Ordinary lawyers leading the way

A GATHERING of Scotland’s high street and rural firms tells an exciting story about the future of legal provision, says Amy Walsh.
If you want to sell books, you have to write about the interesting lawyers. Picture: KobalIf you want to sell books, you have to write about the interesting lawyers. Picture: Kobal
If you want to sell books, you have to write about the interesting lawyers. Picture: Kobal

‘Nobody wants to read about the honest lawyer down the street who does real estate loans and wills. If you want to sell books, you have to write about the interesting lawyers – the guys who steal all the money and take off. That’s the fun stuff.”

This is the premise that earned John Grisham a place in the bestsellers’ list and gave the public a very skewed idea of legal profession. But what if John Grisham was being short-sighted? What if the revolution was starting on the high street?

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HM Connect (formerly Connect2Law) is the leading support and referral network for law firms in Scotland. Driven by Harper Macleod, we provide additional legal resources for areas of law not practiced by member firms, and support for the areas that they do.

With a membership of 250 firms, spread across the country, we are afforded a great picture of the health of Scotland’s law firms. And the prognosis is good.

How are we able to draw this conclusion? Last week saw more than 200 of our member solicitors come together at Gleneagles for the HM Connect annual conference, providing a fantastic barometer for the profession. It’s quite clear to us that at a time when the roll of solicitors in Scotland has reached a peak of 11,000, independent firms play a key role at the heart of their communities – for both individuals and businesses. Not only are they surviving, they are thriving.

With a demographic that is largely constituted of practices with one to four partners from high street and rural law firms, it is all too easy to make the same assumption as Grisham and think that the honest lawyers down the street aren’t interesting. However, it is increasingly impressive to see how forward-thinking these law firms are.

The afternoon session at the conference saw delegates come together to think about succession planning, sustainability and thinking outside the box. What stood out was that instead of the usual business advisors and professionals from outwith the legal sphere telling lawyers how to do it, the hallmark of this discussion was that it featured success stories and innovation from within the profession.

Exit strategies and retirement plans for law firms used to rely on the purchase of a (usually unaudited) will store with some goodwill on the side. Just the idea of this seemed archaic as delegates discussed the common requirements of effective succession planning – sustainability, people, clients and the ability to service them – in the context of the overarching themes of innovation, culture and attitude.

One particular model that was showcased to the group was a joint venture between a financial planning business and a medium-sized high street law firm. Together they have created a comprehensive legal and financial planning service for their customers, attracting a new client base and share in the fees generated. In pre-ABS Scotland, it serves as a very attractive business model to create a fresh client stream, cross-referral opportunities and attract talented individuals seeking an ambitious firm to work for.

We also heard from a “virtual” law firm that builds its sustainability by capitalising on those firms that fail to address succession planning. By reaching out to those who are disenchanted with traditional partnerships or are resigned to being a “perpetual associate”, they have built a full-service firm across the country with self-employed consultants to service clients on a low cost base.

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A theme of the conference was the analogy of high street and rural firms with trees, often used as a symbol of strength. The key to longevity is the need to keep our firms nourished and replenished, so they can continue to grow new shoots – the attraction of new talent, new methods of service delivery or new service offerings. It was clear from the discussion that ensued that there is a wealth of ideas and strong motivation to ensure that independent firms remain in good health.

Many delegates at the conference were indeed the honest lawyers from down the street – the very same ones who do wills, sell houses and resolve disputes – but for HM Connect they are the most interesting lawyers. These are lawyers who are willing to step outside the comfort zone and confines of traditional practice in order to think differently and innovate. It is evident in the way they augment their practice areas with HM Connect through to their entrepreneurial approach to business models. It certainly doesn’t seem that this is A Time to Kill – far from it. It’s a time for the honest lawyer to become The Rainmaker. And it will be very interesting…
• Amy Walsh is an associate sector development lawyer at HM Connect