Over a Leeds lunch, BQ Yorkshire Editor Mike Hughes discusses the changing face of law with Roger Hutton of Clarion.
With cameras in court and an incoming wave of IT heading for its shores, there certainly seems to be a clarion call for change in the legal sector. So it seems fitting that my lunch guest Roger Hutton is joint managing partner with Clarion Law – and that the most recent Chambers report said the firm was “quite good at explaining things in layman’s terms...”
Roger’s firm has had a strong start to the year, with one division securing £200m worth of transactions within the first three months, so what’s the secret? “The market is changing and I think Clarion has a very particular place in that market,” he says, at our private dining table in The Oak Room at Quebecs in Leeds city centre. “It has established itself as a provider of legal services, and I am pretty confident we know exactly who we are selling to and why they are buying from us, having done a lot of work on why people choose us and what we can offer them.
“We have finally got it right and the legal market is helping us because it is in a state of change and for us the big national firms are typically less focused on regional businesses or certainly less hungry about them, which creates a space for independent legal practices to succeed.”
This move towards personalised services throughout every sector is growing. The cut-price mass market approach was seen as the only way to make huge inroads into a crowded sector, but now the customer has so much choice that he is looking for a supplier who knows his business from back to front and will deliver only precisely what is needed. The tailor-made strategy is also improving customer relations, making future contracts more likely which is helping suppliers plan ahead.
“We have spent a long time doing it – and none of it is rocket science – but in a fairly sleepy profession not really up for change it has put us ahead of the curve,” explains Roger, who is looking particularly chipper – impressive for someone who only recently decided to become a dad and a husband within the same 18 months.
“We are unusual in that, during the recession, we recruited a load of junior partners who were feeling uneasy or were surplus to requirements at the national firms. They would then go to their big clients and tell them about this single site offering in Leeds they might never have heard of and ask if they would take a risk and bring their business to us for two-thirds of the price.
“This was unashamedly selling on price, and we did it to 30, 40 or 50 blue chip firms and that has meant we now have a raft of a dozen or so high-quality partners serving really big clients.
“Then you can take that to the owner-managed businesses and show them this success and – unless they need a national brand or a multi-site office in which case we are out – we tell them we will invest a lot of time in the relationship over the next ten or 15 years.”
This is back to the early ideals of small businesses, which engendered a sense of trust and partnership because each side meant something to the other. For a magazine focusing so much on entrepreneurs, it’s a joy to see the strategy making such a comeback.
“Most of the work we are winning is from the £10m-£100m businesses and we are taking that from the national firms because we talk about the relationship and how the big firms might not really know the right contacts and who your competitors really are regionally.”
His profile on the Clarion homepage underlines the point, saying: “Ultimately success comes from getting under the skin of a situation quickly and understanding exactly what my client really wants both now and in the longer term. Whether working with the leading insolvency practitioners or directors in difficult circumstances in excess of 20 years of experience has taught me that recognising a problem or a desired outcome early is the best approach.” For him and his team, growth isn’t the be-all and end-all of what they do.
“I think if we can get the right people and the right culture, then it sustains the business. That approach has given us a distinct personality which is perhaps quiet-minded, quite casual and collegiate. Everyone can see our figures at any stage – it is certainly not hierarchical.
“So if you get two 40-year-olds walking through the door, one might want to see rows of books behind a lot of grey hair and someone telling them they have done it 30 times before. Or they might want someone who will engage with them empathetically and are more energised and more integrated in their approach, more casual and look a bit younger. It’s horses for courses.”
Roger knows that is the easy bit – telling someone how different you are and pointing out where your competitors aren’t as strong as you. The test is to back that up with an outstanding customer experience.
The front office facade might be polished and shiny, but you won’t get any money from your customer if the next five doors they are shown through don’t match up, until you get to the boardroom, which is polished and shiny again.
“As lawyers we have a fair degree of autonomy, as long as the figures are alright. There is a freedom of expression and our junior lawyers get much more access to clients than in some practices. We also hold a meeting every Wednesday morning where the entire firm turns up to discuss sales and matters of interest to our clients.
Clarion’s entrepreneurial image is obviously paying dividends, judging by that £200m worth of deals for its corporate team and a surge in mergers and acquisitions. That means it is attracting like-minded companies who sense a connection. It’s that sort of direct, measurable link that has got Clarion‘s senior team excited about the coming few years.
“We act for a large amount of the digital marketing community in Leeds and have clients in leisure and fintech and tend to work for innovative companies rather than the more traditional manufacturing businesses, although we have a lot of family-owned businesses looking at generational change and preparing for the future,” says Roger, who isn’t looking at all sleep-deprived as his chicken course is served.
That way family firms are changing is something that will chime with many law firms who would find it difficult to predict how they will be operating in five years. Like many of those generational firms, they are braced for upheaval that could mean the end of an era for some rusty old Rumpoles.
“We have just done the first phase of an IT rollout and next year our strategy is to put in a whole new system,” he says. “The trick is that this becomes an opportunity for your communication strategy with your clients to become a differentiator. What information you give your clients and at what speed is important and many practices are years behind with that – and yet it is always one of the top issues when you survey clients.
“I remember a few years ago having piles of paper around me and someone invented a fax machine – it was infuriating because when you got a letter you had seven days before they bothered chasing you. Now you were forced to get a response out within 48 hours.
“Then emails came along and if you haven’t responded four or five hours later there is a chasing email... and texts are even worse!”
To keep pace with this level of change, there needs to be a suitably-equipped stream of new talent coming into Yorkshire’s law firms. “We have good relationships with the suppliers of good young lawyers, but the market is increasingly over-supplied because there is an increasing number of young people who want to become lawyers – which is great – but not enough jobs so there is an over-supply of students.
