Monday Interview: Lorne Crerar, Harper Macleod

Lorne Crerar has an appreciation of his connection to nature and the Highlands. Picture: Ross Gilmore
Lorne Crerar has an appreciation of his connection to nature and the Highlands. Picture: Ross Gilmore
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There are several reasons why Lorne Crerar ought to stock up on candles this year. Besides celebrating 25 years in business for Harper Macleod, the law firm he co-founded and chairs, there’s the tenth anniversary of the practice’s Inverness office and this month’s first birthday of its Thurso outpost.

But another significant, and rather more personal, milestone also beckons. At the end of July, one of Scotland’s highest profile solicitors, who for the past two years has also chaired Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), turns 60.

It’s a life event he appears comfortable with though there will be no stringing up of bunting and popping of party streamers at the Crerar household. With the Commonwealth Games in full flow – an event that the firm serves as legal adviser – a deal has been done.

“I’ve agreed at home that we are abandoning my birthday,” states Crerar. “It will not be mentioned until after the Games. I seldom insist on anything, but the horrors of becoming 60 can happen a week after the closing ceremony.”

Besides facing up to the “big one”, Crerar, whose other hats include chair of the Six Nations rugby disciplinary panel, is having to steer the business he founded with three others in a converted sandwich shop through one of the most turbulent periods in the profession’s history.

The fallout from the credit crisis and subsequent banking bailouts sparked a rush of mergers and takeovers, which has seen some long-established names swallowed up by larger UK and international players.

At the upper end of the size scale, Dundas & Wilson is poised to become part of the global CMS Cameron McKenna brand, the world’s tenth-largest law firm, while Pinsent Masons acquired Scots heavyweight McGrigors.

There have been other smaller-scale marriages and tie-ups, but Harper Macleod is holding its own in the crowded centre ground. Traditionally a Glasgow operator, it has seen strong growth in the east of the country, where its Edinburgh office has undertaken a string of key hires.

Fees for clients based in the east grew by 23 per cent last year to just under £4.6 million, accounting for more than a fifth of the firm’s overall turnover of £21m. Oil and renewables are proving fruitful areas for the Highlands operations.

It’s all a far cry from the early days, but the affable Crerar does not regret a minute of it, despite the initial challenges of going it alone.

“It doesn’t feel like 25 years since we set up the firm and it doesn’t feel like yesterday either,” he says. “Creating a new law firm then was utterly unheard of within a very traditional industry, though setting it up was actually a lot easier than I had anticipated.

“Legal services have expanded considerably since then and it has been a period of opportunity.”

There has been plenty of talk of excess capacity within the profession, with too many lawyers and too many firms, pointing to further consolidation.

The dilemma was highlighted recently by Harper Macleod’s chief executive, Martin Darroch, who suggested that there were also “too many firms around that do not have any differentiating factor”.

Research last week from Royal Bank of Scotland, a key lender to law firms, concluded that UK practices may need to cut about 5 per cent of jobs, including those at the very top of partnerships, in order to restore profitability battered by the economic downturn.

Crerar talks of a “market revolution” since 2008 and says his own firm has had to undertake some tactical changes. “The past six years or so have been interesting,” he muses. “It has been quite hard for a lot of firms to change direction because of the traditional partnership structure. But we have always been pretty nimble and have a strong balance sheet and a strong brand. We could see what was going to happen and retrained about 20 per cent of our lawyers that were corporate focused and put them into more litigious areas, realising that the wheel wasn’t going to turn back.”

He says the firm, which has a 300-strong headcount with 50-odd partners, has adopted a more short-term approach amid the volatile backdrop.

“If I was to predict where the market will be in five years time then I would just be a betting man. It’s more about next year or the year after.

“The challenge for us is that it is very difficult to know who the opposition will be. We are much more of an SME business and have a very sector focused approach. Clients want you to understand fully the markets in which they operate.”

Crerar is equally effusive of his role chairing HIE where he has been a board member for three years, describing it as “a great job”. It must help that he has an insatiable passion for the Highlands and in particular the Gairloch where he can indulge in a bit of hillwalking and sailing.

The HIE work typically takes up a day and a bit of his working week, but can be for longer, particularly when the travelling is factored in.

“I have had a lot of public appointments since I was about 40,” reflects Crerar. “I really enjoy business and I really enjoy the Highlands, which is home. HIE delivers what it is about and makes a difference and when you get to my stage in life you find that making that difference is very important.”

There are no plans to sail off into some Hebridean sunset – not yet anyway. He sees the twin chairmanships at Harper Macleod – named firm of the year at the recent Scottish Legal Awards – and HIE as “synergistic” and still relishes the cut and thrust of the legal world.

“Being a chairman of a law firm is all about being around and in touch with what is happening – engaging with people. Being a founding partner has its advantages. Having been there since the start, you get a feel for what is right for the business. It also gives you an aspect of credibility.”

Crerar, or rather Professor Crerar, having been a visiting lecturer at the University of Glasgow since the early 1980s, believes those now coming into the profession face far more hurdles than in his student days, but is insistent it remains a “brilliant” career to choose.

“It was my dream at school to go to university and do law and it has done me well,” he says. “It’s a great discipline and orders your mind, and that has always been the case. However, we are producing hundreds of graduate lawyers who want to practise in Scotland and those aspirations are just not fulfillable at the moment.

“The market is shrinking and the number of providers is shrinking. The opportunities to do well in law will become smaller. The successful lawyers in 15 to 20 years’ time will be legal entrepreneurs.”

30-second CV

When/where were you born? Renfrew, 1954.

Education: Kelvinside Academy.

First job: Factory labourer.

Ambition while at school: To be a lawyer and international rugby player.

Kindle/tablet or book? Both.

Music: Capercaillie and Scottish ceilidh/folk music.

Favourite movie: Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence.

Can’t live without: My memories, my wife, Baos my dog, my friends – and my PA.

Favourite place: The Shiant Islands, Harris.

What makes you angry? Missed opportunities.

Best thing about your job: Being one of the creators of a business now employing 300 and helping Harper Macleod make the most of new opportunities.

Hobbies: Outdoors, sailing, hillwalking, fishing and just being in Wester Ross.

What car do you drive? Range Rover.