fivehundred magazine > Interview with: Nick Thomas > Legal ability is no more than permission to play

Legal ability is no more than permission to play

Kennedys’ senior partner talks future proofing for Brexit, the firm’s expansion across Latin America, and why clients should see their lawyers as human beings.

What is the leadership structure at Kennedys?

As the senior partner of Kennedys I am supported by a global strategy board which meets monthly. The board includes partners from across our global network of offices, ensuring that global perspectives are always considered in advance of any key developments at the firm.

In addition to this, and providing invaluable support on the operational side of the firm, we have business services directors representing our business development, finance, HR, it, facilities, and risk and compliance teams who work collegiately. I meet with them as a group weekly and all report directly to me. We also have four client facing divisional heads, based on work types, who in turn are reported to by a number of team leaders. .

How would you define the firm’s culture, and how important is it to the management team?

The culture at Kennedys is very important to me. Some time after becoming senior partner I met a consultant called Jan Thornbury to talk about culture and values. She made it very clear that this would not be so simple as the production of laminates of aspirational phrases. She told me that if I engaged her I would not see her for two months. She would be meeting Kennedys’ staff and clients and asking them why they continued to work for us or send us work. Then she would tell me what Kennedys’ culture and values were and we would work with that.

Our published culture and values of being approachable, straightforward, supportive, distinctive and making a difference came out of that process. They represent who we are and are a covenant between all partners and staff to continue to be that way.

This is a very distinctive culture that makes us a successful firm for whom people enjoy coming to work. Our culture is a source of strength and differentiates us from our competitors. Our values are the DNA of our firm: they are at the core of our culture and guide us in everything we do. For me, and the management team at Kennedys, this means always trying to do the right thing in the right way.

What are the biggest challenges facing firms of your size, and specialisms, around the world?
How is Kennedys prepared to meet those challenges?

Our vision and strategies are designed to address what we see as the biggest challenge to Kennedys and similar sized firms, which is the consolidation and globalisation of our clients. They expect us to be in a position to deliver to them the right service, in the right part of the world, from the right resource and at the right price. Neither growth nor tech are aims in themselves, but they are both part of the way in which we are meeting, and will continue to meet these requirements.

Since 2010 and the establishment of the ‘LatAm facing’ Miami office, Kennedys has opened seven offices across the Latin America region – what has been the experience of this process from a management perspective?

The management of our expansion in the Latin America region has been surprisingly smooth. While there are obvious regulatory standards that must be met, and these understandably take time, the process of growth in this region has been a very positive one. It helps that, in Alex Guillamont (head of Latin America and Caribbean practice), we have somebody with boundless energy and an excellent reputation in the market who has a good understanding of where clients require us to be within the region.

With major global (re)insurers decentralising their LatAm claims functions in recent times, Alex and I persuaded the strategy board that future significant growth in the region was best achieved by establishing Kennedys’ offices in the key jurisdictions safe to operate in, with Miami providing support, and continuing to deal with other jurisdictions. As you can see this has been a very successful process.

In addition to your 37 offices around the globe, you also have 17 associate offices. What do you look for in an associate office and how difficult is it to ensure each office’s culture gels with Kennedys’?

Kennedys’ view has always been that growth should be strategic and not for its own sake, and this is also true when formalising associations. Before we reach the stage of forming associations, we would typically have worked with that firm on a number of matters, over a meaningful length of time.

Each associated office we have follows a long-standing relationship between like-minded firms. Many of our own offices around the world began as associated offices, a process we liken to dating with a view to marriage.

Of Kennedys’ 270 partners, 34 began their careers at the firm as a trainee. What must firms do better to ensure they can retain the best talent?

I qualified at Kennedys and was supported throughout my formative years at the firm, so the importance of supporting young professionals is something that the management team and I are very keenly aware of.

By having clear routes for progression and empowering our lawyers through a variety of HR and partner-led initiatives, we have always looked to ensure that we not only nurture talent but look to retain it also. We deliver internal programmes that provide support and career progression for lawyers at every level. I am also very proud of our award-winning, and ground breaking at its inception, legal apprenticeship programme, which is being extended to business services apprenticeships next year.

Conversely, what has the firm found is the best way to attract talent from elsewhere, both from competitors and from in-house legal teams?

We have a very clear vision of our place in the world as a large specialist niche firm, which attracts those who feel undervalued at full service firms. Whilst we have a strong reputation experience in the insurance sector, and a growing reputation within corporate and commercial circles, it is the culture and the people that play a huge part in making Kennedys such an attractive employer. They are a source of strength that differentiates us from our competitors.

What advice would you give to those just starting out in law and for those who might be about the make the step up to partnership?

