Brave New World

Brave New World

Law firms have undergone rapid changes during Martin Soloman’s tenure at the helm of one of the region’s longest established firms, he tells Andrew Mernin.

For Martin Soloman the perfect antidote to a working life spent indoors is climbing mountains, especially in Switzerland and France. So no chance the mere blanket of snow and travel chaos that precedes our lunch will stop him from turning up.

And so it transpires. “The best thing about living in Gosforth is how close it is to work – that’s also the worst thing,” he tells me as we’re ushered to our table in Marco Pierre White’s latest venture in Newcastle’s Hotel Indigo.

Soloman has, for almost 30 years, been a one company man, having worked through the ranks at Newcastle law firm Hay & Kilner. Much has changed at the business since the Welshman left his council job to seek his fortune in the private sector in the mid 1980s.

Now senior partner, he remembers fondly the days before the firm took up its vantage in the old brick of Newcastle’s Cloth Market some years ago. He recalls the mystique of the subterranean vault and specially built security tunnel at its former home in the one-time Bank of England building on nearby Grey Street.

But it’s not just the surrounds of his job that have changed over the years. “You used to hear a lot more people using the expression ‘the practice’ or ‘I practice’ rather than talking about us as a business. There was no marketing department back then either. “Now we continually talk about our business and our business development.”

This shift in commercial awareness among law firms is perhaps most noticeable at the level of senior partner. It’s a role far more focused today on revenues and image than it was in the era when Soloman joined.

“I always feel the need to spend more time on business development because you can never spend enough. I have a substantial management role but also do a lot of client work, and am still acting for clients I acted for in 1985.

“A lot of people assume that if you’re in my position there are so many things you have to do in management terms that you can’t then do client work. Just yesterday I was speaking to a client I first acted for in 1985 and I’ve done work for him in every year since. So I suppose the answer to finding a balance is that I work quite a long day. To do both client work and the management work means you have to put quite a lot of time in.

“If you go back to the early 1980s you would build working relationships with people, but the concept of customer relationship management (CRM) and having strategies to doing seminars and the wide range of other activities didn’t exist.

“Would an interview like this have happened in the 1980s? I suspect not.”

So does he pine for the days filled purely with client work? “Occasionally, but things change at a faster pace now and I’m a person who likes change.” Among the numerous specialisms Soloman has picked up in his years at Hay & Kilner, is intellectual property (IP).

“When I first started doing it in the mid to late 1980s there were certain types of sectors very attuned to the need to have IP. But in the last 10 years or so there has been a perceptible change – namely, that a lot of people including start-up businesses, individuals, and companies in all sectors consciously ask themselves what they should do to protect things, and whether something someone else is doing is contravening their rights.

“It has broadened out in terms of the awareness of people’s rights, and their wish and willingness to protect their IP in the first place.” In more general terms, Soloman has witnessed a streamlining of court proceedings during his tenure.

“Changes to the courts have taken place in recent years to make parties to disputes more focused on trying to find solutions rather than going through the different stages of the court process, and the inevitable trial at the end. While I would say that was still actively practiced in the early 1980s, it is more actively done so now.”

Soloman was raised in the 1970s and ‘80s “in the bottom left hand corner of Wales” – a land of “dramatic peninsula with dramatic coastline” - if somewhat limited career prospects. In Pembrokeshire, and later as a student in Kent then Liverpool, his working life began with a crash course in mundane jobs – including cheese factory worker, “highly motivated dishwasher” and scaffolder’s mate on an oil refinery.

He moved to the North East and a position in Newcastle City Council’s planning department. Today he follows avidly the current plight of his former employer as it makes a reported £100m worth of cuts and 1,300 redundancies over the next three years: “The council faces huge challenges which may impact on us all in a number of ways.”

After three years in the public sector he joined Hay & Kilner. “I guess law was something I always wanted to do. “You do get the opportunity to make a big difference to a person’s life, hopefully in a positive way, which is very satisfying.

“You quickly become conscious you can deal with a wide range of situations and issues, intellectually or factually, and a wide range of personal issues. You meet and deal with a huge variety of people. We all say we’re interested in people, which we are, but it’s particularly interesting if you get to know lots of different people in lots of different situations. In generic terms I’d say that’s my career highlight.

The law firm Soloman joined in 1984 employed around 50 people and had been largely static in terms of size for several years prior. It is now back up to its pre-recessionary size, with a 160-strong workforce, having spent the last three decades expanding its commercial capacity like most upwardly mobile law firms that lived through the 1980s and ‘90s.

