Review underlines the strategic importance of a diverse practice

“We're a family firm, with a long family history and deep-rooted ties to Oxfordshire's community.” So says the online mission statement of Oxford firm Darbys. It is a homely philosophy that appears to be paying off for the firm that first set up shop in 1890. In more recent history, the firm has ballooned in size, growing from 80 staff to 130 since January 2001, including 20 partners and 70 fee-earners.

“There have been a number of factors that have driven the growth, but it is mainly deciding what we are and what we want to be that has made the big difference,” says executive manager Paul Lowe. The firm's practice is divided evenly between three departments: private client, business services and crime and immigration.

“We've just undergone a review of where we want to be in three years time,” Lowe says. “Everybody's happy with the idea of being a full service law firm and we want to carry on in this vein. The fact that there's been this conscious decision, which everyone backs, says a lot about the people involved and the leadership.”

The firm's turnover has more than kept apace with the firm's growth and has doubled in the past two and a half years. Unusually, the three departments all appear to be pulling their weight. In the next 12 months, the firm is aiming to increase its turnover by another 25 per cent and it is expecting its criminal and immigration department to bring in £1.5m, business services to bring in £2.5m and private client to earn £2m.

As Lowe points out, the rest of the practice is not subsidising the legally-aided criminal work and immigration. If anything, the firm has benefited from the recent crisis in criminal law, while other firms in the area have folded. The firm has taken on four partners from local firms recently.

“The private client side of the firm has a motto of looking after the individual from birth to the grave and on the business services side, we're principally looking after firms with a family background,” says Lowe. He adds that the practice does not act for PLCs or listed companies, but owner managed businesses.

“We think those firms that have changed their strategy to only dealing with commercial work and not private client work because it is not as profitable have made a mistake, because much of our private client work comes from the owner-managers of those kind of businesses,” continues Lowe.

As Lowe readily admits, the firm's family credentials are now largely historical. There has been no direct Darby involvement for a quarter of a century. In 1999, the firm merged with another old and local family firm Mallam Lewis. Lowe says: “Our origins are very much in families and, although there aren't any family members involved, there's a feeling of an enlarged family within the firms.”