fivehundred magazine > Interview with: Vidisha Joshi > I’m a good example of how you can progress

I’m a good example of how you can progress

Hodge Jones & Allen’s managing partner recounts her journey to the top of law firm management, underscores the importance of developing careers, and explains her firm’s innovative new ownership structure

Explain the culture at HJA. How important is that culture to you?

There’s a very collegiate culture at HJA. We are all working for one common purpose – social justice. It is that commonality which binds people in all our departments together.

There’s also a great deal of shared pride about the results we achieve. People believe that at the end of the working week they’ve really made a difference. The fact that we’ve always managed to navigate whatever has come our way, whether that be cuts to legal aid or fixed costs, and still be successful speaks volumes about our culture.

You became managing partner in 2017, but it was far from a traditional route to the firm’s top spot. Can you explain how you became managing partner?

I completed my training at Mayfair firm Portner & Jaskel, and spent seven years at City firm Prolegal, where I led the personal injury team before I was made redundant.

It was while I was on holiday soon after – and considering a career change – that I got a call from Patrick Allen, founding partner of HJA, which changed everything. He’d heard about my successes at Prolegal with implementing a new CMS system and other technological developments and wanted me to do the same at HJA.

I have always had an interest in technology. My previous firms didn’t have a Magic Circle budget so if you wanted anything changed on the CMS, you had to wait for it to be done by someone else. So, I picked up the manual and taught myself basic coding. I began to learn the value of tech and what you can manipulate it to do.

I joined HJA in 2012 to roll out new software. The CMS software company told me it would take 18 months, but I pushed it through in six. A year later I was promoted to associate and after a further 12 months to partner. In 2015, I was promoted a third time to head the firm’s largest department – personal injury – also joining the firm’s board as an equity partner. In January 2017, I took over as managing partner.

What new policies or initiatives have you initiated since becoming managing partner that have helped staff and clients?

Most recently it is the change of structure from a limited liability partnership (LLP) to an employee ownership trust (EOT), we’re the first major law firm to do this.

Prior to this there have been a range of initiatives including the launch of a training programme for the firm’s partners, aimed at instilling commercial awareness. I’ve done this in recognition of the fact that lawyers are trained to practise the law but rarely the commercial realties of running a firm. For our junior solicitors and trainees, we’ve just run a speed networking event. We’re a firm of over 230 people and it’s important, not only so that everyone knows their colleagues and the depth of expertise across the firm for cross-selling purposes, but so that they can rehearse networking in a supportive environment.

Under our continuous innovation programme, which ensures HJA can continue to deliver on its founding aim of ‘using the law to improve people’s lives’, we have made the firm paper-lite, significantly reducing the cost of printed letterhead, postage, and storage. The second phase of this will see the elimination of paper archives and reduction in on-site storage.

To improve cash flow, I have introduced a process to seek interim payments in high-value cases carrying large amounts of WIP, resulting in an 80% reduction in fees tied up externally. Additionally, we’ve always offered agile working, but in recognition of increased London living costs, have now implemented a nationwide recruitment programme, allowing the firm to access a wider pool of talent. The first recruit, based in Bristol, joined in August.

You mentioned HJA becoming an EOT, what is that and how does it work?

We’ve moved from being a LLP to a limited company and will trade and run in the same way as the LLP, the only difference is that 100% of the shares of the new limited company are employee-owned and held in the trust rather than by the members of the LLP.

The EOT is a similar model to that of department store John Lewis in that it enables all employees to become beneficiaries of the firm. I remain managing partner and along with Patrick Allen, our senior partner, and Kingsley Tedder, an independent trustee, I am a trustee of the trust.

How did the move to become an EOT come about, and what, if any, were the challenges?

The move is part of a succession plan to enable Patrick to take a less active role in the business and was very much driven by the need to ensure that the firm’s founding ethos of helping people would continue and that all of our loyal staff at the firm could benefit.

The biggest challenge was simply that no other major law firm had done this before and so there was no rule book; that meant going on quite a journey with the bank and it took a lot of explaining to stakeholders.

Do you think more law firms should look at this model and if so then why?

As soon as we made the announcement, I had many firms contact me asking for advice, saying that they’d tried to do something similar or were thinking of switching to this model. There is certainly appetite out there for employee ownership and I would recommend it as a perfect way to secure the future of a firm while at the same time allowing staff to benefit from the firm’s success.
We know from independent research commissioned by the Employee Ownership Association that an EOT model delivers great benefits, including high productivity levels, good staff retention, and happier staff.

As mentioned earlier, you originally joined HJA due to the firm’s need for better internal tech. How is technology changing the way your lawyers practise law?

I have a big interest in what technology can bring to a firm. We’re a firm that has always tried to be early adopters of technology if we think it will benefit our clients and the firm. That said, the quality in a business still comes from its people, supported by the technology and I don’t see that changing in our business.

What have you found are the best ways of attracting and retaining talent, both at partner and associate levels? Also, what is HJA doing to attract and retain a diverse group of practitioners?

Culture and ethos play a huge part. One of my most important roles at HJA is to facilitate individuals’ goals and ambitions and I am big believer in that. I’m a good example of how you can progress.

We are also implementing blind recruitment for our trainee intake which will start from the next round of applications. This will ensure that we are looking at all the candidates are on an equal footing and will provide a fairer process as this will also exclude educational institutions.

We are constantly looking at ways in which we can provide more benefits to our staff to help us attract new talent.

What are the biggest market challenges facing HJA and firms of a similar size and specialism?

How fantastically supportive the partners and all of our staff have been. I am very lucky to work with such great people.

Since becoming managing partner what’s surprised you most, either internally or externally?

Funding. We had a period of swingeing legal aid cuts and the drive towards fixed costs with very little time to consider either. Yet, with tight financial controls and continuous innovation we’ve been able to navigate the challenges and come out stronger.

How would you describe your management style? Whom have you taken inspiration from?

Democratic. It’s very important to me to get people’s views and to bring them along with me in any decision making. At the same time, I am the decision maker and I will always hold myself accountable. I think colleagues appreciate that accountability.

How do you find the time to manage a firm and still head a busy practice?

It’s certainly a challenge, but I have been very fortunate in the partners and associates stepping up to take on more responsibility which has removed some of the burden from me. We also meet regularly too; good and regular communication helps a great deal towards running a successful team.

Can you describe your best and worst days in law?

The best: Becoming managing partner and knowing that the senior partner, Patrick, and the then equity partners recognised my work and had the confidence in me to take the firm forward.

The worst: Making the decision to stop doing family legal aid work earlier this year. We’d been doing it since we started out 41 years ago, but it was just no longer feasible. That was a tough decision and was taken with a heavy heart.

If you have one prediction for the UK legal market, what is it?

Given the complexity of the legal market it’s quite difficult to answer as what will apply for a firm like ours will be different to a Magic Circle firm, for example.

As an industry I think we have started to look at things differently and consider innovative approaches to our service provision for our clients moving from the more traditional approach.

We are also more aware that people have choices in where they work so we need to also ensure we are taking care of our staff. I’d also like to think we’d see more firms recognising the benefits of employee-owned models and switching to more equitable models to secure their futures.

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