No place like home

A law firm with no office and equal fees for associates and partners? It’s a crazy idea, but Peter Rouse might be just the man to pull it off

Peter Rouse is in full flow telling me how work can be fun, when he stops himself and, laughing, tells me that he is beginning to sound like the guy in the Smirnoff ad. You know the one, where mean nasty boss is turned into caring sharing friend by a rogue autocue prompting him to encourage more flirting and more time off. Rouse is not far wrong really.

He barely pauses for breath while telling me his vision for a new law firm to be named Team, which will hopefully launch early next year. I am with him for two hours and, fascinating though Rouse is, for the last forty minutes of the interview I keep opening my mouth to tell him I need to get back to the office, but before the air can reach my larynx, he is off again.

Team is to be a law firm without an office, with one set hourly rate for all lawyers and a transparent pay structure. (There will now be a brief pause for the City top dogs to stop choking on their coffee.)

Of course, if it was just any lawyer suggesting this, the men in white coats would be round in a flash and no one would be listening. But this is the Rouse behind Rouse & Co, the international intellectual property (IP) firm that counts Willoughby & Partners as its UK member. He left there to take further a product developed within the firm, which was imaginatively called Workroom.

The idea was to create a global portal covering IP rights work but unfortunately, the timing was wrong. By the time Rouse was ready to go to the moneymen for £13m to take the idea global, the market had tired of the internet and so the venture ran out of cash. Rouse also adds that he hit problems in being both a lawyer and selling to lawyers.

Being a lawyer meant that clients and financiers questioned his “true motivation” due to a certain cynicism about the profession in the wider world. Selling to lawyers, meanwhile, is tough because they are trained to pick up on the slightest flaw which means, believes Rouse, that they
fail to see the wider picture of opportunity.

So, at the end of January he mothballed the project and had to work on what he would do next. He decided that for his next project he would like to use the Workrooms idea, which had opened his eyes to the idea of collaborative working.

Now Rouse seems to have become a full-time evangelist for the idea, and the related notion that work can be pleasurable. “[Collaborative working] is a huge business,” he says. “Companies are tuning to the idea that working yourself and everybody else into the ground is not the holy grail. That approach does not take the humans along with you and encourages absenteeism.

“The idea is talking about values that people are looking to apply in the rest of their lives. If you have an uncomfortable bed then, as you spend six to eight hours a day in it, get a comfortable bed. It’s the same at work. People would like to be in an environment that is more nurturing and more encouraging, and that is possible.”

At the core of his plan is the idea that a law firm does not have to be based in an office: the individual lawyers can work from home and so the only space the firm would need would be for client meetings.

Sitting in Rouse’s Docklands flat overlooking the Thames and Greenwich Naval College, you can’t help feeling that you too would want to work from home if you had such a view. But Rouse claims that he has lived there long enough not to notice it anymore, which is a crying shame.

Another core idea is that everyone in the firm would charge £200 an hour from newly-qualified through to partner level.
This is an idea that Rouse started at his previous firm and the legal recruiters helping him find staff for the venture encouraged him to reintroduce it. He says that clients like the simplicity. Rouse alleges that the fee structure eventually crumbled at his former firm because the UK partners wanted to be paid more without working longer than 900 hours a year.

While we are on the subject of salaries, Rouse also wants a situation in his new firm where everyone knows what the next person is paid. “I have put in place a very simple structure that’s transparent. Partners are not going to say that they win on the swings and on the roundabouts. Partners now do not really take on any risks as they are insured up to the hilt, so there will be a proportionate income between partners and assistants.

“Rewarding people for what they do is the right way to do things. We can set a target of 1,200 hours, but if you do 1,300 to 1,800 hours because of the pressure of work then you are going to get paid more.”

However, anymore than 1,800 hours and you are doing it for free, because Rouse does not believe it is possible to honestly bill more than that. In the past he admits that he worked all the hours God sent, but still never billed more than 1,800.

And that period of his life, while he was building up Rouse & Co, seems to have strongly influenced his new ideas. “People talked to me about balance for years but I felt a growing responsibility to people in the firm,” he admits. “I built that business like a nutcase. The outcome was that I lost myself and my sense of purpose in the process. Someone in there should have said to me that this is not sustainable. I missed my children growing up. How sad is that?”

Rouse tells me a story that happened when his son was about four or five. His then wife asked him at the breakfast table to do some reading with his son before heading off to work and handed him a book with a couple of words a page. Rouse handed it back and asked for something a bit more challenging, only to be told that the idea was his son should read to him. Rouse had not even realised that his son had learnt to read.

He says that it is a trap that many men fall into. “I was working to provide them with a financially stable background and all that kind of stuff. What they missed was time with me. What can happen so easily with men is it becomes easier not to be with [their children] because they don’t know how to cope with it.”

Now, he says, he is able to take the children to work – due mainly to not having any gainful employment at the moment – and he does not want to give that up. By working from home, he says that the Team lawyers will gain at least an hour a day back from the grind of the Tube.

But will they not get lonely? After all, people go into work to catch up on the office gossip. Rouse says not, because they will have the phone and there will be regular gatherings to fulfil the social needs of the firm.

I am not entirely convinced but Rouse is obviously completely signed up to the idea. So much so that he is going against all his friends’ advice and setting up Team just as the spectre of recession is looming large.

But, a little like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Rouse seems to think that if he believes hard enough then it will happen. Those he recruits will bring clients with them, and as long as everyone buys into the new culture it cannot fail.

Of course to some, all of this will sound as much like science fiction as the copy of The Matrix that Rouse has next to his TV. But, as they say, stranger things have happened.
Peter Rouse
Founding partner