On 1 April 2002, Stephen Bennett became the managing partner of five-office firm Blaser Mills, taking over from Alka Kharbanda, who is on sabbatical. This follows three years of change, after advice from the consultancy arm of accountants MacIntyre Hudson to restructure from top to bottom.
Involved in the management of the firm for much of his 25-years there, Bennett now has his work cut out. The recommendations, given in 1999, were initially to transfer the management of the partnership into the hands of a single managing partner, who would give up fee-earning to concentrate on the role full time, scrapping the previous system of three elected partners operating a committee. It also suggested returning to departmental, rather than geographical, divisions. The other key factor was the need to address the firm's staff-to-fee-earner ratio, especially in the light of its IT investment.
Bennett says the firm has embraced most of the recommendations but has chosen to modify some. Not surprisingly, it proved impossible to find a lawyer prepared to give up fee-earning entirely in favour of management, but Bennett is happy to take the reins. “I think most partners prefer a system where they're selectively asked to do things, rather than being dragooned into partners meetings,” he says.
“The difficulty we found with moving away from the office-based structure is that we were losing a bit of our identity and finding some artificial divides,” adds Bennett – the firm has offices in Aylesbury, Chesham, Harrow, High Wycombe and Rickmansworth. “So we've now maintained the departmental structure but look at offices as profit centres. It seems to have had the desired effect. If you go too far with departmentalisation, you're taken to the point where you say we should all be under the same roof. That's just not achievable in our kind of work.”
Bennett is taking a positive stance regarding the changes and is keen to build on the firm's new position; but it must be noted that turnover has yet to show any significant improvement. In 1999 it was £3.8m and three years on it has grown to just £4.4m.
“One of our successes of late is recognising the opportunity and getting in early with the conditional fee arrangements,” says Bennett. “We have a very strong personal injury department and are linked in to the National Accident Helpline. Despite the Government doing some funny things, it's a fairly consistent client in the main.”
Of immediate concern is how to combat competition from London, Reading and Oxford for commercial business. Growth is essential and the firm will have to present a consolidated front to recruit and attract potential business partners. With work coming equally from both contentious and non-contentious law, there is a stable base for growth from areas such as employment and commercial property.
The firm's routes can be traced back to 1888; but more recently to a series of mergers and acquisitions. Not all have been entirely successful. In 1995 it acquired Winter-Taylors, adding five partners to its number. But all of those partners have subsequently left. There are now 13 partners with four new partners admitted this year, two of whom were former trainees.