I feel that if one is not moving forward, one is going backwards. There are many career opportunities within law, all requiring a strong mix of technical skills, project management ability and commerciality. It is important to remember that these things are only truly developed over time, so a career mindset opposed to a job mindset is required.

For those looking to embark on a step-up to partnership, I refer to some sage advice that I received during my career: when in doubt, make a decision and then move heaven and earth to make it the right one. No-one ever crossed a ravine in more than a single leap.

When it comes to diversity, what is Kennedys doing to ensure each of its offices is representative of its country’s legal market?

We are very conscious that as a global firm we need to ensure that everyone, whoever or wherever they are in the firm, is respected for who they are and that we all share and embrace the same values.

Our apprenticeship programme and global involvement in initiatives that celebrate diversity and inclusion, such as being global sponsors of last September’s Dive in Festival – the festival for diversity and inclusion in the insurance sector – demonstrate our commitment in this regard.

And what about wellbeing and work-life balance? How is Kennedys dealing with these issues which are increasingly important to the next generation of lawyers?

I am never very sure about the phrase ‘work-life balance’ as work is very much part of life. It needs to be enjoyable, however, and provided everyone delivers one need not be restrictive as how they deliver.
There has been significant investment in our IT infrastructure over the last five years that has enabled us introduce agile working globally, giving secure access to all of our systems no matter where any individual may be working on a given day.

Our partners and HR remain actively engaged with our people. Our induction
and follow-up processes ensure that any emerging issues important to the current and the next generation of lawyers are identified and taken account of to create the best working practices and environment we can achieve.

In addition to your role as senior partner for the firm, you also continue to fee earn. How do you find the time to do this?

The clever people at Harvard and Cambridge talk of the ‘producer/manager dilemma’ within the service provider industry; when you get good at your job you are promoted to management! I agree with them that managers need to keep their hands in if they are to be taken seriously by their partners and staff and if they want to be listened to in their clients’ board rooms.

That means that I have had to make the time, assisted enormously by the partners to whom I delegate a great number of management tasks relating to lawyers and clients, and by our great team of business services directors, who so ably look after those parts of the business which would need managing, whether we sold law or any other product.

How is technology changing the way Kennedys interacts with its clients?

What we have experienced with our award-winning Innovations Toolkit is that insurance clients are, understandably, incredibly receptive to being shown ways in which our technology can both empower their claims teams and save them money. Our core principle is to help our clients use lawyers only when they really need one, and this is the driver behind all of our products and innovations. Understanding what puts our clients under pressure enables us to tailor solutions which improve the delivery of legal services.

Will technology ever replace lawyers, as some have suggested?

The technology versus human debate is one that will be raised for many years to come, but there are many facets to this argument. One that is often overlooked is the importance of the human relationship between lawyers and their clients. To my mind, this interaction will always be required.

There is also the viewpoint that technology should be viewed as an extension to a lawyer’s ability, by working with it, rather than against it. Most firms seem to be working on the basis that the role of technology is to do the old task more efficiently. That is important, but to my mind the real value of technology is reaped when one uses it to deliver a brand new solution that renders the old task unnecessary.

Clients are demanding more and more innovation from their external legal providers. How are you meeting this demand and what tangible results have already been achieved for the firm’s
clients?

By listening to our clients, understanding the pressures upon them and meeting the increasing demand for innovation. We have invested significantly in this area in the last two years. We have recruited a Head of Research and Development, embedded a data science team and opened a new business in India with a nine-strong development team.

Our capabilities and offerings to clients, in regards to innovation, are now a significant part of our business. Our flagship innovation, KLAiM, which is a virtual lawyer, has enabled clients to manage low value insurance Iitigation themselves, without needing to instruct a lawyer. For such cases this has reduced our take up clients’ legal spend, by avoiding defence fees entirely for at least 80% of litigated cases, while saving them more than £4m to date.

What would you say to any scepticism about innovation hubs/idea labs being just another marketing gimmick?

The Ideas Lab that has been implemented at Kennedys, which is a platform supporting client-focused ideas that seek to create future products and deliver modern legal services, is one that has certainly dismissed any internal scepticism about innovation hubs being viewed as a marketing gimmick.

The engagement we have had throughout our global network of offices has been overwhelming and, above all, underlined that there is a realisation within Kennedys that, with the right approach, innovation can strengthen relationships with clients. It has also had the collateral benefit of being more inclusive of the younger generation of lawyers, who in participating in the Ideas Lab have felt more engaged with the firm’s direction of travel.

Finally, other than innovation, what do you think lawyers generally could be better at?

Not hiding behind a professional carapace, but getting across to clients and the world at large that we are not only hardworking and highly skilled, but also human beings whose loyalty and friendship is as valuable a product as the technical legal advice we provide.

We should all aspire to being problem solvers and successful project managers. Legal ability is no more than permission to play.

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