Weightmans’ John Schorah: Everyone in the firm has to focus on efficiency

Weightmans is moving from being a Liverpool insurance firm to a true national commercial player. It just doesn’t like to make a fuss.

Weightmans is not one of those firms that hogs the limelight. Its leaders rarely make grand statements about their firm’s ambitions. And yet, in its understated way, this is a firm that has been steadily reinventing itself over the past few years.

Current managing partner John Schorah took over last year from Patrick Gaul, who had led Weightmans for a decade and seen its transition from a £27m Liverpool firm to a UK top-50 player (30 January 2013). Schorah’s first full financial year in the role was a solid one, with revenue further rising to £87m – up 6 per cent from the previous year (7 May 2014).

In style, Schorah shares many similiarities to his predecessor. Both men are quietly spoken Liverpudlians, down-to-earth and pragmatic. Much like their firm. And Schorah is clearly continuing Gaul’s approach to management, making careful strategic decisions with a thought to the future.

These strategic decisions are currently driving through significant change at Weightmans. The firm has recently embarked upon a reinvention of its internal processes and systems with a view to vastly improving efficiency. The most tangible part of the project, named ‘Springboard’, is a switch to a single practice and case management system, but it encompasses far more than just IT.

“What we want to do is to use this as an opportunity to re-engineer and improve the business,” reveals Schorah. ”How can everybody do their job better and more effectively? ‘More efficient’ is measured by the value to the client.”

Weightmans has already started training staff and lawyers in the ‘Lean Six Sigma’ concept, which is designed to focus a business’s attention on efficiency and has already achieved reduced billing cycles.

The other aspect of the Springboard project is something Weightmans is calling ‘Improving Client Experience’ (or ICE), led by senior partner Dan Cutts. This, says Schorah, is “both vertical and horizontal”. It is just starting, but it is intended to really improve how the firm interacts with its clients.

Schorah already thinks Weightmans has, over the years, improved its relationship with clients, adding that most firms have been getting better at this – but more can be done.

“There’s a much deeper sophistication and understanding of the clients’ needs,” he says. ”Law firms are generally beginning to get that. It hasn’t changed enough for us, and we need to be more sophisticated when it comes to pricing and profitability.”

The other major difference Schorah identifies between the Weightmans of 10 or 15 years ago and the Weightmans of today, apart from size, is the way it is working.

“We’re genuinely a lot more joined up, in the most important way which is how we approach the client, but also in how we do things, everything from promotions to training to our approach to processes and IT,” he believes.

Financially, Weightmans continues to grow – although it is far from the most profitable firm in the UK 200. Margin in 2012/13 was 13.4 per cent, and this is likely to have dipped a little in 2013/14. Last year saw a lot of emphasis on improving cash flow and cutting down debt. This was done partly through focusing on lockup, and improving conversion and collection of fees, but Weightmans also gained around £3.8m through a cash call on fixed-share partners, carried out to meet new HM Revenue & Customs national insurance rules for LLPs (24 March 2014). A small capital injection was also made by the firm’s equity partners to fund the IT investment as part of project Springboard.

Schorah declares himself fairly happy with the firm’s 2013/14 results, although he admits, “we didn’t quite nail our budget in terms of revenue”.

This, he explains, was mainly due to a drop in employment work caused by changes to tribunal rules. Weightmans tends to act for employers in employment disputes, with the bulk of its practice concerning tribunal work, so the national slump in cases had an impact.

Weightmans is now looking at how it runs employment cases, with Schorah revealing that it may look at replicating its strategy for volume insurance claims in the employment field. The volume insurance world also changed after new regulations were brought in, and Weightmans created a fourth business line last year, called ‘Solving Disputes’ to handle claims worth less than £25,000 (29 April 2013).

“We’ve spent the year really properly understanding what the issues are,” says Schorah of the project. “We haven’t reinvented the wheel yet, but what’s been really useful is that we’ve got a pretty good understanding of the things that need to be done around pricing and efficiency.”

Insurance more generally, along with other practice areas such as commercial litigation and real estate, had a good year last year. Weightmans recently hired Edwards Wildman Palmer partner Francis Mackie (16 June 2014) to help build up its London and national insurance practice, especially in the Lloyd’s market.

London remains one of the key places which Schorah wants to grow, along with Weightmans’ Midlands presence and its small Glasgow office, gained through hiring a team from defunct Scottish firm Semple Fraser (11 March 2013). Glasgow, in fact, has helped Schorah change his mind about the way Weightmans should expand in the future. Although the firm has taken on a number of mergers over the years, most have been to bulk up an existing office rather than launching a greenfield presence in a new city. 

Schorah says while he still thinks “mergers work best when people are put together”, the success of Glasgow has made him more open to acquiring new offices in this way, and he does not rule out future expansion along similar lines.

He argues that Weightmans is not an “overly cautious” firm, but does agree that it is not one which tends to shout about itself.

“We see ourselves very much as custodians of the firm,” he says of the management team and the partnership. ”That should make you inherently want to avoid being reckless. You can be as ambitious as you want, but you have to pay for it.”

Weightmans: a decade in numbers
Year Turnover (£m) Change from previous year (%) Profit per equity partner (£k) Change from previous year (%) Total staff Total lawyers Partners
2003/04 41 NA 145 NA 565 183 72
2004/05 31.7 -22.7 211 45.5 625 200 76
2005/06 38 19.9 265 25.6 692 228 81
2006/07 44 15.8 310 17 770 270 89
2007/08 49.8 13.2 305 -1.6 797 292 99
2008/09 50.2 0.8 272 -10.8 NA 310 101
2009/10 56.2 12 354 30.1 NA 340 102
2010/11 58.2 3.6 298 -15.8 NA 333 110
2011/12 77.1 32.5 275 -7.7 1044 451 151
2012/13 82 6.4 338 22.9 1147 457 150
2013/14 87 6.1 NA NA NA NA NA
NA = not available            
Source: The Lawyer UK 200