For years Ince & Co carried an aura of tradition – a solid, respected insurance-focused law firm which had been quietly getting on with business without really changing the way it worked or growing significantly.
In the past couple of years the firm has begun to make efforts to shed that aura. In March 2016 it moved its London headquarters from St Katharine Docks to Aldgate Tower. The move allowed Ince to shift to open-plan working, with the simultaneous launch of an agile working policy. This applies to business services staff just as much as fee-earners.
International senior partner Jan Heuvels says the move to agile working was not just about saving money, although he acknowledges this can be a motivating factor.
“While there are clear financial advantages of making such a move, it is about much more than that,” he says. “From a business services perspective, we’ve created a working environment that encourages greater teamwork and communication across our various functions. This has resulted in our teams being able to deliver a better service to our fee earners, which has ultimately improved the service that we are able to offer to our clients.”
Flexible working patterns
Ince is far from the only firm to adopt agile working. In the three years since the government introduced flexible working regulations, giving any worker the right to request flexible working patterns, law firms have been swift to formalise their policies.
However in many firms the formal right to agile working is limited to fee-earners and some firms say business services staff roles are less easily adapted to working away from the office.
“Granted, if you are a member of our front of house team, then working on a flexible or agile basis is going to be difficult,” Heuvels acknowledges. “However, if you are a member of our business development or finance teams, then opportunities to do so are greater.”
He says Ince’s agile working policy is designed to help all staff take advantage of the opportunity to escape from their desks.
“This policy is based on common sense and trust in our people, but gives clear guidelines to both managers and staff on how they can work differently. Agile working is ultimately intended to give us greater flexibility on where, when and how we work – provided there is no reduction in levels of service,” Heuvels explains.
Definition of agile working
Ince categorises a wide range of working arrangements as agile, including moving around the office to work in different locations, and working from home.
“The key question that our policy asks is, ‘Is the working arrangement that I am considering going to help or hinder me in getting my work done?’” explains Heuvels. “This is where the need for common sense comes in. If the answer to the question is ‘hinder’ then our guidelines state that it is not permitted.
“We also ask our people to consider the likelihood of anything urgent arising that would necessitate them physically being in the office at short notice,” adds Heuvels.
Staff are asked to discuss working plans with their manager and colleagues on a regular basis, and Ince is using technology to facilitate its agile working. Its staff are asked to keep their location updated on Skype for Business, which is also used for voice and video calls, email and instant messaging.
Moving to a new office is often a good opportunity for an IT upgrade, and Ince is no exception. Heuvels says the firm “completely” overhauled its networks and back-end IT and now has much faster connections to its back-end systems which gives lawyers and staff a “much more responsive user experience”.
“We now have almost instantaneous connections when working remotely, thereby removing the frustrations associated with our old technology,” he adds. “Users are now able to connect easily to large video screens in all meeting rooms, thus reducing the need for paper as we focus on supporting a paper-light working environment.”
The Aldgate Tower office has WiFi with increased capacity which allows staff to move around the office and keep working seamlessly. Guest and internal WiFi networks are segregated, which Heuvels says ensures the security of Ince’s systems.
Personal hardware was also in focus. A majority of business services staff were given new Microsoft Surface Pro 4 tablets to enable them to access the firm’s systems wherever they are working.
The IT upgrade began in London but Ince has since been rolling it out across its international network, with the aim of all Ince offices having the same IT infrastructure by mid-November 2017. Other offices have also gone open plan, such as Hong Kong, with an office move in late 2016, and agile working is being adopted across the firm too.
Heuvels says the investment in IT was the enabler for its agile, open plan working.
“The benefits that we have received touch on many aspects of our business, so we monitor them in a number of ways, including feedback from our people and clients, our internal use of paper, which we have reduced by 66 per cent in London, and the positive impact that it has had on our finances,” he says.
Ince & Co’s turnover
Indeed, Ince did see a positive uptick in finances in 2016/17, or at least its top line – the firm does not disclose net profit figures. Turnover rose 16.1 per cent, the first hike in four years, after a period of restructuring.
The increase in turnover came with a drop in non fee-earner headcount. The firm’s total staff numbers dropped 2 per cent from 547 to 536 between 2015/16 and 2016/17. Fee-earner numbers rose 1 per cent from 300 to 303, but non fee-earner numbers dropped 5.7 per cent from 247 to 233.
Business services staff numbers declined in several – although not all – teams. The facilities and marketing teams both lost two staff members and finance lost one, while secretarial and document production staff numbers fell from 86 to 82.
Conversely, Ince added one human resources staff member, two risk professionals and its technology team increased in size from 19 in 2015/16 to 24 last year. This reflects the firm’s investment in technology, while the drop in secretarial staff is a common theme following the implementation of agile working and the increased use of technology to drive efficiency.
Heuvels says Ince has no plans for a formal reduction in non fee-earner headcount.
“Like all businesses we constantly review our staff numbers to ensure that we are able to maintain the highest levels of client service, while optimising efficiency,” he says.
Indeed the firm has recently taken the unusual step of naming HR director Andrew Jameson as its new London head, replacing Heuvels who is relocating to Hong Kong. Although former Royal Navy officer Jameson is a barrister by training, his role at Ince is non-legal and Heuvels praises the impact he has made at the firm since joining in April 2017.
“If a non-lawyer is going to make a difference to the business, he needs to be respected in the partnership. Andrew is more than that and it has shown since he joined,” Heuvels told The Lawyer when Jameson’s new role was announced.
Business services staff are critical to any firm, and Ince’s promotion of Jameson and its firmwide adoption of agile working show that this firm is making an effort to recognise that.