Advising across life’s stages

An independent firm and one of Scotland’s top ten legal practices, Morton Fraser is innovating across its specialisms and taking some steps few professional practices have implemented. Chief Executive Chris Harte and Marketing and Business Development Director Tania Hemming talk payments, strategy and clarity with Neasa MacErlean.

On the home page of the Morton Fraser website there is a button saying ‘Make a payment’. No big deal, think the management of the firm. They are used to it. But, in fact, it is almost unknown for UK professional services firms to raise the question of their being paid this directly with clients.

Such an approach at the Edinburgh and Glasgow-based practice is part of how they deal with the world and each other. Five years back Chris Harte, as the new chief exec, began focusing on clarity as a distinguishing feature of Morton Fraser. And, when she joined, nearly three years ago, Tania Hemming translated that into the firm’s ‘Welcome to Clarity’ message which features on much of the firm’s material and informs its actions and thinking. Explaining the ‘Make a payment’ feature, Harte says: “One of our ambitions is to ensure that financial discussions with clients become much more matter of fact and run of the mill, rather than being awkward.”

Those clients include the Ministry of Defence and global household names including Tesco and Diageo. Rather than being embarrassed about the payment facility, people actually like it, says Harte. When exploring how clients relate to professional firms in general, he discovered that they often feel “slightly mugged about cost”. But, by having clear contract terms — and by giving clear legal advice, of course — Morton Fraser feels it has transparent relationships with its clientele. The guiding principle of clarity became a standard that partners and staff could gather around — a common theme that would characterise all they did.

Although the financial side is just one part of having functional client relationships, it has the potential, if it goes wrong, to put a firm off balance or even to sink it. “Lawyers generally are not very good at talking about money, and most of the scrapes they get into are rooted in that,” says Harte, talking about the profession as a whole.

Counter-intuitively, this clear foundation for the firm allows it to become quite complex in its wide range of marketing activities. These include strategic partnerships — such as the one with Mackay Hannah, organiser of landmark public sector-related events (such as the Budget Briefing delivered by Fraser of Allander ). Morton Fraser hosts, and speaks at some of these events. And there has also been the partner relationship with Estates Gazette magazine where Morton Fraser commissioned and commented on an investment sentiment survey — used to create PR and intelligence which worked for both sides. “We are targeting investors south of the border and abroad who want to invest in Scotland and, therefore, partnering with platforms such as Estates Gazette helps us reach international audiences,” says Harte. Hemming adds: “These aren’t ad hoc or isolated activities. We have introduced a PR and Reputation Management strategy across the business and these projects are part of that plan. Working with and across key areas of the business allows and creates that joined-up thinking.”

The firm has also, for instance, featured in The Times, the Huffington Post and on BBC Radio 4. It follows through on these media outlets from yearly business plans agreed in advance by Hemming with the lead partners at Morton Fraser. These include the heads of the sectors of the 280-personnel, 43-partner firm focuses on — business; public sector; individuals and families; and commercial real estate.

The marketing and commercial real estate teams have also developed a news aggregator site acting as bookmark for their sector (http://commercialrealestatenews.co.uk). It provides market daily news from across Scotland and the UK. It is , however, separate from the firm’s site. “We’re trying to build a community specific to that audience by sharing news and insight,” says Hemming. “As it develops we hope members will contribute and participate. I believe it’s the first time a firm of lawyers has done anything this.”

Another idea that the five-person marketing team has developed is a campaign with its ‘Individuals and Families’ sector that is based around a four-generation fictional family. Going out monthly under the #Mfamily label (Mf as in Morton Fraser), the campaign explores the everyday issues that a family could face over a year. The grandmother, for instance, has early onset dementia; the mother runs a business; and the daughter is getting married. The 12-month campaign is an example of the more human, ‘life stages’ and ‘life events’ approach which the private client team is using to explain how legal and financial advice can help resolve the challenges of ordinary events.

In the year to April, the firm’s revenue grew 2.5 per cent to £20million. In the six months to October 2017, Morton Fraser saw “like for like growth of 12 per cent”, giving it the “best half year we have ever had”, in Harte’s words. “This is the fruition of a lot of work over many years.”

In 2018, the marketing team’s programme will continue with a branding campaign and a content engagement plan to help senior individuals in the practice use content to deepen the firm’s reputation as well as their own. The months to June will also see the development and conclusion of the #Mfamily campaign. Looking beyond Morton Fraser and longer-term, Hemming explains an issue she sees looming for people in her role. “One of the biggest challenges is attracting and retaining marketing people in professional services,” she says. “This sector is often seen as traditional, yet we need to be constantly pushing the boundaries to meet client needs as they become more sophisticated. We need to offer a creative culture and invite innovation in to this sector – that way we will attract the best.”

When he looks ahead, Harte thinks of the three Scottish law firms that have closed recently and says: “There will continue to be winners and losers.” And, giving his formula for coming through the challenges of the current marketplace, he says: “There are three things you need to think about. First, you need to be very clear about who you are trying to be relevant to. Secondly, you need to understand what you need to do to be relevant to them. And, thirdly, you need to get on with it. Firms who grapple with this will be the winners.” It would be hard to put it more clearly than that.