200 years young

200 years young

In today’s ephemeral world of business and public affairs you need to move with the times to survive and, as Gillian Hall tells BQ, this is exactly what her firm is doing.

Yes, it is bicentenary year and (hesitation)...”Umm, we shall be doing something for clients, staff and friends, I think. It’s one of those things you want to celebrate. But it’s very important to pitch it properly.” This is the otherwise incisive Gillian Hall, senior partner of lawyers Watson Burton, choosing words carefully now. Why? “Two hundred years is something to be proud of,” she says.

“But you must also look to the future. And in these difficult times in the region, and in the economy generally, you’ve got to pitch it right.” But of course, she adds reassuringly, something will be arranged. There’s no hesitation in discussing the firm’s progress.

“Although we’re a national firm now,” she says, “with offices in London and Leeds, most of us work out of Newcastle office.” Perhaps in the past the firm could have been more active in the local market in that respect. “I am trying to raise the profile,” she points out, “and I think we’ve had some success there. I think more people know about us now. Ten years ago it was a matter of pride that we didn’t advertise, do PR – anything like that. We sat under our bushel doing very good work for very good clients, as now. But markets change. When you’re a big employer and have been in the area for 200 years you have a responsibility to it.” This indeed is her personal responsibility for, as she explains, she’s a senior not a managing partner, and different law firms run in different ways.

Watson Burton is run by a senior management team in which, of course, she’s prominent. But Gillian Hall also remains a corporate lawyer. “All I’ve done for almost 20 years is argue about money in one form or another – always doing the best deal possible for my client. I’ve then taken responsibility for teams doing that in the region and nationally, and I’m still very active in the corporate finance market. So she spends an equivalent of one day a week on senior partner work and the rest of the week in corporate finance.

“As senior partner, my role is to be visible in the market and among clients. I don’t golf or go to every party, but I try to do things where my skills set and the skills set I can draw on within the firm will benefit the firm and the region.” As a CBI regional councillor she doesn’t just attend meetings.

“I’m doing work now in relation to the Local Enterprise Partnership,” she says. “If we’re in something we participate. I try to bring something to the table.”

She also belongs to the Institute of Directors, Newcastle Law Society and maybe yet the North East Industrial Development Board because, she laughs, she hasn’t been told yet that she’s sacked. The board apportioned GBI grants – incentives to bring firms to the region – and as the Government has scrapped these she may eventually learn that job has ended.

Internally, the senior partner has to remind everyone of a world outside, and to input on strategy.

“This is a role we felt was needed,” she says.

“The only question was, who? We’re not precious about who’s got what job. I have a corporate skills set. I’m well known and I hope respected in the market. I’m not over-talkative. But clients tell me when I do speak they are prepared to listen!” When she entered law there were few women lawyers in the North East – and only she and Catherine Wood (ex-Muckle, now Sintons) were corporate lawyers. That was in the mid-80s. If it sounds Victorian it indicates perhaps the recent pace of change in her profession. Today’s legal market is intensely competitive. Gillian explains: “You have to be very business focused and work out what your business is. And you’re only as good as your last job. You can only lose your reputation once. It’s so fast today, so much business being by e-mail. But your reactions still have to be considered.”

Different clients need different approaches too if, like Watson Burton for example, you’re acting for the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency as compared with the owner of a local small business selling up. One’s a sophisticated buyer of legal services, the other trying perhaps to sell their lifetime’s work for a pension. Mind sets need adjusting.

Hall says: “Firms that put their clients at the heart of the business will be those successful in this very competitive market, where the legal business landscape is also changing. You cannot rest on your laurels, not even on 200 years of laurels. You must adapt quickly. Even 200 years ago there must have been a fair amount of looking forward and tweaking to get a firm to a position where it is still here after 200 years.”

But there’s still a vast difference today between the lawyer’s historic office Watson Burton helped replicate at Beamish Museum and its modern spacious suites aloft at 1 St James Gate in Newcastle – the difference, for example, between reading Jane Austen on Kindle and watching her actually scratch out Sense And Sensibility, which she was doing about the time Watson Burton’s door first opened.

Gillian’s thinking now of Robert Spence Watson. Is he a company icon? (Again, hesitation) then: “I think so. We’ve a very nice portrait of him we brought when we moved here. It didn’t suit these rooms. So it’s in safe keeping somewhere. I think it will be nice to put it on an easel perhaps in reception.” Visitors would see a curly-bearded figure akin to a Father Christmas in mufti, promising cordiality such as Gillian’s today. He first partnered his father Joseph as J and RS Watson in 1860.

