The Big Interview: Lesley Larg, managing partner at law firm Thorntons

Lesley Larg is managing partner at Thorntons, having started in the role in June of this year – and the first woman at the full-service Scottish law firm to hold the post.

The intellectual property specialist joined the firm in 2001, and the appointment to her current post was announced in February, when Thorntons also unveiled its results for the year to May 31, 2020.

It saw 2.6 per cent growth in turnover to £30.5 million, with profits increasing by 12 per cent, adding that firm “remained on a firm financial footing” as a result of its five-year strategic plan.

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Thorntons, which says it is now one of the largest firms of its kind in Scotland with 60 partners and more than 450 staff in 11 locations north of the Border, also said the results represent the first full year since it acquired the Edinburgh operation of Morisons LLP.

The businesswoman says Thorntons is currently seeing a lot of potential M&A activity in the market. Picture: Kris Miller.
The businesswoman says Thorntons is currently seeing a lot of potential M&A activity in the market. Picture: Kris Miller.
The businesswoman says Thorntons is currently seeing a lot of potential M&A activity in the market. Picture: Kris Miller.

It can trace its roots back to 1857 when Sir Thomas Thornton started his own legal business in Dundee, and in 2005 the company structure changed to Thorntons Law LLP from Thorntons WS.

You have recently taken the reins as managing partner, amid the firms’ 2025 goals to reach turnover of £60m, for example. What do you aim to achieve overall in the role, and how do you aim to help the business achieve its targets?

I have divided our strategic plan into two parts: the first is what I have termed "key foundations” from which we can grow. This includes plans around things like quality standards, equality, diversity and inclusion, the environment, and digital transformation.

The second part is our "routes to growth”, which includes plans for clients and sectors, services and solutions, people and culture, territories and marketplaces. While the turnover target of £60m demonstrates our level of ambition, it is the plans driving us towards this goal and the ability of our 530 people to deliver on them that really excites me.

There are certain key values that I hope will guide how I will deliver the role of managing partner: trust, ambition, empathy, integrity, being equitable, providing security and being progressive.

You are also the firm’s first female managing partner, saying you are proud to set an example for your daughters and inspire fellow women in the industry. Can you explain more about how significant a milestone you feel your appointment is, and what can be done to encourage more women into senior roles in the legal profession?

I take great pride in Thorntons having a diverse and inclusive work environment. In one sense, it feels a bit disappointing that my gender (in the context of leading a large law firm) has any relevance at all. I certainly hope there will be a time in the not-too-distant future where barriers to progress and inequities linked to gender have disappeared entirely – for now, the business community still has a way to go if that is to be achieved.

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I am seeing progress though, in terms of an increasing awareness of gender equity, supportive employers, policy development, more investment in female leadership, and a greater sharing of family responsibilities. I hope to use my experience and the challenges I have faced in my career to help give other women, including my daughters, the confidence and opportunities to succeed.

As well as prioritising gender equity it is also important not to lose sight of others who may be disadvantaged. For example, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are still typically under-represented in law firms, especially at senior level. I am committed to progressing equality, diversity and inclusion across all areas as an essential foundation of our business.

To what extent has Thorntons been affected by coronavirus? It said in its most recent annual results to May 2020 that the pandemic dragged on the final months of trading, but it also praised the positive impact of its investment in technology

Like pretty much all businesses we have been affected significantly by the pandemic, with large areas of revenue disappearing almost overnight. I remember Michael Gove closing down the estate agency and property markets on breakfast TV just as I was about to attend a virtual board meeting to discuss our pandemic projections (which we immediately ripped up).

The Scottish court system was the next thing to close down, which affected family law, private client, and commercial litigation areas. We were forced into very short-term financial planning cycles and had to ask our people to come on an uncertain journey with us, a step at a time, as we navigated the early stages of the pandemic.

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At the same time, we had transformed into a virtual law firm within 48 hours of lockdown, with almost all of our people working from home. For years we had been making significant investment in tech, otherwise it would have been far more operationally challenging for us than it turned out to be.

Not everything was perfect in our new way of working but the pace of tech adoption and the team collaboration that has happened in our business are two positive outcomes that we will take forward from this experience. Thankfully, in terms of trading, we are now seeing significant revenue growth in many of our areas.

Thorntons has grown through a series of strategic mergers and acquisitions (M&A), for example acquiring Morisons in 2019. What is your outlook for further such deals in the coming years?

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We have engaged in a lot of M&A activity in recent years with very well-respected names in the Scottish legal market like Morisons, Pagan Osborne, and Murray Donald. Further M&A is a key component of our strategic plan as a leading, independent, full-service Scottish law firm with a growing national presence.

We are currently seeing a lot of potential activity in the market with a number of firms facing succession challenges, operational and technology hurdles, or a desire to have the security of being part of something bigger. We are particularly interested in accelerating our growth in the Central Belt through M&A although we are actively looking at opportunities beyond this.

What attracted you to law in the first place and how has your career progressed to date? What would you go back and tell your younger self if you could?

I grew up in Dundee and went to what was probably at the time considered one of the worst-performing high schools in the city. Thanks to many inspiring teachers there, I became the first member of my extended family to attend university studying law.

Surrounded by what felt like the most incredibly confident and intelligent group of law students, many of whom had links to the legal profession, I felt like an imposter and pretty much remained silent for the first two years in university class.

Finally finding my voice, I secured a legal traineeship with Edinburgh-based Bell & Scott and could not have asked for a better introduction to the legal profession. There, I got the opportunity to work on intellectual property law matters for a venue at the Edinburgh Festival.

I loved it and started looking for a role specialising in this area of law. I was offered one in the newly formed intellectual property team in Thorntons. The rest, as they say, is Thorntons’ history, where over the last 20 years I have built one of the largest intellectual property practices in Scotland, headed up all of the commercial work types, and held various board positions in the business until taking up the managing partner role.

To my younger self I would say “worry less, be more courageous and confident” – there was never a single reason not to be.

Who do you admire in business?

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Lots of people. Taking the reins from our former managing partner Craig Nicol has been a huge honour, and I have always admired his authentic and relatable leadership style. Our late chair, Jack Robertson, who very sadly passed away last year, is someone I learned so much from and will forever admire.

Also close to home, Chris Martin of Waracle and Chris van der Kuyl of 4J Studios, who’ve shown huge ambition, championing local talent and initiatives while servicing global clients.

I also really admire John Reid who ran the Michelin Tyre Plant in Scotland for many years, and who fought unbelievably hard to build a lasting legacy resulting in the Michelin Scotland Innovation Parc.

What’s more, it’s hard not to admire some of the strong and empathetic leadership qualities that have been displayed by female leaders like Jacinda Arden, Kamala Harris, and Nicola Sturgeon in recent times.

Regarding the firm’s strategy to 2025, what would you like the firm to look like at that point?

Our plan is to keep building on the great work that has gone before. Continuing to deliver on our brand promise of “we do what’s right”. A progressive and prosperous business, relentlessly pursuing our purpose to help our clients, colleagues, and communities succeed.

A digitally transformed business working in true collaboration with our clients. A law firm that people love.

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