Interview: David Dunsire, executive partner at Tods Murray LLP

David Dunsire, managing partner of Tods Murray LLP
David Dunsire, managing partner of Tods Murray LLP
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Lawyerly man o’ business David Dunsire tells David Lee why he feels there’s light at the end of the legal tunnel

BACK in the day, the young lawyer David Dunsire fully understood he was not just a solicitor, but also a ‘man o’ business’. It wasn’t just about technical legal stuff, it was about all-round advice to a client. Today it would be called holistic service; 30 years ago, it was what lawyers did.

“One client would phone me four or five times a day when he was trying to get his business off the ground,” recalls Dunsire, now executive partner at Tods Murray LLP. “It wasn’t just legal advice, it was just someone to run an idea past, to give reassurance.”

Dunsire believes that this man o’ business is now returning to the profession: “Things have come full circle,” he says. “There is much more emphasis now on the soft skills – communication, client relations etc – that had perhaps been lost for a generation. The way forward is not just delivering the technical work, it’s about understanding a client’s business. It’s a return to the man o’ business who understood about advising and mentoring.”

The generation of lawyers who lived through the days of milk and honey didn’t have to fulfil that role – they could complete a transaction, whether a massive corporate deal or a house sale, then move on. Yes, some were conscious of the need to understand clients and their business in a more personal way, but that generation was largely dominated by transactions and financial outputs. “For that generation, that was all they knew – now it is about re-educating some fee-earners who worked through that,” says Dunsire.

He might be forgiven for looking back wistfully and thinking that it might have been nice to run Tods Murray during those days. Dunsire took over in 2008, just as the proverbial s**t hit the fan – and although the firm’s most recent results suggest an upturn, it has been exceptionally difficult for Tods Murray, and Dunsire personally.

The firm’s profits rose 50 per cent, to £3.1 million, in the 12 months to 31 March 2011, with turnover up 7 per cent to £13.1m. This was a significant recovery from the year ending March 2010, in which Tods Murray’s operating profit more than halved to £2.2m, partly because of the loss of Lehman Brothers as a client – a seismic change, considering revenue was £22.5m and net profit £8.6m as recently as 2007.

What was the hardest of the hard times? “Without doubt, that was making people redundant,” Dunsire says instantly. “It was the first time in our history we had to do that. We tried to be open and explain why.”

For a firm that prides itself on a collegiate atmosphere, the loss of almost 20 people hit Tods Murray hard – but Dunsire is convinced swift decision-making served the firm well in the long term. But there are still huge challenges ahead for the firm, and the whole sector. Dunsire believes there has been a psychological impact on the whole legal profession: “Things have changed and they are not going back to the way they were. But there have also been opportunities for the profession to look at itself. There are positives that have come out of taking a step back and questioning the ways things were done.”

Yet he says the lack of confidence in the economy is affecting everybody: “We saw a perceptible increase in activity in the second half of the last financial year but it’s stalled a bit in the last six months and the eurozone crisis is a big part of that. It’s really difficult to know how the rest of this year will go. Yes, we have had a good set of results but there is a degree of caution around that reflects the economic situation our clients are in.”

There is huge pressure on fees, Dunsire concedes: “We have to be more flexible on future arrangements. Everyone is under pressure to look at costs and we are part of that.”

So with less business about and pressure on fees, what makes Tods Murray stand out? “Quality,” says Dunsire simply. “That’s what we strive for, our reputation. It’s what we are known for and it’s important it isn’t compromised. We have lots of referrals to our banking and finance team from London city firms, and they need to know we can do the job correctly and well. And we are very committed to our people, to ensure that quality isn’t compromised. The quality of young people coming into the profession is exceptional.” Lapsing dangerously close to Whitney Houston, he adds: “These young people are so refreshing – and they are our future.”

Tods Murray runs an eight-week summer law school that Dunsire believes is unique in the profession, and leads to trainee interviews. Coming back to the man o’ business, he says: “Our training programme is not just about law, but business development, marketing and client relationships. You have to be much more focused and clued up about what clients want.”

Surely this should be a given? If it wasn’t there before, does that suggest the legal sector was structurally flawed? “Not necessarily. In the end, it was about the downturn in activity, especially property, and getting finance from the banks to fund developments. I’m proud of the legal profession – I think it serves clients well.”

However, Dunsire concedes that it is “a small market with a lot of lawyers in it – and there will be consolidation”. Might this involves Tods Murray? “Possibly.”

In terms of the business’s direction, banking and finance are motoring along nicely, with debt repackaging and complex transactional work keeping the team busy. Property has been more challenging and Dunsire accepts Tods Murray was perhaps overreliant on that side of things. He says institutional landlord and commercial property work are doing OK, but adds: “There is a lack of property development, but that won’t last forever. There is no magic end date – things will improve, but there is still uncertainty ahead yet.”

Of Tods Murray’s competitors, Dunsire mentions Brodies and Burness as two firms running their businesses well, and pays credit to their leadership. So what does he see as the key to leadership? “It is about teamwork and communication. My style is open and collaborative. And trust is a great thing – if you are trusted by your staff, it will pay dividends.”

Dunsire certainly needed the trust of his staff in early 2009 when the rumour mill spun out of control and suggested the firm could be facing insolvency. “It was unfounded rumour – I knew the underlying strength of the firm. It was mainly in the sector but when it started getting to clients I felt I had to take some action – and wrote a letter to the media saying that the firm was not in any danger.” [He denounced the ‘malicious scaremongering’]. “It was something that got into the market and picked up momentum – it was sad and annoying.”

At times like that, does Dunsire ever think ‘This is too much?’ – especially having come into the job at the worst of times. “No – this has been the difficult bit. I want to see things through – then I want some good times.”