Meaningful change should be built in to firms’ DNA

BUSINESS success means pushing boundaries, says Elaine Motion
Elaine Motion and the team at Balfour + Manson. Picture: ContributedElaine Motion and the team at Balfour + Manson. Picture: Contributed
Elaine Motion and the team at Balfour + Manson. Picture: Contributed

Change is one of the few certainties in life, along with death and taxes. However, change can mean many things, from gradual evolution to radical innovation. My firm belief is that both extremes can be the route to success in today’s challenging Scottish legal market.

We have seen huge change in Scotland in recent years, with the demise of a number of firms, significant merger activity and the entry of major UK players into the Scottish market place – along with the arrival of non-traditional legal suppliers.

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Against this backdrop, all legal businesses need to identify their place in the market and maximise their strengths. This means understanding the DNA of your firm, what makes it tick – and what makes it stand out from the crowd.

So what does this mean for my firm, Balfour+Manson? As I take up the chairman’s reins today, I am using the change as a time for reflection. Over the next six months, I will work with partners to further develop the firm’s strategy, with a very clear eye on that question of what is in our (and our clients’) DNA and what makes us special.

Some might view us as a rather “old-fashioned” firm. Yes, we are old (founded in 1888) but that doesn’t mean we fit that description in terms of our attitude, or that we lack the courage to do things differently. Some of the work my colleagues and I have done in various areas – including civil liberties, clinical negligence, client welfare services and commercial as well as our environmental “class action” for victims of the whisky fungus blight – is genuinely innovative. Business success will always mean pushing boundaries and doing new things – and doing them well.

However, it is also important that innovative and progressive work is built on solid foundations – and that you don’t lose sight of what you do best. We know we are strong in litigation, commercial private client and residential property – and from a position of strength, and a detailed understanding of our core business, we look for new clients, new business and new challenges.

Balfour+Manson also has strong and solid foundations in our physical home in Frederick Street in the heart of Edinburgh’s New Town. When many other firms chose to up sticks and move to the new legal quarter bordered by the West End, Quartermile, Tollcross and Fountainbridge, we stayed put. We are pleased that we did – and so are our clients. It might have looked like a conservative decision – now it looks like one which has helped us continue to thrive.

There is another aspect to our business which some might term “old-fashioned” – staff loyalty. Almost 15 per cent of our people have been with us for 20 years or more, reflecting the real humanity of the firm, in terms of how it supports its staff internally, its pro bono and charitable work – and how in turn, that approach reflects the way our staff support clients.

Exceptional customer service has always remained at the heart of what we do. Of course the bottom line is important, but it is not just about chasing the top dollar; it is also about doing business in a certain way, about building strong and lasting relationships with clients.

I feel passionately about maintaining that culture because that is a central part of our DNA and what makes us different. Yes, in some respect, we are a traditional firm, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do cutting-edge work too – and it is certainly not traditional for a woman to lead a law firm.

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I am both proud and humbled to be the first at Balfour+Manson where I am following a great tradition of equality which is a core part of what the firm stands for; Ethel Houston was the first female partner in a Scottish law firm at Balfour+Manson in 1949.

I believe profoundly in fairness and equality; everyone should contribute in the most appropriate way to the very best of their ability. Success is about bringing on your people and deploying their varied skills in the right places. It is also about developing young lawyers, recognising their talent and encouraging self-belief

Again, it comes back to change – but not change made for its own sake. Change must be built on solid foundations, melding tradition and modernity. Gradual evolution and radical innovation can live side-by-side in today’s rapidly changing market; indeed, I would argue, they must and do.

• Elaine Motion is chairman of Balfour+Manson