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Survival of the most adaptable

Change is inevitable, so only firms that look ahead will stand the test of time, says Sarah Henwood, CEO of the world’s oldest law firm, Thomson Snell & Passmore

Benjamin Franklin once said, ‘When you’re finished changing, you’re finished’. This year Thomson Snell & Passmore is celebrating 450 years, the world’s oldest law firm as certified by The Guinness Book of World Records. We wouldn’t be here today unless we were able to embrace change. From leading the way as early adopters of technology in the 1970s and setting up a publishing arm producing the first set of legal precedents (which we later sold to Sweet & Maxwell), to being one of the few firms that actively encourages staff to engage directly with SoMe as an important platform for communicating with clients, potential recruits, and alumni, anticipating and responding to change is part of our DNA.

As we move into the next decade, this ability to predict and embrace change will perhaps be more important than ever. Revolutionary technology, evolving client demands, changing client demographics, increased competition, and an ongoing fight for the very best and brightest talent, have all combined into a perfect storm of challenges for law firms.

Against a backdrop where clients want near instantaneous responses, but still need lawyers who can be measured, trusted advisers and where there seem to be new market entrants weekly, it is perhaps more important than ever for law firms to really know their strengths and have a clear, actionable proposition.

For us, this means providing quality services without the London prices, developing long-standing client relationships, and offering challenging and rewarding careers where we empower people and treat them as adults. It also means a continued commitment to the community we have been a central part of for more than 400 years and preserving the culture we have developed and that we are extremely proud of.

This is not something any firm can afford to pay lip service to. In a world of ‘fake news’ and ‘influencers’, clients and employees alike want authenticity. The most effective way to do this is to listen to your clients and people. Keeping them at the heart of everything we do is vital to our success. The culture that underpins the firm ensures any change is done in the right way. Our culture is all about putting people first, both our clients and our people. And we are huge on integrity, on doing the right thing.

Knowing what to change and what to keep, when to diversify and when to specialise, is also key. Having weathered several recessions in recent history, this is a lesson the firm has learnt well. Our extensive expertise in both dispute resolution and clinical negligence and personal injury was born out of a recognition that the firm needed to diversify to survive; we were one of the first clinical negligence teams in the country.

Know your priorities
Of course, none of us has a crystal ball, but change is inevitable and it is the firms that understand this and are constantly looking ahead that will stand the test of time. I spend a lot of my time talking to our clients and people about what we do well, what we need to improve on, and what is coming down the pipe. I always learn something from these conversations and they are a vitally important way for me to stay focused on our priorities.

Two examples of this with clients are, firstly, our Brexit barometer (in place since the UK voted to leave the EU), which allows us to directly connect with our clients about their concerns and understand how we can help. The second example is becoming recognised as Dementia Friendly, as we respond to the needs of an aging population.

People nowadays rarely want the same job for life so the workforce is much more fluid and what appeals to a school leaver may be different to a returning-to-work mum or someone with 30 years of experience under their belt.

Regarding our people, we recently moved our Tunbridge Wells teams into new specifically kitted-out offices where we are all open plan. This involved substantial changes to the way in which we work, encouraging more collaborative working. But work isn’t just a place you go, it’s what you do, so we are actively looking at smarter ways of working. Remote working isn’t suitable for all roles and it’s different for each department, but most of our clients don’t mind where we work as long as we are accessible.

Recruitment is a critical challenge for a high proportion of law firms including us. Being able to offer compelling and attractive opportunities is essential, as is the ability to appeal to an increasingly diverse audience. People’s demands of their employers are changing, be it recognising work-life balance or enabling smart ways of working.

Self-sufficient lawyers?
People are also progressing their careers in different ways; we have apprentices, people studying for CILEX, and others who have changed career paths from pharmaceutical sales to become partners and those formerly employed by the police force have become probate specialists. Roles within the firm are changing, too, particularly around the balance and type of work of lawyers and business services. One question we are currently addressing is whether the pendulum has swung too far by making lawyers too self-sufficient and are we really making the most of the skills sets of our secretaries?

People nowadays rarely want the same job for life so the workforce is much more fluid and what appeals to a school leaver may be different to a returning to work mum to someone with 30 years of experience under their belt. People’s motivations and the rewards and recognition they want are different and we have to respond to that.

We have an award-winning trainee solicitor programme that ensures our trainees get real coalface experience, they enjoy the responsibility and we enjoy having some of the best trainees in the industry.

Succession planning
We have family clients that have been with us for four generations which is testament to the importance we place on understanding and responding to our clients’ changing needs. It is not taken for granted, though, that the next generation will use the same advisers as last, so being attuned to the changing needs of clients is key. Families and succession planning also point us towards serving an aging population; the 65-90 year old age group is growing fastest and there are many questions to be answered and challenges to be overcome in terms of providing the care services, infrastructure, and health services they will need. But every challenge is also an opportunity and we will be working to help clients navigate this new landscape.

But what of our future? In June we welcome a new senior partner and we launch our next five-year business plan which has ambitious goals for growth, the majority of which are organic. Fundamental to this will be our ability to attract and retain the right people and to deliver excellent service and advice to our clients. While we will continue to embrace change, some things will stay the same. We will always place our clients and our people first and will remain committed to the communities we serve.