The people’s lawyer

Vanessa Pawsey talks to Thompsons chief executive Geoff Shears, and asks whether the firm’s corporate direction is a move away from its traditional ‘ordinary person’ image

Geoff Shears, the new chief executive of Thompsons, definitely appears cool, calm and collected. But he may not be as calm as he appears. It quickly becomes apparent that Shears has an agenda – to justify Thompsons’ move to a corporate structure.

Shears is well prepared for the interview, and although he is reluctant to talk about his current role within the firm, he is nevertheless quite happy to discuss his ideology.

In an increasingly competitive climate evidenced by the current salary wars, he says that the driving force behind his career is social justice. His legal training allowed him to choose between making lucrative awards for himself or using his skills to help ordinary people. He chose the latter.

Shears studied law at the London School of Economics between 1966 and 1969, and then went on to do an industrial relations degree at Warwick University. “I came away from the London School of Economics with the impression that most people don’t get a fair crack of the whip,” he says. “But I realised that the trade union movement was able to put muscle and finance behind the legal process available to ordinary people. With the right cases, trade unions could take on insurance companies and employers on equal terms.”

Shears’ commitment to ordinary people, as he refers to his clients, is reflected in the whole ethos of Thompsons. In the partnership deeds it states that “it shall not be the object of the partnership to earn for the partners the maximum income”, but that “the fees charged shall be as moderate as is consistent with a fair share of profits for each partner”. Indeed, Thompsons’ profits per partner figure has always been very poor. Even so, when Thompsons announced two weeks ago that the Scottish and English practices were divorcing, and that the English practice was restructuring itself along corporate lines (The Lawyer, 27 October), it came as something of a surprise.

With the abandonment of the partnership vote, Thompsons’ structure is more like a corporate body than any City firm. The severity of the change suggests that something is afoot. But Shears puts Thompsons’ turnover for the last financial year at £30m, and says the annual case intake, which averages 35,000, is going up by 1,000 a year. He explains that market conditions are tight and that the firm needs a more efficient commercial decision-making process. “There’s increasing pressure to specialise and expand, and we need to be able to take commercial decisions in a more efficient way,” he says.

He paints a rosy picture at odds with market gossip. Thompsons is expanding its specialisms, in particular personal injury and employment but also pension, intellectual property and criminal law. It is also looking to open an office in Dublin.

He then points to a number of recent – and not so recent – changes which have heaped pressure on Thompsons. They go some way towards explaining the need for change.

First, the post-Thatcher years saw a decline in union membership. Then last year the Woolf reforms led to a decrease in the number of disputes that reached the courts, thus reducing the income per case by 25 per cent. Shears says that the delay of the collective conditional fee agreements (CCFAs), which were expected in April 2000 but which failed to materialise until November 2000, also increased the pressure.

After that came the emergence of the claims management firms, which pose a massive threat to trade unions. “It’s an indictment of the legal profession that we have failed to set up something similar,” says Shears. “Companies like Claims Direct give ordinary people access to justice, and the Government should take some credit for encouraging people with reservations about going to legal services to get advice.”

However, his acknowledgement that claims management firms are good for society as a whole does not detract from the fact that they are bad for Thompsons. But Shears denies that Thompsons is in any financial trouble. He says: “The decrease in the cost per case is being offset by the increase in turnover.” But he does admit that “there’s no final result yet and a certain amount of uncertainty remains”.

There is no doubt that Shears is 100 per cent committed to Thompsons. In fact, it is the only law firm he has ever worked for. “One joined the firm in 1971 and one’s been here ever since,” he says, possibly finding the focus on himself a trifle absurd.

The first case he worked on was an asbestos case which established the parameters for asbestos liability. Shears says that with asbestos claims expected to mushroom in the next few years, he is pleased to have witnessed the process from the beginning.

During the Grunwick industrial dispute of the late 1970s he headed the litigation and handled the arrests on the picket line. Then, when Thompsons opened an office in Newcastle in 1980, he headed north. “The North of England was taking the brunt of Thatcher’s anti-union policies. It was also attacked by the recession and job cuts. I went up in the middle of all that and really became part of the community there,” he says.

He was also involved in the miners’ strikes. He refuses to be specific, but says that Thompsons worked on various disputes, some of which included ensuring that the strikers did not go to jail and making sure they got a fair hearing. “Partners were acting for 1,000 miners each,” he says.

The last case he worked on before taking on a management role was the Unison merger. In 1991, Shears moved back to London and was made a senior partner. So, with such passion for his job, how did he find the transition from being a practising lawyer to taking on a management role?

“Oh, I wasn’t expecting that question,” he laughs. After a pause he replies: “I was ready to take responsibility for the firm at a very difficult time. I was eager and enthusiastic to ensure that Thompsons delivered on its potential. I wanted to do it for the trade union movement,” he says. “Whether I liked the job or not just didn’t come into it.”
Geoff Shears
Chief executive