UK: Building A 21st Century Law Firm

Last Updated: 17 July 2008
Article by Cornelius Medvei

First published in Managing Partner, May 2008.

In May 2008, Eversheds opens a new purpose-built HQ in London. It is a statement of intent from the firm that it is committed to innovation, international growth and new standards for client focus and employee satisfaction.

It is a cliché to say we live in uncertain times, but the phrase has never been more apt. When we look back on 2008, how will it be remembered? Probably as a year of living dangerously; a year when fortunes changed swiftly and business strategies were constantly tested by new and unexpected challenges. Although we still have some way to go, one thing is certain: it has been the worst possible start for financial markets and the global economy. Big institutions on both sides of the Atlantic have been shaken, or even toppled, by huge losses; previously secure reputations have been tarnished; and, above all, the sub-prime thread is still unravelling, exposing new casualties and further risks. Harold Wilson famously remarked that a week is a long time in politics - the same could well be said of the corporate world, so dramatic have been events in recent weeks.

A blueprint for tomorrow

It is against this turbulent and changing backdrop that Eversheds has reached the mid-point in a three-year strategy to raise the firm's international presence, strengthen its brand and increase its competitive edge. Entitled Making it happen, the strategy was launched at a time when conditions were already difficult for legal services, with the market slowing after a decade of boom and clients demanding more for their money.

The direction of this strategy has recently been validated by the widely publicised findings outlined in Law firm of the 21st century. This Eversheds-commissioned report highlights trends and opportunities, revealing a strong need for change in key areas. And that is precisely what Eversheds is providing, not least with the opening this summer of an international headquarters in London. It is an office that breaks new ground in many ways a 21st century HQ for a 21st century practice and is tangible evidence that the firm is fulfilling its goals and setting new industry standards. Let's look at these developments in turn and see what they say, not only about Eversheds as a firm, but also about the future of legal services.

Making it happen

The goals set for Eversheds to achieve by 2009 cover people and practices, service delivery and international reach. Broadly, they can be summarised as: the desire to become the most respected law firm for relationships with clients and employees; to provide a seamless service across Europe and to double the value of international work; to increase revenues to £400m; and to be recognised as an international firm with a strong City practice and a powerful regional network. There are four areas of focus: London, where Eversheds is seeking a bigger share of Europe's largest legal marketplace; the international marketplace, which offers a wide range of opportunities to strengthen client relationships and extend mandates or win new ones; 'great place to work', Eversheds' campaign to boost employee loyalty and satisfaction; and the drive to improve profitability by concentrating on key clients and market segments.

One of the first steps has been to create a matrix structure so that legal skills are matched with business sectors such as government, transport, education, energy, financial services, food, healthcare, local government, retail and telecommunications. New sectors are developed as required, and it is an approach that recognises the crucial need to be a business partner as well as an adviser, to understand how industries operate and to align services accordingly. It also provides a solid foundation for two of the most distinctive and innovative features of Eversheds' strategy namely, 'Project Management' and 'Networked Law'.

When applied to other industries and written lower case, project management is hardly revolutionary; indeed, it is something you might take for granted. For Eversheds, however, it is dignified with capitals because it is a clearly defined service rather than a principle - and one the firm has pioneered to differentiate itself from competitors. It is a way of working that ensures predictability of costs and service excellence, and is backed by electronic tools and techniques (an example is DealTrack, which ensures detailed project planning and budget tracking). Every project, large or small, is carefully controlled and calibrated so that the firm delivers what clients expect. So Project Management is both a work ethic and a technology solution that avoids surprises. As such, it promotes what Eversheds calls 'Accountable Relationships'.

Networked Law takes advantage off Eversheds' size and strength. It ensures that all the firm's offices are mutually supporting, and that projects can be serviced from the most appropriate point in the network. For instance, a client or deal in Madrid could be serviced by a team in Manchester, while business in Paris might be supported from London. In other words, 'horses for courses' (or, more accurately, resources for courses). Eversheds is seeing the value of this network as its international business grows, and especially now that it has created 'Eversheds International', an operating structure to facilitate crossborder growth. New offices have opened in many countries and regions, including Qatar, China, South Africa and across Europe, bringing the total number worldwide to 37. Today, with more offices outside the UK than in it, Eversheds is using Networked Law to tailor its services in a very broad market and to meet a wide range of needs.

