Management headaches at Hammonds

At The Lawyer we normally don’t get into personal comment, but Richard Burns’ decision to step down from his role as senior partner is the best thing to happen to Hammonds since Peter Crossley was elected as managing partner. With Crossley’s predecessor Chris Jones also understood to be staring at the exit, the management demise of this sorry pair can’t come too soon.

Harsh? I don’t think so. Up until now, all legal journalists have shied away from pointing the finger, not least because Burns and Jones have form when it comes to disgraceful litigious bullying – and we should know.

Under Jones’ and Burns’ leadership, people – fee-earners and support staff alike – have lost their jobs. If Hammonds had been a public company the pair of them would have been out the door a long time ago and been subjected to a damn sight more press invective. Instead, they were constantly given the benefit of the doubt. Worse, Hammonds partners were made to feel disloyal if they ever questioned any management decisions at all.

And there were plenty of awful decisions. Which was the worst? Was it the merger with Edge Ellison, which saddled Hammonds with a level of debt it’s still wrestling with? Or perhaps the mergers with boutique firms, which added little but expense to the overall offering? And of course, there was the cash call two years ago, which, in the words of a current Hammonds partner, “failed to do what it was meant to do”. Or was it the fact that no one had any idea as to the real state of the firm’s finances? Or the fact that Hammonds – a £130m turnover firm – was using a two-partner outfit from Bradford for its audit work?

Burns and Jones contributed a lot in the 1990s to Hammonds’ growth. But their problem, according to those who have worked with them in the past, is their inability to grasp the seriousness of the situation. “The problem with Richard was that he’s an incurable optimist and the problem with Chris is that he was always incapable of giving people bad news,” admits a Hammonds loyalist. “That’s a lethal cocktail.”

LLPs will help make law firms more transparent, but partners in particular have to question their leaders constructively, no matter how in control management seem to be at the time. The lesson? Empower yourselves, before it’s too late. Not every firm has a Crossley waiting in the wings.