old firm, and there are things culturally that the staff like and were worried about losing [as the firm grew]; for example, that sense of belonging and community… The firm is quite protective; if anyone has a life issue, the firm rallies round them. These things don’t have to change. But you can’t have out of date practices and procedures, and sometimes that causes a resistance.”
Perry adds that the firm spent a lot of time engaging with staff to help them “encapsulate” the core values of the firm. This led to the creation of a set of guiding principles dubbed the FAIR approach: flexible, ambitious, inclusive and respectful.
When it came to supporting lawyers to get to grips with new technology, Perry adds that the firm’s informal system of “buddying up” junior lawyers with senior lawyers was helpful. “It’s a symbiotic relationship, which is really rich if you can get it working,” she says.
Keeping it local
As a regional firm, local links have always been extremely important to Wright Hassall. Perry encourages staff to get involved in the local community; and the firm’s lawyers sit on the boards of around 50 companies and charities across the region.
The practice also gets involved in coaching and training in local schools, colleges and universities; and is legal partner to the Wasps rugby team, featuring on its shirt.
In 2012 the firm set up a charitable foundation to support local charities; and it has run a monthly free legal advice clinic since 2018, for local folk who can’t afford legal representation.
The office itself is no longer in the town centre, however. In 2010 the firm left its grandiose Regency building in favour of a large, open plan office on the outskirts of Leamington. Now, everyone has their own desk, but no one has their own office and all the desks are the same size.
Was this a big cultural change for staff? “It was massive”, admits Perry. “But having done it we would never go back.”
Perry adds that her previous managing partner had realised the only way to get staff on board with the environment was if he didn’t have an office either. Perry now sits on the same bank of desks that he did.
Might she be looking to reduce the office footprint post-pandemic, as many law firms are now contemplating? “We’re looking at our office environment, but I won’t make a decision based on trying to reduce office space,” Perry frowns. “Not everyone wants to work from home. We’re not in a city centre so our office costs aren’t that high. We’ve got an opportunity to be really creative in terms of what we use our office space for; but we will make sure that everyone has their own desk.”
The firm is currently developing a hybrid working policy for after the pandemic. While staff will be able to work up to three days a week from home and have flexibility on their start and finish times, they’ll need to be in the office at least two days a week. “People need to connect and be part of the firm”, explains Perry. “But there’s flexibility as well.”
She adds that time in the office is particularly important for more junior lawyers, who benefit from being around senior colleagues.
“That learning by osmosis is essential”, she insists. “It’s really important that the time is given, and you can’t do that remotely.
“The big message is all about reconnecting. And our staff really want to. I’m worried about the junior part of the profession if that doesn’t happen. Just listening to senior lawyers on the phone, how they engage, attending a face-to-face meeting – it’s very different to doing it on Zoom. It helps them understand the Wright Hassall ethos.”
Being flexible about staff working patterns has long been part of the firm’s approach and goes some way to explaining how the firm has done so well in its gender balance.
“We recognise the importance of family,” states Perry. “No one should have to miss their child’s nativity or sports day; you shouldn’t have to have time off for that.
“It’s about supporting women, particularly those who want to go and have a family, and being flexible about how they come back; and encouraging those who want a career break to know that we’re still here afterwards.”
And it certainly helps having a woman managing partner. When Perry was appointed to the role in 2016, it was widely reported in the legal press, despite the relatively small size of the firm at that stage. “It was quite big news at the time,” she recalls. “It just shows how much things have moved on since then.”
Why did Perry want the managing partner role? “What I love is being able to take a real high level, strategic overview of where I want to take the business,” she enthuses. But Perry had one key demand before she would contemplate taking the helm: that she must be able to set up a senior leadership team – with the relevant professional expertise – to run the firm, rather than it continuing to be run by the equity partners.
“The first thing I did was to professionalise the board”, she explains. “Equity partnerships are very unwieldy and lawyers are trained to be lawyers; they’re not trained in HR, marketing, sales, finance or operational improvements.”
The equity partners are regularly kept up to speed with strategic developments, but no longer need to attend “endless meetings” about the day-to-day running of the firm. This also helps them to keep their focus on the day job of looking after clients.
Despite her full workload, Perry also likes to keep her hand in with some fee-earning work – she calls it her “sweeties” – taking on a few litigation cases while ensuring that she’s well supported by other lawyers in case she needs to deal with any management emergencies.
“It’s really important that you understand the issues; for example if some aspect of the IT isn’t working well enough, you don’t see it unless you’re doing it. And you can have a different conversation with the client, because you’re still in touch with what’s going on,” she reflects.
The more agile leadership model certainly helped the firm when the pandemic struck. Perry set up an ‘incident management team’ that met daily throughout much of the period. The firm was also well-equipped in terms of IT, being already set up with Microsoft 365 and Teams.
“The [lockdown] announcement was made on the Monday and everyone was working from home by Tuesday afternoon. I remember the queues of people lining up to get a laptop if they didn’t have one,” recalls Perry.
“Staff used food from the canteen to make sandwiches for a local homeless shelter before they left the office. There was a great team spirit.”
She adds: “The incident management team is still in place, and it saw through the transition back into the office. We had everything ready, and a health and safety inspection received a glowing review.”
But as for all, the pandemic has been a difficult period and the firm had to make redundancies and furlough some staff.
“The past 12 months have been phenomenally difficult for anyone,” reflects Perry. “The level of anxiety, stress and heartache might change, but everyone has experienced all of it [to some degree].”
What was it like to manage a firm during such a challenging period? “This has been the hardest year that I’ve had – definitely”, confides Perry. “Because you’re facing something that no one has a roadmap for, and you’re having to make decisions about the future of your business and all the people who are working for you, without any certainty of outcome. You are responsible for all of these people… it’s an enormous burden. It weighs very heavily.”
For Perry, the support of those around her was essential. “I’m lucky to have a very good professional management team who are hugely supportive and we work together as a team… Without that, I don’t think I would have coped. I’ve also got a very supportive partnership.”
Perry also found it helpful to put her thoughts down in writing at the end of each day. She says: “It may sound strange, but I kept a diary [during the pandemic]. Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to see how things were improving. When two to three months had passed, you could see how much the business had moved forward.”
Perry cites being “open, honest and approachable” as key to her management style. She communicated regularly with staff during the pandemic, with a weekly blog, as well as attending virtual meetings and coffee mornings.
Staff encouraged her not to put a gloss on things. “The staff feedback was that they felt I was being too upbeat; they said, ‘we want you to really tell us’. So I changed it in response to that,” she says.
Perry’s advice to other law firm managers is that communication is essential. “Communicate a lot; communicate in different ways,” she counsels. “Ask people how they want you to communicate to them, and how often. And when you think you’ve communicated enough – do it again.”
What does the future hold for this ambitious Midlands firm? “We have quite a big growth agenda; we want to be the largest and most well-known regional law firm,” Perry asserts. “And we want to be an exceptional place to work – that’s a very high bar”.
One thing that won’t be changing any time soon is that quirky name. The firm still gets publicity because of it, and feedback shows that it’s hugely popular with clients. Perry observes: “Within Coventry and Warwickshire, and probably throughout the West Midlands, the name is extremely well known.”
She smiles: “And I love it. It fits us. We’d be mad to change it.”
Rachel Rothwell is a freelance journalist