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Ian Hopkins, managing partner of South Wales law firm Leo Abse & Cohen (LAC), makes no bones about how the firm needed a shake-up two years ago. “We recognised that big changes were needed and went through an enormous cultural shift,” he admits. “We were a sleeping giant, but we’ve woken up.”
The awakening and commensurate changes may have encountered some initial internal resistance, but that battle has been won: last year the firm was awarded Welsh newspaper the Western Mail’s ‘Small to Medium-Sized Law Firm of the Year Award’, beating 23 other finalists. An advertising campaign tackling divorce head-on – with controversial titles such as ‘Poison’ and ‘Escape’ – also saw it nominated at The Law Society Gazette Centenary Awards for ‘Best Marketing Campaign’. Turnover was £4.7m in 2002 and has almost doubled in two years.
But radical surgery was required for the firm to make such strides. As Hopkins says: “The first thing we had to sort out was morale. Career progression had stagnated. So we reappraised salary partner and associate promotions and last year made our first equity partner appointments for a long time. Motivation levels improved significantly.”
Next up was communication. “We adopted a much more open approach,” says Hopkins. “We went through a business planning exercise about 18 months ago. Brainstorming sessions included everyone to see how we could move forward.” At the same time, the firm made what Hopkins sees as its most fundamental change: the appointment of three non-legal board members.
As Hopkins puts it: “We previously had support managers, but like a lot of law firms, the partners perhaps thought they could look after marketing, people management, IT and all the rest of it themselves. But the penny dropped that we needed to bring in experts in these areas – not to do the partners’ work, but to provide expert, objective advice. This led to three support directors being appointed, in finance, human resources and marketing.”
Hopkins is a convert to the idea of the 21st century law firm, epitomised both by his support directors and by his own undertaking of an MBA on a part-time basis. Indeed, the arrival of the support directors came just as he was completing his MBA. “Suddenly the firm had bags of energy, enthusiasm and management expertise at its disposal, with a strong team that can drive change,” he says. “You can’t change things on your own, but if you have a band of people with complementary skills, then change follows.”
A PR campaign was also launched. “We see the ‘LAC brand’ as modern, professional, approachable,” says Hopkins. “Every quarter the marketing director does a presentation to show what’s been achieved.”
Ongoing recruitment is underway, with prospective employees having to meet more than merely legal criteria. “Legal skills get you to the starting line, but you need good business skills as well,” says Hopkins. The aim for the firm is to consolidate its position as a leading South Wales practice with plenty of work from the West Country. Hopkins says: “Lawyers are by nature quite reserved people, and we’ve had to overcome this. Change hasn’t happened overnight, but we’re on the way.”
Leo Abse & Cohen
Total number of partners
Total number of lawyers
Main practice areas
Commercial, defence insurance, personal injury and private client
Bank of Ireland, Ensign Motor Policies, GMB, Julian Hodge Bank, NFU Mutual, TGWU, Unifi and Usdaw