Trowers & Hamlins’ Jennie Gubbins: Learning lessons

Senior partner Jennie Gubbins is concerned the market is still not getting Trowers & Hamlins. 

But the real injustice would be to miss this £77.2m firm’s transition into a thing of business beauty. Gubbins has been instrumental in turning Trowers from a cluster of independently organised offices sprinkled throughout the UK and Middle East into a centralised system of practice groups with a brand new centralised support unit.

The senior partner commissioned two consultancies last year to tackle two issues: How could Trowers alter the perception of its real estate work and how the firm could overhaul its support staff offering.

The answer to the second question came in the form of a new document production hub in Birmingham to service all of its UK and international offices (6 August 2014). 

“We’ve been feeling that we haven’t been supporting our people well enough in terms of document production,” Gubbins admits. “Our junior staff particularly were not getting the right level of support.” 

The firm turned to consultancy KonSept for advice and in January put a question mark over its 100 secretarial and document production staff. Seven of those roles were dedicated document production staff based in London with the rest spread around the UK.

The consultation ended last month with 33 secretaries accepting voluntary redundancy. The new 22-strong hub will bring together all document production staff into one office, servicing the entire firm.

Gubbins may have enlisted advice on how to alter the firm’s business support system but she certainly already knew what she didn’t want.

“We thought about lots of different options but we did not want to outsource it,” she says. “That was important to us because it’s about ownership and control and making people feel part of the broader team and a part of Trowers rather than an outsourced operation.”

What about location? This isn’t a case of one-size-fits-all by any means. Herbert Smith Freehills went to Ireland for its 56-strong Belfast back office, Simmons & Simmons located its low-cost, high-end service in Bristol and Addleshaw Goddard launhed a support team in Manchester.

“We did not think with any seriousness about sending it to any country other than England,” Gubbins insists. “We didn’t think about Northern Ireland for more than a moment and didn’t think about India. There’s nothing wrong with doing that but it’s just not the same as having people in an office that you manage that is in the same time zone.”

The shift to a central support hub echoes another organisational revolution spearheaded by Gubbins.

She has established five practice groups to span the firm’s UK offices. Previously the firm has operated as distinct offices, accounted for and led as separate units. Now the housing and regulatory, projects, commercial property, litigation, public sector and employment teams span Trowers UK offices. 

In addition, Gubbins is also busy overhauling the international office structure (26 March 2014).

“It’s about making it easier for people to feel as though they get the work done in the right place and building a sense of collegiality around the team,” she says. “I think the benefits are building stronger teams with less inter-office rivalry.”

Was there office rivalry before?

“That would be telling,” she says, laughing.

One unified team is real estate, a group with a big revenue contribution but, Gubbins believes, not a big enough reputation.

The real estate group is the driver of Trowers, bringing in £33.55m of a total £77.2m last year. The team is split between commercial real estate and a housing and regeneration group. It has accounted for around 30 per cent of total revenue for the past five years.

Gubbins brought in consultants from Acritas this year to conduct a survey into how people really perceived Trowers.

“People have thought about us in the housing association space but not the commercial real estate space,” she says “but it takes years to change the perception of a law firm. I want us to be seen as much as a real estate firm as a housing firm.”

Part of that process lies in joining together partners across social housing and commercial real estate both domestically and overseas.

In the past few months the firm’s offices in Bahrain, Oman, Abu Dhabi and Dubai have all been realigned into unified corporate, real estate, energy and litigation teams too.

Trowers’ Middle Eastern presence has been a tricky subject over the past two years. In January the firm closed its office in Cairo (3 January 2014) with resident managing partner Sara Hinton and a number of other Cairo-based fee-earners joining local firm Ibrachy & Partners.

The firm’s financials took a £500,000 hit from the loss of income but the office was generating a loss to start with.

Trowers also terminated its Riyadh alliance in 2012 after a number of departures (23 February 2012) and no longer has a presence in Saudi.

But Gubbins says she wants to shift the international agenda anyway.

“We’re an international firm but we do recognise there are more parts of the world than the Middle East and Far East so we wanted to develop a strategy for dealing with Europe or the States,” she confirms.

Fortunately Trowers was approached by international law firm network Interlaw, which was looking for a firm to fill the gap left by former member, legacy SJ Berwin. Trowers now has access to firms in more than 125 global cities.

One striking feature of Trowers for which Gubbins takes no responsibility is its proportion of female lawyers. For the past two years it has had an almost 30 per cent female partnership, with 34.1 female partners out of 120.5.

It also boosted its number of female equity partner numbers last year from 18.8 per cent of the total to 22.5 per cent, with 12.7 female equity partners out of a total 56.5 on a full-time equivalent basis. Good, yes, but unintentional, says Gubbins.

“When I became senior partner I was really surprised when everyone started saying ‘ooh you’re a woman’,” recalls Gubbins. ”But it’s just not an issue here really.”

By way of illustration Gubbins says Trowers is ”about the size of a decent-sized secondary school, where you kind of know who’s in the lower sixth”.

So it’s not just a woman who happens to be wanting to work hard and be made up. At Trowers you’re on first name terms: ”It’s Jane or Sarah”.

“I think it’s a positive cycle,” she adds. “People can see that women get on here and make it to the higher level and even become senior partner.”

Does all that make her the head teacher figure?

“Maybe, but maybe that’s not the worst thing,” she admits.

Not if you’ve got the lesson plan right.