Dianne Paterson: First-class client service remains key after 200 years

IN 1818, James Russel, an eminent solicitor and 'Man of Business' in Falkirk, assumed a young solicitor, Henry Aitken, as a partner in the firm. In that year, the firm of Russel & Aitken was founded.

The staff of Russel + Aitken captured for posterity in the pioneering years of photography
The staff of Russel + Aitken captured for posterity in the pioneering years of photography

Archive records state that the business, at that time, was equalled “by at least no other provincial business in Scotland”.

Today we celebrate the 200th anniversary of that association, and the firm’s name of Russel + Aitken has remained the same ever since.

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On such an anniversary, it is appropriate to reflect on how much has changed over the years for “Men of Business” (or indeed “Women of Business”) in Scotland in general, and for legal firms in particular.

Dianne Paterson is a Partner in Russel + Aitken LLP

A well-worn, but finely-honed, feather quill pen, a rare photograph of the firm taken in the pioneering years of photography, and a stack of beautifully-preserved leather bound letter books in perfect ink script, are just some of the items that form part of our heritage, and remind us just how much business and the practice of law has changed. We are further reminded of this, by the reference, in the annals, to the horse-drawn carriages, lined up at the entrance to the office, to take the partners home, after their working day. However, we learn that it was not always thus.

When James Russel was living in Edinburgh in 1809, whilst doing his apprenticeship, we are told that he wished to attend a Ball in Falkirk. There being no trains or any other convenient transport at that time, he left his Edinburgh office at the usual time in the late afternoon, walked to Falkirk, some 20 miles or so, enjoyed the Ball and walked back to Edinburgh to be at his desk at the usual time the following morning. Telling this tale in his obituary in the Falkirk Herald of 11th February 1858, the author questioned whether there be a young man in Falkirk at that time, who could accomplish the same feat.

We also learn that it is good to know one’s history before making any change.

When the stone step at the entrance to our Falkirk office became worn, shortly after the Great War, instructions were given that it be turned so that the unworn edge from below could form the new step. However, when the builders lifted the stone they found that it had been turned already. This became known as ‘The Attorney’s Stone’ and the story was published in a book, published in the 1950s, to illustrate the point that it is wise to know one’s history before embarking on what one assumes to be an original initiative.

Dianne Paterson is a Partner in Russel + Aitken LLP

There is no doubt that the remarkable advances in technology over the years, the economic pressures since the most recent financial crisis, and the rise of new and alternative providers, have all combined to create a more complex and competitive marketplace for law practices and the delivery of legal services.

Solicitors today are under ever-increasing pressure to find quicker, more cost-effective ways to offer quality legal services, whilst continuing to manage risk and fund businesses. It is recognised in the profession that those willing to embrace new ways of working, new technologies, and possible merger opportunities, are more likely to thrive.

However, despite the passage of time, changing technologies and alternative structures in a competitive marketplace, one thing has not changed over the centuries and remains essential to the prosperity and longevity of any practice, old or new–- the need for a firm to offer a first-class client service at all times.

When James Russel, our founding partner, died in 1858, the following was reported: “The funeral procession to the family burying place at Muiravonside took place yesterday from Arnotdale at 1’o’clock and during the passage through the town of the unprecedently long train of carriages and people, the shops and places of business were spontaneously shut without a single exception. The bells continued to toll from 1 to 2 o’clock, Falkirk thus publicly showing her respect for the memory of her citizen, in a degree never before equalled, one who, without derogating from the character of others of former times and some who are still living, may justly be reckoned one of her most eminent sons.”

Today we raise our glasses to our founding partners and strive to continue to embody such traditional professional values, whilst embracing the best of modern business practice.

Dianne Paterson is a Partner in Russel + Aitken LLP