Achieving more together

There may be economic troubles and disruption ahead but English law firm Mills & Reeve is developing an approach that might be weatherproof. Julie Mortimer, Director of Marketing, and Claire Clarke, Managing Partner, talk to Neasa MacErlean.

Mills & Reeve is unafraid to look into a future where we have “legal services rather than law firms”, in the words of Claire Clarke, and where accountants and IT specialists are among the main legal providers.

Such an idea is a kind of commercial blasphemy for traditional lawyers – but it is an accepted truth at this six-office, top 50 UK firm. Three character traits in the 1,000-person practice have helped it embrace these realities. The first is its alignment to clients (who are less concerned than lawyers about who provides their services, so long as the job is well done). The second is that is has a constant emphasis on innovation – an approach which inevitably leads into an exploration of Artificial Intelligence (AI). And the third is widely shared across professional services – and that is the desire to be industry experts, not just legal specialists.

Alignment to clients has inspired the firm’s most high-profile thought leadership campaigns in the last couple of years. The ‘Full Scale Ahead’ and ‘Defying Gravity’ projects highlighted issues for the mid-market sector, “the unsung powerhouse of the UK economy” which makes up a significant proportion of the firm’s commercial clientele. Both explored pathways to growth with business leaders. And the ‘Exciting Disruptors’ campaign looks into the real estate crystal ball, seeing how driverless cars and other forms of technology will change that landscape. “It gives us a great opportunity to talk to our clients,” says Clarke, commenting on ‘Exciting Disruptors’. “And it positions us more as commercial advisers than lawyers.”

The Disruptors research was enhanced by using ‘Crowdicity’, a software tool that works rather like Facebook to share and develop ideas. (It was also used for the Rio Olympics and by Virgin Australia, for instance.) Mills & Reeve had already been using it internally and employed it for the first time with clients on ‘Exciting Disrupters’. Having used Crowdicity to canvass ideas on innovation, collaboration and office refurbishments’, the firm could see how it could be extended to its clientele. “We put ideas up and asked clients to comment,” explains Julie Mortimer. “The aim is to build on what our clients are thinking of doing. We’ve been using it two years now, and it works very well. But it does need strong communications around it to encourage people to engage.” The outcomes have been way beyond expectations: Mortimer quotes the feedback of one client who said: “I’ve never seen a lawyer do anything like this.”

Over the past couple of years, the firm’s 123 partners and 870 employees have been assisted in their internal and external communications by SMARP, a platform which brings together Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media comms so that users can see all messaging on one interface. “It has driven traffic to our website because our people have become much more active,” says Mortimer. “They can add their own comments more easily. And they can see it is relevant to their clients.”

Assisted by such technology, Mills & Reeve personnel have been able to respond fast to new opportunities. Mortimer gives an example: “The family team identified that few firms were talking about co-habitation. Extremely quickly they produced a very, very detailed website and a survey of people cohabiting. They found a mass of misinformation. There was coverage of our research in every national newspaper in one form or another.”

Many initiatives underpin the goal “to build an innovative culture”, as Clarke puts it. Innovation champions (all volunteers – including one who made partner this year) help drive the firm’s innovation strategy. Mills & Reeve third annual ‘Innovation Week’ takes place this autumn. “Previous spotlights during the week have been on AI,” Clarke adds. “We are developing ideas we can take to clients.” Some ideas will make it and some will not. Still being piloted is a work allocation scheme which started in June in the corporate commercial department: it aims to distribute matters to individuals while managing capacity, skills and learning requirements.

A side-effect of all these initiatives is a deepening of collaboration. The firm sees this as a core strength, and reinforces it through an internal and external positioning which it calls ‘achieve more together’. The aim to collaborate is also underlined by the firm’s bonus scheme which saw an average of nearly £2,300 awarded to each staff member for 2017/18. Mills & Reeve has been included in the The Sunday Times’ ‘Best 100 Companies to Work For’ for 15 years – but, rather modestly, when asked about this by PM, Mortimer and Clarke gave all the credit to their Human Resources colleagues and did not claim it as a marketing triumph.

Mortimer remains focused on extending collaboration both within her 37-strong team and with the rest of the firm. A weekly email newsletter keeps all of the group in touch, as do monthly video conferences and briefings and an annual strategy day. She makes conscious efforts to stimulate collaboration – including, for instance, a Whatsapp group and implementing the firmwide Share-A-Cino practice. Started in October 2017, Share-A-Cino is built on people in the firm having a coffee with a colleague they do not previously know and talking about what they do. “We use every opportunity to keep the team talking to each other and sharing ideas,” says Mortimer. Disussion of ideas has lead to unexpected cross-function projects – such as the running of the alumni programme through the bids team.

Where will the firm go now? Two years ahead of time it has reached some of its ‘2020 strategy’ goals. It fulfilled the goal to breach the £100m turnover figure in 2017/18 (recording an income of £106.3m, up 14 per cent on the previous year). And it has outpaced the average top 100 law firm growth rate. “All our offices are growing,” says Clarke. “And there are more opportunities in all of them, particularly in Leeds and Manchester.”

But she is not tempted to point to the sunniness of the climate in areas where she is unsure. Asked if Mills & Reeve can continue growing at 14 per cent a year, she replies: “Who can tell with Brexit a few months away?” She is sure, however, that the firm is pulling the right levers. “We are focusing on the business areas that interest our clients. We are offering services they want to buy.” And, despite the disruption, she sees much continuity: “Clients still buy people; they want commercial, solution-focused lawyers who add value and introduce them to other clients. All that will stay.” Maybe lawyers in general should not be too worried by the rise of accountants and IT providers. Mills & Reeve isn’t.