Sue Bence, Slater and Gordon Lawyers

The first thing I noticed was the time and attention that was given to scoping out roles for appropriate people with the appropriate skill sets.

Slater and Gordon Lawyers is a consumer law firm with 70 locations in Australia and 25 locations in the United Kingdom. Slater and Gordon is a publicly held company with shares listed on the Australian Securities Exchange. The Slater and Gordon Group also owns Slater Gordon Solutions in the UK, which provides claims, motor and health services.

My role at Slater and Gordon has changed a lot over the past few years. I am no longer a practicing lawyer — I work in management. And I am in a particular area of management that is quite specific to our business, which has encompassed mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and now operations and integration. Slater and Gordon is publicly listed, is well-capitalized and is leading market consolidation in the United Kingdom in consumer legal services.

My role, until recently when the focus shifted to integration work, was to run the M&A program from an operational perspective, over the lifecycle of the acquisitions that we work on. This means from the commencement of negotiations with a potential vendor through to integration planning and the handover to operations.

My career has developed as a result of the fact that I have been involved in law firm operations, at all levels. I finished high school and started working in law at age 16 at an international law firm – Clyde & Co. At 18, I started a vocational legal course called Chartered Institute of Legal Executives Course (CILEx) enabling me to complete my law degree in a modular form, whilst continuing to work.

I worked for a couple of different firms, in the area of personal and sports injury, becoming a partner in a leading personal injury, human rights and environmental law firm in London — Leigh Day — leading a team delivering legal services to members of sports governing bodies.

I had always wanted to work abroad, and decided that Australia made the most sense, given the ease with which I could qualify there, the fact that I did not speak another language, and my longstanding affection for the country. Also, a former colleague had moved to Australia and joined Slater and Gordon. Ultimately, through a combination of routes I joined Slater and Gordon in Australia at the beginning of 2008.

When I joined in January 2008, Slater and Gordon had just publicly listed, and was already thinking about opportunities for growth and overseas expansion. I was keen to be part of those strategic discussions especially with my background in the consumer legal space in the UK.

My first role at Slater and Gordon was 50% legal and 50% technical. This was the first time in my career that my role had been formally split between technical and managerial/development work, with KPIs built around two distinct areas of work — one as a lawyer in Catastrophic Injury Litigation and Group Actions and the other as a Relationship and Business Development Manager, with a particular focus on medical and allied health relationships.

This was a very different structure from how work was organized and recognised at the law firms I had worked for in the UK. Previously,  I was expected to do it all — deliver the budget, run a team, deliver the business development initiatives required to keep my team going, and  sit on a large number of partnership committees that would arguably have been better run by area specialists (such as marketing) than lawyers.

At Slater and Gordon, the first thing I noticed was the time and attention that was given to scoping out roles for appropriate people with the appropriate skill sets. It was appropriate to give me a business development and relationship management role because as a partner at Leigh Day I had spent a lot of time investing in successfully building up my own practice. I think that Slater and Gordon recognized that capability and wanted to develop and capitalise upon it. So, they set very specific objectives and accountabilities for me around key business development initiatives for specified practice groups. This role was clearly scoped, with measured KPI’s against which I could be rewarded and it defined part of my role at Slater and Gordon.

I held this role until 2011 when I moved from an employee to a consultant (self-employed) role, in part because I wanted to move back to the UK for personal reasons, and in part because at that time Slater and Gordon was not sure whether and how we would be developing a business in the UK. Since 2011, I have worked with Slater and Gordon to develop their UK strategy and I have undertaken due diligence work on the UK firms that we have acquired during that time, as well as acquisition opportunities.

In October, 2014, I moved back into an employee role, as Head of M&A Operations and Integration – UK.

At Slater and Gordon we have a significant in-house capability that supports our M&A activity. Our team includes my role, as well as in-house corporate finance, in-house legal, project coordinators and integration managers. We work as a team on M&A and integration related activity.

My role is a unique one, and in some ways I am uniquely qualified for it — because I have a long history as a UK practitioner working with the types of law firms that we have acquired. Having had the benefit of working for Slater and Gordon in Australia I have a deep understanding of their business and people culture, and how their mission and values translate into strategy. In particular I understand the benefits that a corporate environment can bring to the practice of law and how access to capital and related investment in people and process can ultimately benefit the services we deliver to our clients, who are our primary concern.

I recently completed an Executive MBA at Henley Business School — I did that because of the importance of having a good level of business acumen within this environment. This is something that I did not purely pursue because of my role at Slater and Gordon, but because for a long time I have considered it important for managers and leaders in legal business to develop a high level of financial and people management skills. Having said that, these skills are particularly helpful to me working in a publically listed and corporate environment.

Acquired growth was a key part of our strategy since entering the UK market in 2012, and we have been fortunate enough to have had a number of opportunities to consider since that time.