“Interestingly, more and more of those successfully coming through are women, reflected in the fact that more than 70% of Clarion’s staff are female. I think essentially you will see a demographic of students doing law that are successful at a certain age and pass their exams after four to five years and interview well. At the age of 21 to 23, the girls are more mature, sophisticated and organised than the boys.”
Roger believes that, in those rising overall numbers of potential staff, there is an element who are leaving but not really knowing what they want to do. Law still has the promise of a long and solid career, so they take a conversion course lasting a couple of years at the most, and move over from their intended discipline.
The benefit of that is law firms end up with more rounded characters who have experience of other areas – and who make up the majority of lawyers at Clarion.
One recruitment challenge comes from the practice of north-shoring - the process of moving certain aspects of a southern-based business up North. The problem with that is that the people who then become potential recruits up here, while very skilled technically, have less and less client experience and people skills because their jobs have never required it in the less forward-thinking South.
Personally, Roger had always fancied being a lawyer (“maybe I just like the sound of my
own voice...”) despite dad being a teacher and mum working in a mill. “They’d have been amazed if they thought I would end up as the managing partner in a decent law firm,” he says modestly.
“I had tried to get into Oxford but didn’t make it, so did a history degree but then converted to Law and got to be quite good at it quite easily. I thought I might be a barrister, but then a guy at Squire’s asked if I would come for an interview. “I wasn’t really bothered and I think when you feel like that you often do better at the interview and he offered me a job. I left after four or five years because I wanted to be at the top somewhere, so I first went into industry in Penistone.
“The thing I noticed was that we would be sitting in a meeting waiting for a lawyer to turn up and my MD would say ‘he’s just going to waste an hour and half, then tell us why we can’t do things and then write us a bill.
“It became one of my life ambitions for the client to be pleased a lawyer is going to turn up and maybe even tell them something that might make them a bit richer or their lives a bit happier.
“So now my day job is insolvency, which is in a wholly transitioned and very competitive marketplace. After the crash produced such a backlash, the banks are much more reticent now to let a business go down.... or if it does go down they don’t want to be responsible for it.
“I think lenders had quite rightly figured out that putting businesses through the hands of the professionals to go through a formal involvency was too expensive a strategy. So I think most businesses in distress don’t go through a formal process now and one agency or another spots their distress and helps them at the right stage.
“Now there is a more sophisticated dialogue towards positive resolutions, so there is less insolvency work around, which is good for the economy. Criteria for lending have also been relaxed quite dramatically, which is actually quite worrying because 15 months ago they weren’t going to lend a penny to them.”
But he adds one concerning observation after so much time working with the sector: “One thing we have found as well is that many banks are phasing out their relationship managers and reinvesting in regulatory compliance to tackle the likes of cybercrime.”
There are two sides to that wave of IT change – as well as the ‘good guys’ needing to embed it in their own operations and make them as efficient and secure as their clients would expect, it also means the ‘bad guys’ are becoming more sophisticated and a new level of counter-thinking is needed from that stream of new talent working alongside more experienced colleagues.
Bradford-born and a dedicated Yorkshireman, he loves sport, but often from the armchair or a seat in the stands for his cricket, apart from a bit of golf and squash. Further away from the office, he is trying to keep fit so that he can make the most of his time with his baby daughter Hattie.
“My dad was a teacher in the Moravian settlement in Pudsey – he got shot out in Italy and thought he was going to die, but came back to teach in the same place for 60 years.
“He is now 98 and his dad had him when he was 49, he had me when he was 49 and I had Hattie when I was 49, so there has always been a big generational spread.
Having been managing partner for just over a year, a husband for just a few weeks and a dad for only 18 months, Roger Hutton is busy but very happy. If people asked ‘what do you do – you look a bit like a lawyer’ I think he would be disappointed. He is obviously very good at a job he has a great deal of passion for, but his skills are much broader than the sector he works in and that sector is brighter for it.
Quebecs in Quebec Street in Leeds city centre is the imposing former home of the Leeds and County Liberal club – and it maintains a feeling of long-held quality, quiet respect and good service, led by general manager John Weatherhead.
The only independently owned luxury hotel in the city centre, it was voted by Conde Nast Traveller as one of the top 80 hotels in the world and by the Independent as one of the 50
best in Britain. Distinctive terracotta brickwork dominates the street and welcomes you through an elaborate entrance with wrought iron gates flanked by Corinthian columns.
Inside there is a sweeping oak staircase leading past five huge stained-glass windows illustrating the coat of arms of five Yorkshire towns, and on to our dining table in the former Liberal Club committee room clad in oak panelling. Very splendid.
As was the food, served with a politeness and efficiency befitting the 4-star surroundings. Roger agreed with me that duck and champagne terrine, rocket and caramelised red onion was excellent, and while we both opted for the generous cheeseboard as dessert, my main was a beautiful Cumberland sausage with creamy mashed potato, with a red wine sauce and French onions.
Roger went for the chargrilled fillet of chicken marinated in lemon and coriander with a Thai red risotto. Delicious.
It was a relaxed and peaceful conversation with the discreet privacy business leaders would expect when meeting clients.
For longer stays, the hotel has 44 rooms and its owners have just bought the Old Post Office building in City Square Leeds, which dates back to the 19th Century and underwent a £6.3m refurbishment in 2005 to create 23 serviced apartments, known as Residence 6.
With confidence and growth plans like that, Quebecs is illustrating a commitment to the city that we both wholeheartedly applaud along with our meals.