Law firm success – what separates those who have achieved it?

Posted by Stephen Moore, founder and CEO of Legal Futures Associate MLT Digital

Learning 1: Freedom to play

Moore: Play to your strengths

Why do some law firms succeed when others don’t? It’s a big question and there is no one-size-fits-all answer, but when we are all operating in the same space and offering roughly the same services, it’s a very interesting one.

In terms of success, let’s agree on a definition for the purposes of this piece, namely ‘achieving one’s desired future state, whatever that might be’.

That could be, for example, a turnover of £x, a profit of £y, a good work/life balance, or a mixture.

To try and find out, I have recently been interviewing some law firm leaders, both past and present, who have achieved success. I have also been interviewing law firm consultants and suppliers who work with law firms of all sizes to help them succeed.

My objective is to find out the levers successful law firm leaders pull to deliver results. You can listen to these interviews by visiting

To date I have interviewed:

  • Austin Lafferty, principal at Austin Lafferty Solicitors and the original TV lawyer;
  • Greg Whyte of Jones Whyte who has grown his law firm from zero to 254 members of staff in 10 years;
  • Stephen Gold of Stephen Gold Consulting and formerly of Golds Solicitors, one of the most disruptive and successful legal practices of its kind;
  • Bernard Savage of Size 10½ Boots, a professional services business development consultancy; and
  • Murray Mathieson of Positively Legal, coach and consultant to many of the world’s leading law firms.

Each interview has been different, as you can imagine, but there are a number of themes running through each discussion that would indicate there are some key behaviours lawyers can adopt to deliver success for themselves and their practice, irrespective of the size of its practice, its location, or its service offering.

The first one is this: work out your strengths and play to them.

Austin Lafferty, Greg Whyte and Stephen Gold are natural business developers. They do not see themselves being at their best delivering a technical legal service. That is not to say that they can’t, or won’t, do it, it’s just not where they are at their best.

Their strength is building relationships and developing new sources of business. Let’s look at these examples in chronological order:

Austin Lafferty

Austin is the original TV lawyer (certainly in Scotland). At heart, he is an amateur dramatist and loves to be the centre of attention, telling jokes, stories and making people laugh.

As he recounts in his interview, his preferences for further study were drama, art or law. Once he’d gone down the route of becoming a lawyer, he missed the opportunities to perform and so approached a radio station with an idea about a lawyer on the radio answering common legal questions.

The station took this idea and ran with it. This led to more and more media work and Austin became a well-known media figure; the work flowed into his practice as a result. In his day, he was even getting paid to do this, so the positive effect was twofold.

Austin didn’t see this as business development at the time, or even really work. He just enjoyed doing it and was good at it and being the principal at the firm meant he could decide that this was the best way of spending his time.

Stephen Gold

Stephen set up his eponymous firm with this wife as a general practice firm. Over the years, this began to evolve and, as they developed, they began to pick up secondary lending and remortgaging work.

His partner, Jonathan Edwards, a keen technologist, began to develop technology solutions to automate large portions of the work and they were able to offer enormous efficiency savings to their clients.

Stephen, understanding that his skillset was in building and developing relationships effectively, put the technical practice of law behind him and concentrated on business development. He wore the leather out on his shoes travelling all over the place meeting prospects and pitching for work. S

peaking to him I didn’t really get the impression that he considered it hard work. He found it tiring maybe, but he didn’t find it hard.

Without his time being split between technical legal practice and business development, Stephen had the freedom concentrate on his core area of strength and this, combined with Jonathan’s technical nous, meant that Golds flourished.

Greg Whyte

Greg started Jones Whyte as a young lawyer with his business partner Ross Jones, operating from a shared desk in an architect’s office. A decade later, they are a 254-person firm working across multiple sectors and practice areas.

Guess what? Greg also turns out to be a natural business developer and at his most comfortable out selling the business and developing relations. Like Stephen, he left the technical practice of law behind at an early stage to focus all of his efforts on developing opportunities for Jones Whyte.

About strengths

Some consider a strength to be something one is good at. I don’t really go with that definition as sometimes someone can be very good at something they don’t actually enjoy. I prefer Verne Harnish’s definition in Scaling Up: “A strength isn’t something you’re good at; it’s only a strength if it literally gives you strength, gives you energy. In turn, a weakness is something that, though you may be good at it, drains the life out of you.”

In these three examples, the principals have found the freedom to go out and do what gives them strength. They have found the freedom to play.

This correlates with any well organised team in which the right players in the right positions:

  • A person who is good at scoring goals normally plays in attack
  • A person who is good at batting in cricket normally plays up the order
  • A person who is a good drummer normally plays the drums

In Jim Collin’s seminal business book Good to Great, he explores, using extensive research, the reasons behind companies making the leap from being good, to being great.

Great also has a number of definitions, but for the purposes of the book it was defined as “generating cumulative stock returns that exceeded the general stock market by at least three times over 15 years – and it had to be a leap independent of its industry. In fact, the 11 good-to-great companies that we found averaged returns 6.9 times greater than the market’s – more than twice the performance rate of General Electric under the legendary Jack Welch.”

To keep this in line with this particular article about playing to your strengths and having the confidence to start doing so, the following excerpt is of critical importance:

“The executives who ignited the transformations from good to great did not first figure out where to drive the bus and then get people to take it there. No, they first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figured out where to drive it. They said, in essence, ‘Look, I don’t really know where we should take this bus. But I know this much: If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it someplace great’.” (My emphasis)

In the examples above, the right people are the principals. In order for them to succeed, they have to be the right people. The difficulty sometimes, certainly when fee-earning pressure is applied, is being confident about which seat they should sit in.

Someone needs to drive the bus, and someone needs to sell the tickets. Someone needs to do the work (the technical bit) and someone needs to sell the service.

So, I suppose the questions are:

  • Are you in the right seat with the freedom to play?
  • Are your team members?

You can listen to the latest episode of the podcast by clicking here or by searching for ‘Your Law Firm Success’ on your favourite podcast provider.


    Readers Comments

  • Peter Griffiths says:

    Is not curious that the trial judges of so many cases did not compare notes about the PO charges or perhaps they did.

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