“There has been a consistent but steady development of a greater degree of specialisms within law over the years,” Soloman says. “Our markets when I first joined were probably residential property and conveyancing. We also did a lot of personal injury litigation. “Then in the early to mid 1990s there was significant growth in commercial legal services. So we now do a lot more for a wide range of partnerships in all sectors. In addition, we’ve seen significant growth in demand for private client services - not just in residential property but wealth management, wills and trusts and other related issues.”

Future plans for the firm don’t include rapid national rollouts with new offices elsewhere in the UK or beyond. Rather, Soloman believes the firm is at an optimum size and made up of the right mix of expertise to continue to prosper in what are difficult economic times for the region.

“We’re big enough to have genuine experienced specialists in all the necessary areas. And we’re able, because of our size, to deliver that in a very personal and committed way. If you look at the nature of the North East market, with a lot of SMEs, owner managers and private clients, that method of delivery is what people here look for.”

While there are no plans for a mass recruitment drive, Soloman says the firm will look to add the right people should they become available at the right time. Such appointments in recent years have included the addition to the Hay & Kilner team of Richard Freeman-Wallace, the prominent commercial property lawyer, and Alison Hall, a private capital expert who also chairs regionally the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners.

In general, Soloman says, the movement of legal heavyweights between firms is a modern phenomenon. “Probably until the last 10 to 15 years it was relatively rare to take people from other firms but not now.”

He recoils at the term ‘poaching’. “I’m not sure I see it as that. Perhaps it’s people feeling they’ve achieved what they can at another firm and that they could achieve more somewhere else maybe?”

Also changing in the battle to snare the best available talent is a weakening in the pay demands of law men and women. “Salary expectations have changed, although salary aspirations haven’t,” he says.

“Lawyers are no different to everybody else, and most people have had to adjust their expectations haven’t they? The recession has resulted in the need for everybody in life to reflect and adjust their expectations. Lawyers are no different.”

Acquiring young talent, meanwhile, remains the lifeblood of any law firm looking to cement its long term future. As talk turns to the dire situation facing today’s law school leavers, the sky outside blackens and the winter downpour begins. Pathetic fallacy, as an A-Level study guide might say.

But it’s not a completely lost cause for budding bar members. Although Soloman admits to a notable adjustment in the profession - at a time when young people dominate the dole queue – his firm is not alone in maintaining its commitment to creating new positions for promising stars. “In general I think it is a significant concern for the country to get lots of talented young people with the opportunity to use their talents,” he says.

“We’ve just had two trainees qualify for us and there were genuine jobs for them with a future in the firm at the end of it. My feeling for the future is that, as a firm, there will be growing opportunities for young people to go in and make a career there.”

Demand for young talent is, however, being increasingly dwarfed by supply. For the two or three annual slots on Hay & Kilner’s graduate trainee scheme, the firm receives hundreds of applications a year, a number that’s growing. The lucky few that do make their way onto the career ladder are leaving university with a far wider skills set than in the past.

“There’s no substitute for learning on the job, but certainly young people coming into training in the profession know elements of business development and marketing are part of the job.”

No such luxury was afforded Soloman in his day. He’s had to learn the essential corporate skills along the way. With a foot in both camps – client work and business leadership – the senior partner says his days are marked by early starts and late finishes. He does, however, have time for more than a little goodwill in his life, through his role as chairman of North East-based charity The Sunshine Fund.

The charity, backed by ambassadors like Paralympian Stephen Miller and TV personalities Ant and Dec, is today in a relatively healthy position compared to many similar organisations facing an uncertain future in cash-strapped Britain. This is largely thanks to the generosity of fundraisers within the North East business community. But it wasn’t always so.

The charity was founded in 1928 by King George V when he visited Newcastle to open the Tyne Bridge. While there he donated £15 to give underprivileged children a day out to the coast. The Evening Chronicle newspaper adopted the idea of giving to children in the area.

The Evening Chronicle Sunshine Fund was thus established. But by the mid-1990s, when Soloman was approached by the then editor of the newspaper to get involved in re-establishing and growing the charity, it was struggling to survive.

He became chair in 2001 and it has recovered under his watch, with initiatives like this summer’s Go Bananas dress down day, and an annual Sunshine Run helping to provide specialised equipment to children with disabilities in the region.

“We’ve a very committed team and I would certainly say we’re in a stronger position this year than at this time last year.” And Soloman takes great pride in its continued success. “It’s very rewarding and there’s a sense of responsibility to it. We’ve helped an enormous amount of young individuals and their families over the years. Like everything else, of course, I could give it more time.

“The issue with doing a number of different things is that you can always see the scope to do more.”

With the suggestion of early retirement instantly shot down, Soloman looks likely to continue to tread this careful balance between client, corporate and charity work for some time yet.