Even an honest-to-goodness sales manager (no oxymoron intended) might raise his eyebrows upon learning that someone of his calling had transubstantiated into a solicitor, yet Nick James did exactly that. A fine job he’s made of it too, now heading the commercial department of Hay & Kilner; a law firm which is withstanding the ravages of recession better than some larger members of the sib.
His was no overnight switch of career, and he had worked in sales and marketing for some indelible names of North East industry, including Allen-Bradley Electronics in Jarrow (ex-Morganite Resistors), Thermal Syndicate of Wallsend, Cape Insulation in Washington, as well as International Rectifier outside the region. Industry had overshadowed him from childhood, other than during his time at Barnard Castle School.
The son of a Green Howard from Middlesbrough who, after the Second World War, had liberated a young says, grinning.
“I think it’s that my degree was science-based, and you had a set of facts and a set of rules and you had apply the facts to the rules and come up with the solution. That’s pretty much what lawyers do. It’s a logical process that I find attractive.” Back to the books, then.
“I went to Newcastle Poly and did a conversion course. Then came Law Society finals and a job as an articled clerk at what was then Septimus Gee and Ward and Rose in Hood Street.”
His principal was the illustrious Peter Allan - later senior partner, managing partner and consultant to Ward Hadaway, and a prime North East practitioner in corporate law for three decades. It was a Jack-of-all-trades existence; Allan, like the others, tackling any kind of knotty matter. Two years after qualifying, James was a partner. Later he too joined Ward Hadaway, remaining there for 12 years.
When he came to Hay & Kilner 13 years ago it was much less Dutch girl who’d one day become James’s mum, James was born in Billingham, where one wall of the house was always blackened from ICI’s neighbourly presence.
He got into St John’s College, Cambridge – “it was easier in those days,” he claims – and studied electrical sciences, which is a Cambridge way of saying electronic engineering. That knowledge, and perhaps Dad having been an ICI depot manager, inclined him into industry in 1975.
His father was with ICI for 40 years; a depot manager of a plant providing a by-product for cement. In his final 10 years there, Blue Circle bought the business. When James’s occupational sea change of direction came during his late 20s, there was no blood rush to accompany it.
“I knew a few lawyers, had shared a room with one at Cambridge and the inevitable Jesmond flat with two others later,” he recalls.
“Ours is a supportive environment,” James explains of the management style at H&K, which is noted as a charities adviser.
“Both staff and partners benefit. It has to be employed carefully because people can take advantage, but that hasn’t been our experience.” So loyalty is strong among the 160-strong workforce led by 24 partners. It’s no cosy club though.
The latest Legal 500 awards 23 recommendations for H&K’s performance, including five first-tier rankings and six seconds. As James, 56, points out: “It’s quite difficult for a firm our size to get into higher ranking tiers. If you’re fifth biggest and everyone’s doing the same thing, you’ll probably end up fifth in everything, which probably puts you in the third tier.
So anything above, in a sense, is punching above your weight.” His domain embraces company work, commercial property, some commercial litigation, insolvency and employment, and he is cited in the Legal 500 for very good service at all times.
“I think my wife must have written that,” he chuckles. His wife, Judi, has a face familiar to many beyond Darras Hall, where they live and have two daughters - Madeleine, 24, a police officer, and Lucy, 18, studying psychology at Leeds University.
Judi is a former presenter and continuity announcer on Tyne Tees TV and BBC Anglia and is now promotions and marketing manager for Fenwick, Newcastle.
Growth within Hay & Kilner since its 1946 formation has largely been organic, and its distinctions include being one of the few firms in the region with a clinical negligence franchise.
“Until we took on Eversheds’ private department in 2001, we were probably the largest Newcastle firm never to have merged. We like to think that we have quite a mature client base which has grown up with us.
“Eversheds was rationalising nationally, and with some exceptions, wasn’t inclined to keep this sort of work in the region. Most of its Newcastle private department and clients came to us in a formal transfer.
So our private client department is now probably second only in size to Dickinson Dees’.” In the following year, John Kilner - son of the founder, William – retired and Martin Soloman, from South Wales, became senior partner.
He’d come to Newcastle in 1980 at 26, working initially with the planners of Newcastle City Council and involved in regeneration, notably in Byker.
Marriage to a local girl was Soloman’s anchor and, since becoming senior partner, H&K has doubled in size with only one other merger, with Wallers, a Wallsend practice, in 2003.
Around 20 of the total complement work there, adding strengths in work for banks, building societies and local authorities. James says: “We’d like to make an acquisition if the possibility arose, but we’ve never tried to grow for the sake of it.”
How come the partnership operating from Cloth Market in the heart of Newcastle has not only retained full staff during recession, but also taken on trainees who might easily have been released after their two years’ training? “I put it down largely to us being a full-service firm with diverse expertise.
The recession only affects particular areas of Law - notably those needing funding. Company commercial, for example, has been slow.
“My peers in other firms tell the same story. But even in company commercial we’ve had some very interesting work in the last 12 months. I’ve been involved in a transaction utilising offshore funds and based on Sharia law.
“The funds from the Middle East were subject to Islamic law compliance. That’s been a highlight. It’s ongoing – a multi-million dollar funding that in the next six to nine months will become public. It involves a local business with very innovative products. We’re also diverse in some areas which are not affected at all.” That includes the claimant clinical negligence work, for which David Bradshaw (also the Belgian Consul) is noted. It features spinal injury and asbestos claims, actions involving members of the armed forces, also victims of sports injury, and – caveat emptor! – actions over oral contraceptives and breast implants. In personal injury defences, benzene, noise and vibration figure.
Hay & Kilner also engages in professional negligence work, including cases involving other solicitors. James says: “It’s a fact of life these days that all professional service firms have professional indemnity insurance and they can easily, in consequence, become a target.
“It’s not just solicitors, but also dentists, medics, accountants. I understand take-up in the USA for medics to do the more risky activities is very low for that reason. Obstetrics comes to mind. I don’t think many take that up.”
As expected in hard times, many instructions in commercial litigation are coming in, but, adds James: “Even in company commercial, there are areas where things are improving - start-ups for instance.
There’s a lot of interest in start-ups, particularly with Jeremie’s arrival.” This is the European-led £125m funding chest for technology start-ups and smaller companies. It’s thought some 850 companies could benefit.
James says: “A number of solicitors in the region, like me, are pretty well versed in that kind of work, having dealt with existing funders.” Meanwhile, the Legal 500 observes that, besides being top tier in health and safety, H&K specialises in crime and fraud, including confiscation orders under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.
In gaming and betting licensing, Soloman’s skills are highlighted.In dispute resolution, work has recently included a High Court action between a financial institution and a big transport name over extensive databases.
Where it does appear in tribunals on unfair dismissals and whistle-blowing, instructions often come from private healthcare providers and a marine supplies company.
It’s considered first tier in health and safety, while in intellectual property, a commercial dispute has featured over the design of a new machine process to manufacture a security product.
You can say then, about Hay & Kilner, without fear of contradiction, that variety remains both its spice, and its elixir, of life.