Until the 1970s, Barlows was a family-run firm. There are now 138 staff spread across offices in Guildford, Godalming and Chertsey. Barlows was founded in 1816 and is the result of two significant mergers. The first, between Barlow Norris & Jenkins and Mellersh & Lovelace, added a third father-and-son team. At this point the firm became known as Barlows. The second merger in 1974, with Wells & Philpott, led to younger lawyers being recruited, and the Chertsey office was the most recent addition in 1997, with Barlows taking over Paine & Brettell.
Head of company commercial Christine Goodyear surprised herself with some of the statistics gathered. Four of Barlows' 14 equity partners are women, all with small children. Of the 46 fee-earners, 63 per cent are women and there are eight lawyers working flexitime. With fee growth at 193 per cent during the past 10 years, averaging 17.5 per cent per annum, the firm is still going strong in its 185th year.
In the 1980s, Barlows began to look for a dedicated commercial partner, but was unable to offer competitive rates of pay. This was compounded by the pervading 'London-or-nowhere' attitude. By 1988, the firm chose to promote Goodyear, who had been with the firm since 1978, and she built the commercial department from scratch.
She now has a team of 12, including three other partners, and pulls in 40 per cent of the firm's £5.5m turnover.
Growth has been substantial during the past few years, and the target is for the 60-40 split between private client and commercial to swing the other way. Recent transactions include the sale of information technology recruitment company the Qudos Partnership to TMP Worldwide in August. Typical deal size is between £2m-£5m.
“I find that clients really like everybody working together. The more departmentalised you are, the more clients can feel that there are firms within a firm”
Christine Goodyear, Barlows
Goodyear adopted an unusual structure for the commercial team, not dividing the different legal areas but managing the specialist lawyers together. Weekly team meetings provide cohesion.
Goodyear said: “The handover, when it is within a department, isn't half as great a step. It's about how the department is led from the top. I find that clients really like everybody working together. The more departmentalised you are, the more clients can feel that there are firms within a firm.”
With many major London companies relocating to Guildford, law firms in this catchment area are generally enjoying commercial success. “Since the 1990s' recession lots of people looked to cut their legal fees and looked for other major centres. Guildford has come up tremendously in the last 10 years,” said Goodyear.
Barlows claims it gets an average one approach per week from London companies seeking comparable expertise at lower costs to those found in the City.
Rival firms in Guildford are apparently respectful, pleasant and refer work to one another. But for how long? Goodyear expects a merger will be necessary for Barlows to achieve future growth targets. But having grown quietly for nearly 30 years, her apprehensions about protecting the firm's ethos are understandable.