“He was fascinating,” Hall agrees. “A Quaker interested in so many things – clearly a business person but looking after the unions too, and setting up universities. He had a finger in every interesting pie.” He did indeed. Along the road, inside an august 1825 building, his name also appears on the tabletlisting past presidents of the Literary and Philosophical Society ofNewcastle, the country’s largest independent library outside London. His name fits easily between those of great scientists and engineers who also held the position – Robert Stephenson, Lord Armstrong, and Sir Joseph Wilson Swan. Spence Watson, purveyor of literacy as well as law, presided between 1901 and 1911, having been honorary secretary for 31 years from 1862, and written the society’s history in 1897. With his love of learning he helped found the Durham College of Science in 1871, later Armstrong College, then Newcastle University.

He became first president there in 1910. He campaigned for university extension in the North and creation of the Newcastle Free Public Library. A lifelong Quaker active in the Liberal Party, he entered the Privy Council in 1907 and remained an active lawyer almost until he died.

“It does make you wonder when he quite fitted the legal work in,” Gillian laughs, admiringly. But among other things he pioneered arbitration in trade disputes, umpiring solely on 47 such disagreements between 1884 and 1904. A notable contemporary called him “perhaps the greatest living authority in England on labour questions”. The practice is proud his name is in its name, and that he influenced the firm’s growth.

“Some clients he acted for, we still act for,” Hall observes. “Our work now in schools converting to academies, the university technology colleges too, ties in with relations he built with education.

“He didn’t say: ‘I’m a lawyer – I am only reactive.’ Most lawyers simply respond to clients’ wishes. But here was a chap who said: “This area needs a university,” or something like that, and he and his chums went off and did it. He had an analytical brain, used his business skills and looked after his clients.” Like Watson associating with pioneers of engineering then, his successors today are in frontline developments.

The cover of the firm’s newly launched in-house journal indicates how Watson Burton not only represents offshore businesses and some big American power companies, but also the National Renewable Energy Centre (Narec), the UK’s North East-based centre for renewable energy and low carbon technologies.

“We’ve moved on 150 years,” Hall observes. “That Robert Spence Watson was so involved in doing what was best for the area is something we still aspire to.” Watson Burton is active today in 16 or more sectors of business, from banking to sport. It has emerged successfully from a difficult 2009 when, like many other law firms recently, it had to pay off people: 50 out of 300 reportedly.

It was clearly one of Hall’s unhappiest professional experiences, horrible for those redundant and unpleasant also for those having to make colleagues redundant – “realising you’re in a better position than those it’s being done to”. And amid survivors’ guilt the worry of whether it will happen again.

She says: “You have to put a lot of effort into motivating people and getting them to understand it probably won’t happen again.” The firm, now around 29 partners and 140 others, is recruiting again, bringing in some names well known in the region, and also at the younger end from London and locally. There’s determination to restore staffing numbers to pre-recession level, plus one.

Eyebrows rose in the profession when the firm opened offices at Leeds in 2005 and in London – in the Gherkin building, no less – in 2007.

“Leeds is a tight market where we are holding our own,” she reports. “London for us is a niche of construction and professional indemnity. That’s going incredibly well and we’re picking up some good international construction clients.” In the recession the partners have tightened their belt a little.

“Transactional work where there’s reliance on banks for funding was hit initially,” she says. “People just stopped doing stuff. But that improved. We’re also strong in property development, which banks will still not support. We and our clients have found other routes. We’ve also found other real estate products to deal in. We have a good reputation nationally now for ground rent sales and are working with a number of funds in the City.

We looked for new clients, new workstreams, and at how we could help our clients further.” Ability to offer London clients service at Newcastle rates has been helpful.

“Revenue levels within all the disciplines are fine,” she says. “People say there’s no construction going on but the revenue is still there. And, if you’re lucky enough to be an employment lawyer you can do fantastically well.” If the Budget improves business it will be good for lawyers, too. But 50,000 people are still being made redundant in the public sector, she reminds us. All in all, though, she thinks there’ll be cause for cheer when the firm’s latest accounts are filed, and Spence Watson might feel proud if he saw the firm’s progress in general.

“We’re not resting on our laurels,” she says. “We need always to look forward, building the business for clients and staff so we have another 200 years of success. You have to keep reinventing yourself.”