The unspoken tyranny at law firms

You can stop laughing now. Yes, I have been asked to write a regular blog. Who’d want to listen to me you may well ask? Well, I have been musing on why, given that I’m not a legal household name, I have been given this opportunity.

Nicky Richmond
Nicky Richmond

Nicky Richmond is managing partner at Brecher

Rather than flattering myself by thinking that I have something fantastically original to say,  I suspect that the real reason is that I am actually prepared to speak. I am sure that there are plenty of star lawyers out there who could do more eloquently but, the thing is, they won’t.

There is, I believe, a quiet, unspoken tyranny at most law firms and an increasing pressure to toe the party line. There’s a policy on everything; risk management, press relations, social media, diversity – you name it, your firm will have a policy on it.  Say what you think and you risk opprobrium.  Open your mouth and you’re a troublemaker.  Raise your profile and you’re a self-publicist. So what happens? Bland statements given by lawyers afraid to raise their heads above the parapet.  Being constantly on-message might be great for your brand image but it doesn’t make for great copy. And everyone knows it isn’t true.

So what do I know? Well, I’ve worked in four different types of firm (even though I’ve only moved twice) and having started in the West End, in the glory days of the mid-1980s, a City merger saw me dragged kicking and screaming to “ A Better Partnership” in Cannon Street. Having finally come to terms with EC4, I found myself being asked to get into bed with Americans. “Challenge Us” they proclaimed. Challenge me it certainly did and when that firm started on its path of global expansion I realized that I had to go. If only to get away from the strapline.

I’d moved from niche to global without ever actually deciding to do so. It wasn’t my natural milieu. I’m not a big-firm lawyer. Too outspoken, too opinionated, too open- too everything.

Before you think this is a rant about large firms, let me assure you, it’s not. There are some very wonderful things about big firms;  the breadth of knowledge, a culture of excellence in many;  wonderful support systems; strength in depth.  In the better firms, (but less common these days, a great collegiate atmosphere. Don’t get me wrong, all these things were  important to me too. What was more important though, was my need to feel that I had some degree of control over my own destiny and my own practice.

The larger the firm, the less control individual partners have. That’s inevitable , but I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice my individuality to  be part of a greater whole.  I was having some not inconsiderable difficulty reconciling my naturally questioning nature with the need to whistle the party tune.  So I left. And in 2007, for the first time in 20 years,I really moved. From over 400 partners to 12.

To a practice, given my predilection for retail, I would describe as “boutique”. When I caught myself singing in the car on the way to work, I knew I’d come home.

And whilst I’ve relished the absolute freedom that I’ve had to manage my work and my clients in a way that I judge to be the most effective, my move coincided with the start of the recession and meant that I was faced almost immediately with very different challenges to those that I faced in the previous 20 years. That experience has been fascinating and sobering and I’ve learned more in the last four years than I did in the previous 20.

I now know about every aspect of running a firm, down to the handwash we use in the loos (Molton Brown, since you ask).

So what will this blog be about? Well, given that, somewhat inevitably, so much is written about the larger firms in the legal press, I thought I’d use this blog to muse a bit about life in smaller firms and the very different world we inhabit. Of course, much of what we face is entirely the same – client pressure, deadlines, the business side of the practice but so much is so very different.

In I do feel sometimes that I have gone back to the future – to a firm which is less hierarchical, less hidebound by bureaucracy and one which can be fleet of foot where necessary.  That’s harder to manage in the big behemoths. We smaller firms can turn on a sixpence when we have to and in this fast changing world, that’s a great advantage.  And whilst we can learn an awful lot from the big boys, I think we also have something really valuable to contribute to the big debate about where this profession is going.