Fast tracker

Fast tracker

Helen Ager’s expertise, and that of her legal team, have just won national recognition. Brian Nicholls talks to an achiever who just had to come home.

One thing irks Helen Ager in her otherwise zestful life: “I get very frustrated by lawyers feeling a bit sorry for themselves because theirs is now a much, much harder career than before,” she says.

“You hear lots of moaning and worrying and I understand, obviously.” She’s a lawyer herself, after all, and a good one, but she adds: “We get to work with people on some of the most dramatic, even traumatic, issues of their whole lives. It’s still a fantastic career, so varied.” It is more competitive, she concedes.

“But if you get these chances they’re amazing. So I get really frustrated when people moan on. Why should we be excluded when other people get pressures these days? I don’t see why lawyers should be immune.” Then she adds with an engaging laugh: “Somebody, somewhere, will get me for that!” But she argues from a strong position.

She was the first female managing partner of a North East commercial law firm. Now the Legal 500, the watchword on law firms’ performances, has just described Crutes, of which she’s been managing partner since 2006 – and remains a fee earner – as being highly respected with a strong heritage in the region and a loyal following among the public and private sectors and private clients. Its quality of service and the acumen of its people are also cited.

Ager and Stephen Crute, whom she succeeded as managing partner, appear on the Legal 500’s list of leading lawyers in the region –she for commercial litigation, he for public sector work. The firm’s nationally recognised expertise in insurance litigation has seen it top regional rankings this year. It has gained top spot for work in defendant/ personal injury and professional negligence, and is among the top five North East firms for its public sector litigation benefiting almost 60 local authorities across the UK. Naturally she’s pleased. It’s based, after all, on soundings of the firm’s peers and clients, and it underpins Crutes’ own client survey suggesting more than 94% of its clients as diverse as local authorities, leading insurers, health care trusts, housing groups and police authorities would recommend its legal services.

The other 6% were not in a position to recommend. Although not the first non-Crute to head the firm founded in 1907, she’s the first woman to do so, heading also dispute resolution professional indemnity. Much of her time is taken up defending other professionals against claims; she’s an accredited mediator and contrary to some lay suspicions that lawyers prolong battles to fatten fees, she advocates early mediation to short-circuit disputes. Her commercial litigation team of “very strong lawyers with a wealth of experience”, in Legal 500 words, have carved a strong niche in complex disputes involving directors. Clients in this area have included Chevron, Metnor, and GT Group, and recent work has taken in product liability and multijurisdictional contract disputes.

On her watch, the company, confounding a common belief that words like “lawyers” and “conservative” are synonymous, has re-routed. She joined Crutes in 1994 as an assistant solicitor, becoming a partner three years later. She gained the helm in 2006 with a new objective – a stronger commercial direction of full service, complementing the existing strengths in public sector and insurance work.

“We were handling many volume claims – ‘slippers and trippers’ accidents and domestic conveyancing,” she recalls. “We took a view we wanted to improve our market share as a high-quality firm. Today we’re still putting distance between ourselves and cheap and cheerful, turnover-driven, high street work.” Change was made inevitable for the Newcastle-based firm in any case by two mergers to gain reach into Cumbria and Teesside. Mounseys, in Carlisle, was primarily private client and commercially driven.

“I’d say that’s been very successful,” she opines, then sighs. “Dobermans – what shall I say about Dobermans? A less successful merger. Strategically it didn’t... (she measures her words)... achieve what we wanted. Our aspiration was to run claimant personal injury work, which came from Dobermans, along with Crutes’ defendant arm. There were firms then that seemed to run both defendant and claimant work successfully. We found it, in practice, extremely difficult – and stopped trying. We decided not to pursue a proper claimant’s service. We still do some but are not looking for volume. We tracked back to just having it as and when. “Insurance clients, we discovered, did not like us acting on both sides of the fence. Conflict arose more often than we would wish. A claimant might want to sue a council while we also acted for the council.