Size and strength are also uppermost when it comes to account management. Here, Eversheds is making a real impression with its turnkey approach to corporate counsel, supported by a tailor-made Global Account Management System (GAMS). The firm is handling ever-larger mandates and setting an example for the industry through its innovative relationship with companies such as DuPont, and most recently, Tyco. The latter is particularly significant because Eversheds was appointed sole counsel in 2007 Tyco at one time having more than 200 legal advisers. It has since repeated the format with many other companies. As industry observers have commented, Eversheds is leading a quiet revolution.

Market views

The firm's strategy has been developed by listening to customers, analysing their needs and monitoring changing currents in the legal marketplace. This forward-thinking and research-based approach is typified in the Law firm of the 21st century report, commissioned in 2007 and distributed early in 2008. The results present a picture of the legal world 10 years from now, providing insights on what clients might want and how law firms should evolve to remain competitive. Although no one can predict the future, particularly when fortunes can change as swiftly as this year has shown, there are many guides for the legal profession. Moreover, in many parts the findings endorse the path that Eversheds is following as it builds a 21st century business.

Key among the findings is the need to control costs and provide transparency. With clients concerned by rising fees, the biggest challenge facing law firms is the pressure to justify bills and show value for money. Tellingly, the report found that many clients are keen to look beyond the magic circle for alternative providers that can combine high quality with cost control and predictability. This is where Eversheds scores highly and is ahead of the curve with its Project Management approach, its commitment to accountability, and the benefits of Networked Law. All imply a measurably better service with relationships based on partnership and trust.

As for the debate on commoditisation, the report predicts that the trend will continue and that advice deemed premium today, and therefore charged at the highest rates, might well become standard and low-cost in the future. Eversheds recognises that although patterns are changing, and premium business may in time become standard, new areas will open up and there will always be a place for high-end work. The firm's market strategy, delivered with the help of Networked Law, therefore distinguishes between specialist, core and routine work. This segmentation allows the firm to concentrate resources wisely, and deliver the right skills for each project.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Legal Services Act is given less weight than might have been expected, even allowing for the precedent of reforms in the banking industry that have accommodated change without removing the foundations of existing structures and practices. The vast majority of those polled did not believe the act would make any significant difference at the top end of the profession, while clients remained largely indifferent to who provides legal services. This reinforces the importance of differentiation, particularly in a marketplace that is likely to become more crowded, and underlines that buying decisions will increasingly be made on the basis of cost as well as reputation. Law firms that are prepared to submit to closer scrutiny, offer greater consultation at all levels, and stream their business to meet commoditisation, will be the future winners. The lesson is simple: adapt or watch your customers move their spending elsewhere.

An HQ for all seasons

London is central to Eversheds' strategy. Not only is it the financial capital of the world and a focus for global business, but it is also the home of many of the firm's most important clients. As a legal market worth more than £5bn, almost half the total UK market, London is also the home of many potential clients among major corporates, financial institutions and the public sector. It is therefore vital to have a strong presence in London, and a City base that can be a powerhouse for Networked Law.

One Wood Street, the firm's new international headquarters, is all this and more.

The building is an investment in the firm's future in London and, by extension, worldwide. As the embodiment of the firm's vision to become 'the most client-centred international law firm and a great place to work', the office has been designed firmly with clients, employees and the environment in mind. It is a building that makes a virtue of innovation and conservation, with many features promoting flexible working, efficiency and sustainability.

For employees, it offers a diverse and ultra modern workspace with a semi-open studio layout that encourages flexibility, creativity and team integration. This is very much part of the firm's 'one firm, one vision' identity, creating an organisation that provides a consistent level of service by pooling resources and working harmoniously across regions and borders. Clients will find it the perfect environment for meetings and conferences, and enjoy the very latest technologies and the benefits of airportstyle business facilities.

Intelligent lighting, chilled-beam airconditioning, sustainable construction materials, and not least the greenest roof in the City (see page 20): all these things enhance the mix and underscore the building's environmental credentials and Eversheds' concern for corporate responsibility. No detail has been overlooked to build a headquarters that is both a great place to work and the best possible environment for clients. In short, it is a model of sensitive design and business efficiency an office fit for the 21st century and a demanding marketplace.

The way forward

So, when Making it happen is complete at the end of 2009, where will Eversheds be? One Wood Street will have been open for a year and the firm will be concentrating on a new strategy to take Eversheds to 2012. As for the world economy, this year is already proving to be a watershed, and if there is one principle that must guide all businesses as the decade continues, it is the importance of managing risk.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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