Continually trying out new ideas

How does a top 75 firm compete with the ‘Magic Circle’ law firms? In the case of Pinsent Masons it finds a different, and compelling, tale to tell to clients. Vince Gray, Director of Business Development, recounts the Pinsent Masons experience to Neasa MacErlean.

Pinsent Masons includes HSBC, Santander and the insurer Zurich among its clients. This is a remarkable change from the days when the ‘Magic Circle’ legal practices were the only ones who won business from the prestige end of the City. But Pinsent Masons, running 15th by revenue in the UK and 75th worldwide, worked out a completely different way to appeal to the financial services sector.

“We are far quicker now, and much better at delivering to the value point for them,” says Gray. “We are finding ways to deliver more efficiently by using technology.” He gives the example of pitch meetings where Pinsent Masons might now “have only one or two lawyers present”. Instead, they could well send along two or three legal technologists – legal project managers, for instance, forensic specialists and software experts.

Once known mainly for its work in the construction sector, Pinsent Masons realised a couple of decades back that IT would be the dominant specialism of the future. Not only did the firm then build up its focus on IT clients but it also harnessed IT in its delivery. Its well-known ‘Out-law’ news service started out analysing the IT area and then spread into business news more generally. Now 18 years old, Out-law has nearly two decades of archives – a resource which Gray believes is invaluable. “There’s a huge amount of knowledge there,” he says. “Could another firm replicate that? It would be quite difficult.”

The focus on IT has given the firm and its 470 partners and 3,000 staff new insights into efficiency. Out of that has come a much closer working relationship with clients, particularly where that has resulted in ‘sole supplier’ contracts. Energy giant E.on and construction company Balfour Beatty are among the half dozen or so organisations which work with Pinsent Masons on this basis. “It changes the dynamic,” says Gray, explaining the closeness that comes from these set-ups. “You move away from thinking about every piece of work as a stand-alone transaction. You just don’t waste time and energy about pricing, for instance. You can make investments based on the long-term pipeline of work. This allows for greater collaboration to continuous improvement. Clients get invested too. The client becomes a stakeholder in the success of our business as well.” The efficiencies also show up in a 56 per cent growth rate in revenue over the last five years, and a 7 per cent increase in 2018/19, bringing turnover to £482m.

Efficiency is also coming through in the way that the 140 members of the Marketing & Business Development team evaluate potential areas of time expenditure. On newsletters and events, they now routinely borrow ‘Return on Investment’ analysis from the world of accountancy. So, for instance, Pinsent Masons correlates the presence of large clients and senior personnel at events with the fees that can be attributed to them. “It’s really effective,” says Gray. “We are much more focused now.”

And another ambitious way of trying to become more efficient is ‘Atlas’ – the firm’s toolkit for building “great relationships”. Gray says that Atlas, “a relationship development approach methodology”, makes it “really easy for colleagues to engage with clients”.

Borrowing other ideas from accountancy, Pinsent Masons is becoming more practised at measuring outcomes, correlations and associations. For instance, it is now working hard on delivering a strategic goal it has set itself – to build multi-national relationships with clients. The way it is using to rate its success here is to count the number of offices and skilll sets which are involved in responding to a client. With 25 offices in 11 countries, and M&BD staff in all of them, Pinsent Masons has the capability to measure this and act on the results.

Another recent innovation in this area is to co-ordinate geographic and sector business plans centrally. In the past, the different groups created their own. “Now, business plans are built firm-wide and they are connected,” says Gray. “We are driving connectivity.” One aim of the central control is to help translate strategic aims into concrete results.

People within the firm and outside will be interested to see how much efficiency and discipline can drive results; and how much needs to be left to spontaneity and natural creativity. An area where the latter approach has flourished at Pinsent Masons is that of diversity. The firm’s own work in this area led to bring home several prizes. Clients began to ask for help in introducing their own schemes. In 2018, a ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ group was set up, and other personnel-related consultancy areas – such as the freelance legal team – span out of that.

Care for the individuals working in the firm is itself becoming a driver of the firm’s business. Two years ago, the firm set out on a “purpose journey” and came to the conclusion that one role it would play would be to help clients “to revitalise their social contract” by understanding their purpose and, probably, moving away from “the irrefutable principle of shareholder primacy”.

In three purposes that it set for itself, Pinsent Masons defined its goals as ‘Championing change; promoting progress; and enable business to work better for people”. Gray says: “The BD team works this way.” And he gives two examples of making the firm ‘work better’ for the individuals who drive it. Getting testimonials used to be time intensive and challenging for the team he says, so now the team has “put resource into it to make life better for people”. And, he adds, the team is also “putting more emphasis on learning and development for BD people”.

Listening to Gray’s explanation about what makes Pinsent Masons outstanding makes one wonder why this firm did so well out of its focus on IT while others failed. Does the clue lie in the way Pinsent Masons kept translating and retranslating the benefits of IT into efficiency dividends for clients? And is the firm’s success also down to the fact that it kept communicating with clients, and explaining how IT was helping them? Whatever the answer is, it seems to lie in continually trying out new ideas and pushing the boundaries.