Yorkshire’s reputation as a centre of legal excellence is well deserved. But there are new strategies within the sector, as Judit Petho told Mike Hughes over lunch.
There is a certain conviction in CEO Judit Petho’s eyes when she says her company does things differently. We would all say that if we were pitching to a client. But her belief in what she is doing suggests Leeds-based Genus Law is not so much rewriting the rulebook for law firms as writing an entirely new chapter.
The starting points, quickly arrived at after a chance conversation just over a year ago with chairman Jag Mundi, are transparency and structure. There is no billing by the hour with its inevitable uncertain end figure, and the business puts aside the partnership model in favour of a management structure that follows that of corporate organisations.
So is that it? No – Judit is ‘it’ with her vision, international experience at the highest level and a determination to create something very different from scratch.
“My background was always with larger organisation – which I enjoyed – but I always felt it would be quite nice to build something up from the ground. I had the idea, but I was never really brave enough to do that myself,” Judit told me at The West Park hotel in Harrogate.
“About 18 months ago I was talking to some people in private equity and they said I should think about going back into the legal industry because it was a very interesting place with all sort of things happening. But they found it difficult to identify legal providers they would be happy to invest in because the conversations with partnerships was difficult. But because my background was across legal, economics, business and strategy I spoke the language they wanted to speak.
“I then came across people who had invested in Genus Law and Jag the chairman and I started talking to him about what he was doing. Really quickly - within a couple of minutes of the discussion - we realised we had very similar ideas.
“We knew that because law firms develop organically over decades, it is not always best practice or how a business should be run. Because the environment and the legislation had changed, you can set up these ABSs (Alternative Business Structures) which allow you to set up a proper company structure not run by a lot of people all trying to come up with ideas.
“We started developing the vision and then the strategic plan to get us there. For me the biggest challenge has come because I have not been used to operating in such a small environment and having to carry so many different tools to do as many functions as you can think of.”
This is a challenge many business leaders face, but one that Judit relishes. Stepping out of your comfort zone can be fine if it means going bungee-jumping, or taking part in a sleepout for charity. The real discomfort is if you choose major unpredictable change as a career, when the option is to sit back, count the money and occasionally innovate just to keep your hand in.
“In many ways it is living up to its expectations. What is difficult is not what I am trying to do, but doing all things at the same time because you want to go really fast, but you are building products that no one else has on the market, so that juggling has to take place at the same time as finding out what the client wants.
“We wanted to turn everything on its head, which you cannot do if you go into an already-established business. Change can be really difficult because even if everyone kind of wants it there is always somebody who finds it too difficult and will sabotage it. It is a very emotional thing.”
For Judit, dealing with that very personal side of running a business started with changing the payment system, to free up her team to do what they are best at and to allow a little personal freedom into what can be a tightly-bound structure.
“I wasn’t interested in how many hours can be put on the clock. I wanted to align my lawyers with the client’s own interests and measure them based on their revenue as opposed to how much time they spend in the office, then I free them up to concentrate on actually solving the problems and delivering the solutions as opposed to the mechanics of it.
“I can also accommodate more flexible work arrangements, because the world has changed and people enjoy spending more time with their families, or going to a concert, or picking up their child from school.”
Unsurprisingly, the approach has been popular as far as recruiting is concerned. Judit sees every potential new recruit, which helps satisfy that desire to be the designer and builder of the Marshalls Mill based firm.
“The initial team is absolutely critical, as it sets the tone for the rest of the growth. I wanted a team around me who wanted the same things, to innovate and do it differently. Some really great people have joined us over the last six or seven months, who don’t think that business development happens on a golf course.
“I encourage them to bring their own passions into work because it makes people happier and can help give them more of an insight into a client’s needs.
“The clients are also really engaging with it and it seems we are just what they hoped they would find. Client relationship management is really important, but doesn’t have to be done by a lawyer. Whoever does it needs to understand the client’s business enough to direct the right question to the right person on our team.”
Judit once accused managers of using strategies as “a sexy, misty exercise....a grandiose away day”, so how does she see the future for Genus? “It will evolve because we are building it up, growing and adjusting as we go along. We are not a gimmick, we want to change the profession in a way that makes sense, so the interaction between lawyer and client is still really relevant but without the time pressure.
“It is not some crazy internet-based set-up, it is just trying to make more sense out of a business model and provide added value. Clients’ attitudes have changed a lot over the last few years, they now have way more power over their service providers and are much more sophisticated.”
The future will almost certainly involve an amount of international work. Even after such a short space of time, Genus has many national clients and international interest, but having gone from Hungary to France to Britain and to Germany, Judit herself has the perfect international credentials to handle that.
That reputation is boosted again by being in Leeds, which Judit says is “a massive advantage” for the firm. “We will open up in London as well, but the more I talk to clients there the more I realise what an incredibly strong base Leeds is. There are so many highly qualified experienced lawyers here, who have worked for really good firms and are very switched on. The pool of people I can draw on is really good.
“I think it is also good that people get to work in a number of different cities because you
have more idea about how to go about solving a problem.”
The idea that Judit’s pride in her success might be enhanced because she is a woman is immediately rebuffed. For her the idea that sexism still exists and that she should be applauded more loudly than her male peers is to be ridiculed. Her father didn’t believe it and neither does she. He believed in her ability to live up to her full potential. “It never came up, wasn’t even discussed,” she says. “That’s why I think our parents – our fathers – have such an important role in people’s lives whether they are girls or boys. If you don’t even make it an issue then it is not going to hold you back. “I don’t think ‘Oh my God, I’m a woman and I have achieved all this’. I do what I enjoy doing, that is what is driving me and if I don’t do something to help me achieve the things I want then that is when I feel frustrated. I need to express my own drive.”
Relaxation comes in the form of T’ai chi, the Chinese martial art, philosophy and meditation system. Judit has been practising for four years and finds it keeps her “fit and focussed” and helps her maintain a balance in her life. Friends are also important, and sitting in a coffee shop “observing” with them is hugely enjoyable.
Travel and art help as well to broaden her views and her experience of how people work and interact. There is certainly something of the psychologist about Judit.
She is too experienced – too good at her job – to be regarded merely as a challenging voice in the legal sector. There are many out there who will make a loud noise about change and evolution in a sector and who will attract the headlines and the initial interest.
It takes a Petho and a Genus to make the sort of waves that will change landscapes.