This has been due to a number of factors, not least that the personal legal services market in the UK is changing so rapidly. A number of firms have found themselves to be in difficulty, through an acknowledgment that the market is becoming more competitive. Perhaps they have failed to invest in their people or systems sufficiently to stay ahead, or who have found that they cannot compete or invest heavily in industry changes or innovative ways of communicating with and servicing clients. Some firms have been motivated to approach us with a view to realising their capital investment or because they have not engaged in succession planning sufficiently to ensure the sustainability of their practices without further support.

There are a whole range of reasons why the market is what it is. The last few years have been an extraordinarily good time to be in the position that Slater and Gordon has been in. There has been no other consumer law firm positioned as we have been in order to capitalize upon the opportunities that have been available, and we have sought to take up those opportunities as constructively as possible.

I view my MBA as a tool to assist me in developing as an operational leader in legal services. The experience that I, and others, are getting at Slater and Gordon at the moment I think is unique in this industry. This is a very exciting and rewarding place to work, and I expect this will continue into the foreseeable future.

There are not many other organizations in the world that are like Slater and Gordon, certainly not in the legal industry, and I think that there are many organizations in the world, and not just law firms, which could learn a lot from Slater and Gordon’s approach and what we have done.

For any business, including law firms, there are core central services that are integral to the business. Those central services need to be well run in order for the business to run efficiently and profitably. In my experience, in a traditional law firm, those central services are very often led by the wrong people — routinely they are led by the partners, rather than by specialists in their fields, such as marketing. Also, in a traditional law firm, there is often a limit in capital investment in both people and process, both of which limits growth.

At Slater and Gordon both our structure and our approach are different. We employ a large number of people who are not lawyers to undertake nonlawyer specialist roles. As an example, we have marketing, IT, finance and HR teams and the heads of those teams are members of our UK Executive Group.

Our lawyers are trained to be great lawyers and are provided with the best support and systems we can deliver to provide outstanding levels of service to our clients. Our lawyers are not trained to run HR departments and they are not trained to run marketing departments. At least, dabbling in these areas would not be a good use of their time. But if they wanted to develop into these areas we have opportunities that would enable them to do so, meaning that it is possible that a lawyer within our firm might transfer into a non-legal specialist area of the business.

It is my experience that because traditional law firms lack capital investment as well as nonlawyer expertise, they often struggle to innovate and are only able to take a short-term outlook.

I find it very liberating and inspiring to work in a non-traditional structure. In a traditional structure, many things are not said and are not written. In contrast, at Slater and Gordon, not only are things said and written, a great deal of it is public. For example, there is transparency around how people are rewarded. Our commitment to diversity is clear, public and measurable. Also in our structure, ideas are encouraged from any place and they can reach the right outlet for discussion. In contrast, in a traditional partnership, you may have a great idea about marketing — you take it to the marketing partner, who may not have any real training or experience in marketing, and who is not able to recognize the value of a great idea. That can be very frustrating.

I have trouble understanding the vague accusations that are made about the problems with nonlawyer ownership, and especially the vague accusations that it will have a negative impact on professional standards. These accusations seem to fail to take into account the fact that if a firm like Slater and Gordon breaches its professional obligations, it will be held to account in a more public way than what could be faced by a non-public law firm in some respects. So, I think that our shareholder interests are absolutely aligned with the need to maintain the highest professional standards. Serving our clients to the best of our ability, making sure they get the best possible outcomes and at all times upholding the highest professional standards are what maximize shareholder value in the long term.

Law firms should exist to benefit their clients. In my opinion, liberalized structures enable the maximization of the benefits to the client. The ability to recruit and reward at the same level nonlawyers to assist in the delivery of legal services I see as a huge benefit to our clients as appropriate and appropriately supported specialist support staff benefit process and reduction and supports the best possible outcomes to be achieved for clients.

Lawyers cannot be all things to all clients. And clients today need more than pure legal advice. The legal advice needs it to be delivered in a way that is appropriate, in the way that is requested and required by them.

In the environment that is encouraged at Slater and Gordon, we can do more. We can get to more clients through our marketing. We can deliver great services in a way that clients want.

My advice to lawyers today is: learn about the business of law. And then think about the environment that you would like to be in. The partnership model is in many ways outdated and in my view can be limiting both professionally and personally. And it can certainly produce limitations in service capability that should ultimately benefit clients. A liberalized structure allows for people who want to be pure legal technicians to be pure legal technicians, without needing to be rainmakers or to be business managers, and still enjoy share ownership.

If it is your goal to be a partner in a traditional law firm, you should ask yourself why. Most people who study law set partnership as their goal, simply because that is considered the pinnacle of a legal career. But you should think about what it really means, from both a personal and a business perspective. Think about how sustainable an environment it is, both personally and professionally. What does being a partner mean, and what will it deliver? It may deliver high earnings, but will you be willing to invest your capital in the future — to ensure the growth and in the sustainably of your firm?

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