The Lawyer Management: Forster Dean
26 November 2012 | By Lucy Burton
Gregory Shields is CEO of personal injury and conveyancing firm Forster Dean. He has spent his whole legal career at the Liverpool-based organisation, training as a solicitor there before leading a management buyout in 2007.
What are the key elements of your role?
As chief exec I set the tone. I work on our strategy and ensure we implement it fast. I believe in leadership and that sooner or later the personality of the leader’s approach will filter through the business.
How has your role changed during your time at the firm?
It’s crazy. In 1997 I came to England from Ireland to qualify as a lawyer. Back then Forster Dean had two offices. In March 2007 I led the first pure management buyout of a law firm in the UK, probably the world. Today, we have 29 offices and everything has changed. I like change - it’s good to move on.
Forster Dean operates as a limited company, what are the pros and cons of this?
LLPs are not the way forward. Case law is uncertain and that’s not where you want to be. As CEO of a limited company the speed of decision-making is lightning fast compared with a partnership or LLP.
What are the most significant external issues that affect your role?
I’m concerned about the erosion of access to the law. Not having access to a qualified lawyer in the community puts this country on a path to social unrest.
Has there ever been a problem at work that’s surprised you?
Every day. When you grow from 13 offices to 29 in five years you need to be ready to hang on because the speed of change is astonishing.
You’ve previously said Forster Dean aims to give back to the local community as much as possible. How do you achieve this while remaining profitable?
Word-of-mouth is a powerful thing. We get in excess of 1,200 non-core business enquiries a year and we give free legal advice to every one of these customers. This is against a backdrop of 50 per cent of advice bureaux closing.
We supply statutory declarations for free, free photocopying, free Wi-Fi, sweets, coffee, cakes and loads of other goodies - our local managers are empowered to give back to their community.
We are also a drop-off point for charity Cash for Kids, collecting toys for disadvantaged children in the run-up to Christmas.
Forster Dean is known for its work-life balance, whereby the office doors close at 5pm every day. Does this affect profits?
It increases productivity. When we had 13 offices we had 100 staff; now, with 29 offices, we have 113. What more can I say? Staff are attracted to us because we focus on being flexible and making sure everyone has a balanced working life. What a life - and what a return from our people.
What’s on your to-do list?
Catch up with my finance director and our IT outsource supplier re our paperless office project, which is almost at the ‘launch’ stage. And get to the gym a lot - I have six Christmas parties to go to this year - we like parties at Forster Dean.
What problem would you most like technology to solve?
What about a virtual bank manager featuring artificial intelligence?
What’s the most important lesson your role has taught you?
That leading an organisation is about empowering others to develop their vision.
How do you see the legal market of the future?
There is a danger of entering a ‘dark age’ in our communities. The traditional pillars of the community - bankers, clergy, MPs and so on - have undermined themselves.
But we must not give up hope and lawyers can make a stand by caring deeply for those we interact with, day in and day out.
Fee earners 56
Qualified lawyers 55
Net profit: £1.9m
Unusually for the legal market around 80 per cent of total staff (116) at Forster Dean are female, with the majority breaking the glass ceiling at management level (61 per cent) in the 2011-12 financial year. “We only recruit on the basis of merit,” stressed Shields when asked why so many women are attracted to, and stay, at the firm.
Proclaim case management system with integrated accounts package.
Winscribe digital dictation
ADP for payroll and HR
We use voice over internet desk phones, HTC smartphones
We have our own cloud based system linking all the offices together as one virtual platform.