Interview: Philip Rodney, chairman of Burness

Philip Rodney of Burness is glad rivals praise his firm – but that’s not the whole story, finds David Lee

WHEN I interview senior lawyers, I always ask which other Scottish legal firms impress them. Invariably, the reply is a version of: “I think Burness does very well.”

So what is it that garners peers’ plaudits – and is it important? Yes, says Philip Rodney, chairman of Burness: “It means a lot to be recognised by your peers; some firms don’t have that reputation and are seen as aggressive and short-termist.

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“All law firms are doing the same thing – trying to sell legal services, make a return on investment and develop their business – yet they feel very different culturally.”

So what is Burness, culturally? “We are very collegiate – our partners don’t have to be the stars. We support and nurture our people and it’s rare for someone to leave and join a competitor. When people join us from city law firms, they comment that our systems are as good, if not better, than London. That’s a result of investment.”

Rodney says that Burness also benefits from having a very clear strategy.

I last interviewed him in late 2010, after the unveiling of the new “dynamic diagonal” branding, which stood out from traditional rebrands because it was founded on strong cultural values and long-term strategic aims.

“Some firms take almost a minute-by-minute view of where they are in the market,” says Rodney. “We took a view a number of years ago to focus on quality, which is our absolute driver. It is about quality and value, rather than price – we do not buy business. We are at the quality end of the market.”

Rodney suggests Burness is more Mulberry than TK Maxx: “Mulberry profits were up in a difficult market because they know where they are and have a quality product – they don’t sell cheap handbags.”

He believes results flow from quality: “Our management meetings are not about improving the bottom line, but improving the service we provide. We have an almost obsessional approach – and the bottom line flows from that.”

Rodney has long been obsessed by client service: “I don’t want to know what clients think of us – I want to know what they think of our competitors and other professional service firms, and what those firms do better than us. We spend a lot of resources ensuring our lawyers do not just understand their sectors, but understand our client base. Lawyers should read fewer law journals and more trade magazines.”

Another key element which sets Burness apart, says Rodney, is that it is a firm with a point of view. “All law firms can provide brilliant analysis of the law and say ‘You can do this or that’; we don’t sit on the fence. Clients like the fact that our letters start with the advice, not the disclaimers. Our point of view is what we get paid for.”

Rodney feels clients also like the authenticity of Burness: “You can’t suddenly say it’s fashionable to look like this – you have to be true to your values. We don’t want to be heroes and a lot of clients say we are fun to work with, not high maintenance. I find it ridiculous that some service firms are seen as high maintenance.”

Rodney’s assertion that quality service will flow into good results is supported by empirical evidence.

In the teeth of the economic crisis, Burness increased its turnover by a total of 19 per cent over the last two reporting years, with profits in 2009-10 up 40 per cent, followed by a 14 per cent rise in 2010-11. The headcount is around 200, excluding 35 partners.

So what next? The aspiration is simple: “To be the best indigenous law firm in Scotland.” To that end, Rodney says, they are working on moving into another phase in 2012 that involves “even more intimacy with clients” because “the best advert for us is client advocacy”.

He adds: “There are two ways to run a law firm – the ‘build it and they will come’ approach that says ‘here are our services, come and buy them’. Alternatively, you understand the market and align every aspect of what you do to service that.”

However, Rodney is under no illusions about the economic backdrop: “The next three years will be tough and I don’t think we will see an increase in the legal services market; I think it will all be down to market share.”

And which firms – apart from Burness – does Rodney think are well placed to capture that market share? “I think HBJ are doing well and, although they are a special case, Dickson Minto too. Both have a very clear view of where they are in the market and are very focused. The firms not doing so well are those who don’t know where they are in the market and are going for everything that moves.”

Rodney sees a divergence in the Scottish marketplace: “One model will be the national or international firm with an office in Scotland; the other will be very much a Scottish firm. Some organisations will want a one-stop approach from the national firm, others will want ‘best of breed’ in each jurisdiction. I think that offers great opportunities to firms like Burness. For us, it’s not Slovenia, Slovakia or Scotland – we are very focused.”