Being disruptive

One of the fastest-growing law firms in the UK, Clarion Solicitors has never set maximising profits as a goal. Neasa MacErlean talks to the leaders of its marketing team — Business Development Director Steve Crow, Head of Marketing Jenny Rennocks and Joint Managing Partner Roger Hutton.

At the peak of the Covid crisis in 2020, Clarion was asked by government contacts to help fill in major gaps in the manufacture of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). Within 24 hours it had set up a round table of leading textile manufacturers. These and others from the firm’s specialist sector database of 100 contacts went on to make masks, scrubs, ventilators and fogging machines.

“There’s nothing in it for Clarion,” says Crow. “It’s just doing the right thing.” In response to the pandemic in India, the firm has been taking similar steps regarding organisations which could supply ventilators and oxygen. And, starting from the supply end, it also helped clients whose markets had dried up. Its commercial aerospace clients, for instance, saw demand freeze in March 2020. Clarion’s response was to talk to them about other options — such as moving into ventilator manufacture and defence aerospace. The firm also set up a webinar in June last year bringing together leading international players and government.

And it is what lies behind these decisions which sets the 29-partner firm aside from the mainstream. “We don’t think like lawyers,” says Crow” “We think about clients and how we can support them.” In line with that comment, the firm has put the profit motive on a lower pedestal than most professional practices. “We have never ever thought of maximising profit in one year,” says Hutton. “Our firm is run by a group of owners who are not aiming to maximise return.”

This means that far more time can be given to developing relationships. On average, a partner spends 40 per cent of the week on client facing non-chargeable work, and the minimum expected is 25 per cent.

Hutton – a corporate recovery partner, like his fellow joint managing partner – explains one part of the rationale: “Our business is relatively new and is one of top five fastest growing law firms [according to The Lawyer’s 2020 ranking of the top 200 independents]. Our competitors have hundreds of years behind them. Therefore, brand recognition is more important for us.”

The firm looks at other ways of cutting expenses — including working out of one office in Leeds where costs are far cheaper than in London. But another part of the rationale is quality of life. “I want to be surrounded by people who love what they do because that means everyone is happy,” says Hutton. “And you can translate that to your clients.” Every new relationship is viewed as a potentially long-term one — and that underpins the time spent with clients and all the activity that goes on supporting their livelihoods and opportunities.

Behind the scenes Rennocks has been working on the disciplined approach which supports the inspiration that comes from happy relationships. “We relaunched our brand during lockdown, and we will be evolving that,” she says. “We have also set up the internal structure and messages.” The result of all these efforts has been stable double-digit growth, whatever the economic background. Revenue in the year to May [2021] was £22.5 million, up 15 per cent on 2020.

And Hutton is clear where the 12-year-old firm and its near 300-strong headcount is going. “In five years we will be doing the same thing. We are not opening in other cities. We will have double digit growth each year.”

Commenting on his outlook as a restructuring specialist, Hutton says: “If you restructure, you have a big picture, long term view of a business lifecycle.” It is much more about saving jobs and careers, he says. The team works on a ‘continuous improvement’ model. A recent example is the addition of HR consultancy as a service – added for client convenience rather than as a moneyspinner. Hutton is also chair of the Yorkshire County Cricket Club. Speaking with both roles in mind, he says: “We make small changes to deliver success and we keep getting competitive advantage. The accumulation means you do well.”

The firm’s eight Marketing and BD staff are running so many projects that it is impossible to list them all. And, if client relationships are long-term, so are those within the firm. Crow is the relative newcomer of the three — having joined Clarion just a decade back. Hutton explains why he thinks the firm’s M&BD dynamics work so well: “You could put Steve and Jenny in a different organisation and I suspect they would be less effective because they would be less empowered.”

Crow — with his vast networks that range from the Cabinet Office to the top of the aerospace sector — is helping the firm target international brands which need UK lawyers. The practice is building up a clientele of listed companies and large corporations (representing 25 per cent of income) on top of its traditional area of owner-managed businesses. “We continue to spot disrupters in the economy,” says Crow. Current areas for expansion include the net zero agenda; round tables have already taken place on hydrogen networks and high energy use manufacturers.

One reason Clarion is effective at finding clients which are disrupters (in sectors ranging from FinTech to EduTech) is that it is a disrupter itself. Hutton says this when he talks of how its charge-out rates – two-thirds of similar London firms – “are going to be disruptive” as competition increases in the post-pandemic world.

Clarion operates under the strapline ‘Never ordinary’. Few practices could claim to deserve that title but this one does.