The Big Interview: Gillespie Macandrew chief executive Robert Graham-Campbell

Robert Graham-Campbell didn't study law, but he says being an outsider brings a slightly different perspective to the business. Picture: Simon Williams
Robert Graham-Campbell didn't study law, but he says being an outsider brings a slightly different perspective to the business. Picture: Simon Williams
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Amid an evolving Scottish law sector where many native names have been swallowed up in takeover deals, Gillespie Macandrew chief executive Robert Graham-Campbell stresses that the firm is determined to stay independent.

It has no intention of merging, he says. Instead, efforts are being channelled into developing its existing areas, “rather than diversify and try and take on different legal skills or approach different sectors”, which could “dilute” its offering.

The strategy is bearing fruit, evidenced by its figures, he adds. The firm, which has offices in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Perth, last month reported its sixth consecutive year of growth, continuing to focus on expanding organically. Turnover for the 12 months to 28 February showed a year-on-year rise of nearly 6 per cent to £12 million. Profit was not disclosed, but was up by 8 per cent.

Graham-Campbell took the helm at the end of last year, becoming the firm’s second non-legal chief executive after Chris West. The appointment broke new ground among Scots law firms, the first to have both the CEO and chair roles (the latter held by Fiona Morton, a surveyor by trade) filled by non-legals.

But it’s a situation that Graham-Campbell, who read economics at the University of Cambridge, points out is more commonplace south of the Border.

That is driven by the opinion that lawyers “should be unencumbered by management and all the responsibilities that go with that if it distracts them from doing what they’re very good at, which is client work and practising law”. Bringing in an outsider perhaps brings a “slightly different” perspective.

He took up the role having been a Gillespie Macandrew client, “and a happy client at that”. The appointment also saw him return to Scotland, where he was born but moved south of the Border shortly thereafter, later becoming a chorister at Windsor Castle.

Gillespie Macandrew was not his first time in the chief executive seat at a law firm, most recently leading Pemberton Greenish, a specialist real estate, private wealth and corporate law firm based in central London. It started out in 1775 and its client base includes the Cadogan, Portman and Crown estates.

“Essentially, it wasn’t very different from Gillespie Macandrew in that [its work and areas] were principally property, private clients and small corporate practice,” and like the Scottish firm, “very much acknowledged as a leader in its specialist fields”, he says.

After six years there he sought out a new challenge, and when he saw his current role advertised, having previously met West to explore the Scottish market and opportunities, he “jumped at the chance”.

Graham-Campbell was attracted by what he sees as its robust reputation in its specialist areas. These include energy – with this team completing more than 200 such projects last year with a global development value exceeding £3 billion – plus its land and rural business and private client activity.

And he sees great potential for Gillespie Macandrew to develop. “It’s refreshingly ambitious to try to modernise and evolve rather than sit on its laurels – especially in a marketplace that is evolving and developing.”

The firm rebranded in September, consolidating its Gillespie Macandrew and Hunters Residential operations.

And it said when reporting its latest annual results that it continues to be debt-free and has strong cash balances, enabling it to invest in the likes of IT.

Graham-Campbell believes the role of IT is about improving services to clients, “not necessarily about replacing staff and lawyers”, with PwC recently publishing a report finding that artificial intelligence alone is expected to create a net benefit of 15,000 jobs in Scotland by 2037.

Automation is expected to help boost margins for law firms amid prolonged economic turbulence, and many in Scotland have entered into mergers to add muscle and increase their reach.

These include Dundas & Wilson, whose roots date back to 1759, merging with CMS, Maclay Murray & Spens with Dentons, and McGrigors teaming up with Pinsent Masons in 2012. All deals saw the Scottish firm take on the name of the other party.

Looking broadly at the raft of M&A activity in Scotland, Graham-Campbell stresses that he can’t speak on behalf of the sector, but says that some of the acquisitions in recent years have been “more out of distress rather than strength”.

And while rejects the idea of a merger for Gillespie Macandrew, he doesn’t rule out the option of inking acquisitions.

M&A is an area he specialised in at Scottish investment bank Flemings, now part of JP Morgan, his first employer having decided to pursue finance as a career over music.

It started out in Dundee in 1873, later moving its headquarters to London. “It was a firm that was said to have worn its Scottishness on its sleeve and I think that is indeed true,” which indeed extended to a piper playing every morning in the atrium, Graham-Campbell says.

His duties included advising former plc Boots, now part of Walgreens Boots Alliance, and work on pharma giant Wellcome’s acquisition by Glaxo, for example, and he was involved in privatising the English water companies (“for my sins”). There were also spells abroad, including Trinidad on secondment to help restructure its economy.

He developed a taste for management, and resigned a few months after the business was sold to Chase Manhattan in 2000, as he had been tasked with staying in healthcare and working on the integration, which he felt was a “retrograde step”.

The next move was into professional services management, selected to be the first chief executive of large, London-based barristers chambers Seven Bedford Row.

It was known for its work on crime and clinical negligence, and under his leadership developed a “very strong” profile in regulatory crime. “It proved to be a very rewarding role, and one of which I’m particularly proud.”

After five years he moved to Maitland Chambers, which also proved a learning curve. Management meetings were a challenging environment, facing highly experienced advocates, “who would cross-examine you with all their skill, which always meant I had to prepare very well for every meeting”.

He then decided to jump ship to the solicitor side of the profession, with its much larger scale meaning it offered up many more opportunities.

In terms of operating in the world of law without a formal qualification in the subject, he points out that in legal practice you have a vast resource of legal skills.

He’s picked up technical knowledge along the way, and had instructed law firms as an M&A banker. “I had an understanding of how clients view law firms from the outside looking in – now I was in the inside more looking out.”

Some chief executives who come into new areas say their lack of in-depth training can be an advantage, meaning they don’t get weighed down by the technical detail and are able to focus on strategy. Is that the case here?

“I would like to think so,” Graham-Campbell says. “But in practice you do get involved in both detail and high-level strategy especially in a smaller firm. I can’t just ignore some of the detail.”

One tricky adjustment was his move from investment banking and giving advice to other organisations, to taking decisions within his own business. “The consequences stay with you – and that’s particularly true, of course, in a law firm where many of the partners are actually owners of the business as well. It’s a bit like having your shareholders sitting in the next door office,” laughs the chief executive, who is not part of Gillespie Macandrew’s partnership.

The firm’s headcount is about 150, and although Graham-Campbell declines to give a target, its plan to grow its presence in Glasgow and Dundee will involve some boosting the ranks. “I think to be successful as a law firm, it isn’t just about size alone. I really think it’s about doing what you do really well. So growing bigger for the sake of being bigger isn’t our strategy.

“What we really are wanting to achieve is, I think the same as any good CEO wants, to continue to evolve our business to meet the clients’ needs, make it a place where the best people want to come and work… and therefore deliver long-term and of course profitable growth, rather than size for size’s sake – or necessarily trying to worry about where we sit in rankings with competitors.”