Things made running the claimant arm impractical. “As part of a review of the firm, partly driven, I think, by decisions about Dobermans, it all came at the right time for deciding to get out of high turnover, low value work. It’s not where we want to be. We took the opportunity to shrink claimant work back again, also domestic conveyancing, and dropping out altogether from the cheap and cheerful volume market. We also rationalised a couple of other services to get smaller but high quality delivery services.” Staff numbers are now just under 100, fewer than half in 2006, although partner numbers at 18 are much the same. Anyone who thinks business success is measured by length of payroll names should note that latest results show profits up 50% from £1.2m torose from £5m to £5.3m over 12 months to last March, and 10% more in the first few months of this financial year.

“Numbers peaked immediately after the Dobermans merger,” says Ager. “What happened between then and now is a combination of the strategic actions with a little bit also economy and recession-driven. I often say it was a bit of sod’s law thing for us.

“We’d just done a bit of a strategic tidy-up that resulted in some staff going. We’d just got past that and were seeing the fruits from it when the recession came. The good thing was that we had thought about our business before the recession hit.” The metamorphosis needed tactful handling of customers.

“We spent a lot of time briefing our people on the handling of calls from members of the public who expected us to meet their requests,” she says.

“We didn’t just turn them down but passed them to firms we knew would respond competently.” Crutes also consciously priced itself out of certain markets. Home conveyancing seemed an obvious cut-out.

“It gives rise to a large proportion of claims made against solicitors,” Ager says. “It’s complex, and for some reason the solicitors’ profession cut its own throat by dropping prices down and down. It’s a very important and personal service in which people want to be able to ring their solicitor and learn what’s happening in the sale of their house.

But if you’re only being paid £100, how can you give that level of service? “We decided we’d only do it in a high grade way. If necessary the business could go elsewhere. “There are lots of little businesses now wholly concentrated on conveyancing. If that’s their meat and drink, fine. And of course we now have coming down the track – I wish we could say it was wise foresight on our part but it wasn’t – the deregulation in this field. The Tescos, RACs, Co-ops and whoever else has declared an interest are moving in.” Under the so-called Tesco law non-lawyers can own and operate law firms for the first time.

Ager warns: “As a professional defence lawyer, I often come across a situation where a very small piece of conveyancing may not have been done quite right. There are pitfalls because of the nature of the ancient English land law such as mine shafts and suchlike. People who don’t do it properly will find this out the hard way. It’s easy to overlook things, however carefully you apply yourself.” During the big changes one aim stated was to close the gap on the region’s three leading law firms by 2010.

Has this been realised? “We’ve undoubtedly narrowed gaps with many of our competitors in town on the commercial services,” she says.

“We’re very pleased with the progress made.” With its three operations co-ordinated – in Newcastle, Carlisle and Stockton (where it invested £500,000 in new premises) – Crutes is now out to help smaller businesses with services that include employment law, commercial and intellectual property, corporate finance, debt-recovery, and mergers and acquisitions. “SMEs,” she says, “are likely to recognise the value they can get out of their lawyers, especially in a recession.” Work in fact on private client and SME instructions is increasing.

Crutes has also been called in by the like of Eaga and General Mills. Public sector work is also thriving. In this they are often dealing with huge national companies that have been brought in by their insurers. “They won’t necessarily have seen us in corporate service but, rather, litigation service, so it’s nice to talk to those companies about other services too,” she says. “I’m not sure if everyone is quite aware of how much this firm has changed.

he business services have been developing quickly and strongly.” The firm is pleased by the Legal 500 description of “an experienced and thorough team”. It’s acclaimed as top regionally for health and safety and regulatory work – highly rated also in commercial property, commercial litigation, criminal law around white collar crime and private client work. Ager says: “We’re particularly pleased at so high a rating for commercial work. This is so challenging and competitive.“ Little bits in the Legal 500 did make her think though: “We can get that up next year.” However, she also, like the Legal 500 in its assessment, cited many colleagues deserving praise during this interview.