Offering a higher quality of life

UK law firm Stevens & Bolton is sometimes described as the ‘City law firm outside the City’. Richard King, Managing Partner, and Ann-Marie Goodbody, Head of Business Development, tell Neasa MacErlean about the advantages of a one-office approach and what lies behind this year’s turnover growth of 8 per cent.

You can learn a lot about the 150-lawyer firm just by looking at its location, south-west of the English capital, in Guildford. Just over 20 miles to London and to each of the airports at Heathrow and Gatwick, the practice capitalises on the idea that, in Richard King’s words, it offers “a similar service to City firms but we have lower overheads and that translates into price”. Many of its personnel previously worked in ‘The Smoke’— including the ex-Joint Head of Insolvency at Clifford Chance (now Joint Head of Insolvency at S&B) and Slaughter and May’s former Head of Practice Stream Business Development (Ann-Marie Goodbody).

A few minutes walk from a green pathway that leads into the countryside, the office helps create the kind of culture that many City-based firms hire consultants to engineer. “We are more relaxed and informal, not quite under the same pressure,” says King. “And having one office means that our business is more collegiate and easier to manage. We act for a lot of London clients.” Goodbody translates these advantages into a marketing dividend for the 42-partner practice: “The market’s really shifted in terms of price being front and centre. Being city-qualified but not in the city gives us an advantage. We’re cheap — although not that cheap.”

And the Guildford base helps push the international side of the practice which has been growing for five years — now making up about 10 per cent of revenues (£27million in fiscal year 2017/18). As this interview took place Stevens & Bolton (S&B) was preparing to welcome in at Heathrow representatives of the US law firm with which it has recently built a ‘best friends’ arrangement. King says: “With Brexit and the possibility we might be earning a bit less from Europe, we have been developing relationships with law firms in the US, India, Australia and China.”

Goodbody joined just over a year ago from a three-year stint at Slaughter and May, that fascinating firm which dominates discussions and rarely speaks to the press. “My approach to BD is as it was at Slaughter and May,” says Goodbody. “It’s clients, clients, clients… Slaughter and May is very much about action, get out and see the clients… We don’t have a BD team of 35 here. I could spend three years getting everything perfect but we wouldn’t win a single client through that. But if we are 70 per cent there, that’s good. It works.”

One of the highlights of her time so far at S&B is when she rolled up her sleeves on a (successful) pitch to a FT-SE 350 company. She says:“I was playing a much more client-facing role than in my previous firms. I was advising partners, echoing the language of the client, speaking to the General Counsel to try to understand the core values.” She expects to be playing that upfront role with the clients frequently in future.

Leading a BD team of seven (including herself), Goodbody is pushing forward on numerous fronts. New client care programmes and a rebranding were amongst her first areas of concentration. “Last year we gave the brand a fresh look,” she says. “What we have now is new, direct, unfussy, high quality and pragmatic – reflecting the firm. And we are now rolling out ‘speaking S&B’ — how to talk S&B and how to write S&B… This goes across the board — the brochures, website, social media, pitch documents and everything else. We want consistency.”

Some BD and marketing changes have been very time-consuming to introduce and others are much swifter. So, like all firms in the EU, Stevens & Bolton had to wrestle with the demands of the new privacy laws in the form of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a set of rules that affects all businesses (legal practices and their clients, for instance) which keep personal data. “For a small firm, it’s been a huge challenge. But we have done the campaign and our clients have opted in to receiving our communications on it. That will shape how we communicate with clients in the future.”

Other moves might not induce the sweat of hard labour that GDPR implementation does but they will, undoubtedly, lead to a furrowed brow from time to time. For instance, all fee-earners (even the newest) can tweet from the nine S&B Twitter accounts. “It’s a brave strategy but one that works for us,” says the BD head. “The young guns are coming through, and they are used to communicating in this way. Twitter isn’t so much about sending a message: it’s about having a conversation. We have become quite good at following our clients and what they’ve got to say.”

Similarly, the approach to press relations has been changed. “We have reshaped the PR strategy, encouraging partners to comment more on big stories in the news,” says Goodbody. It means that the firm deals head-on with controversial subjects. Early results have shown a 171 per cent increase in national press coverage in the last half year.

Goodbody and King have worked together to make BD a major part of the firm’s strategy, particularly in its ‘2020 Vision’ plan. They both accept that having a bold approach means taking measured risks and learning from experience. For instance, a voluntary but well-attended series of training talks includes partners discussing finance, BD and other issues and — as Goodbody says — “giving their war stories, speaking about things they did wrong and what they’ve learnt”.

In a more relaxed firm, people may feel safer in admitting that they have made errors. In the more pressurised global practices that might not be so easy. And that is partly why Goodbody and King are proud of the higher quality of life that they feel they can offer to people at S&B. “People go home at 5.30,” says Goodbody. “They have gym memberships that get used. People go running at lunchtime. We have an hour and a quarter for lunch and you are encouraged to take it. It creates a lot of energy.” It’s a novel approach. Could it catch on?