Outsider who believes that investment for growth is long road
DEPRESSED deal activity since the economic downturn has kept a tight lid on employment across the Scottish legal profession, but at least one of the country’s lesser-known firms has managed to raise both profits and staffing levels.
Jane Wright took the helm at Law At Work (LAW) in May 2010 in the full knowledge that she was expected to drive expansion at the fixed-fee specialist. Despite the pressures across the profession, she saw the opportunity to waken what many within the firm believe to be a sleeping giant.
“The quality was there, and that is always something I am interested in when it comes to any business,” says Wright, the first chief executive in LAW’s ten-year history to come from a non-legal background.
“My job is to lead them through a period of growth, and that is what I am doing.”
The figures certainly back up her claim. In the first year under Wright’s stewardship, the firm increased turnover by 23 per cent to £1.5 million, versus growth of 4.4 per cent the previous year. Profits moved ahead by 5.2 per cent.
Growth has continued into the current year, with six-month figures to November 2011 pointing towards continued expansion. For the whole of the first 18 months under Wright’s guidance, LAW’s turnover rose 20 per cent despite substantial investment in staff and IT systems.
“We are growing this year as well, although clearly we are only part-way through the financial year,” she says.
“It is not at the same pace as we saw last year, but it is still healthier than the 4.4 per cent growth we recorded in the 2010 financial period.”
The firm’s performance contrasts with that of the wider sector, whose fortunes have largely followed the downward spiral kicked off by the financial crisis.
Though the latest annual “Cost of Time” survey from the Law Society of Scotland showed a rise in average profits for the first time since 2008, that performance has been underpinned by cost controls.
Challenging market conditions have left few untouched, including LAW’s parent firm Maclay Murray & Spens. The Scottish Big Four firm saw a dip in both profits and turnover during 2010-2011.
Though majority-owned by Maclay Murray & Spens, Wright points out that LAW’s finances are detached from those of its parent. The specialist firm, whose directors have a minority stake, is a separate “small but growing” operation that is capitalising upon the demand for legal advice among Scottish employers.
“To me, what stands us apart from the rest is that we offer a genuinely high-quality service that is also fixed-fee, with no hidden costs. You have to have both to make this business work,” Wright says.
It might smack of marketing speak, but if so, Wright can be forgiven. Born and raised in Sheffield, her first job was a clerical post for the local council before successfully applying at the age of 25 for a sales position at GD Searle Pharmaceuticals.
From there, her career took her through training, sales and marketing roles in the drugs and beverages sector.
She first came to Scotland in 1990 while working for Glaxo, where she fell in love with the capital. Her work eventually took her back to London before a return in 2001 to oversee the regional integration of the mega-merger with SmithKline Beecham.
Having taken up what would prove to be a permanent residence in Edinburgh’s New Town, Wright joined spirits giant Diageo as national field sales director.
Despite a subsequent return to pharmaceuticals she kept her Scottish residence, though she rarely saw it.
“I probably only slept in my own bed twice a week,” she says of that period when she travelled to meet the demands of work.
It was during one long drive home, with her 50th birthday weeks away, that Wright decided she wanted a simpler life where she both resided and worked in the same country. She made some enquiries with a few personal contacts and eventually got in touch with head-hunters looking to fill the top post at LAW.
Staffing levels have increased from 19 to 27 during her tenure, including 13 legal professionals.
She expects to hire more lawyers following next month’s re-launch of an expanded health and safety operation.
Last year, less than 15 per cent of the fixed-price work that dominates LAW’s turnover came from the health and safety business. That is expected to rise to 20 per cent this year, with a target of 30 per cent.
Through this growth, however, Wright is keen to ensure that LAW keeps up its high level of customer retention and satisfaction. It is a point of pride with the firm that its first client, Connect Communications, is still on the books.
“My strategy is to invest for growth, and you do that by investing in superior service,” she says.
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