The Unilever of law? Shakespeare Martineau’s big ambitions

Walker-Smith: Agility is crucial

Shakespeare Martineau has outlined its ambition to be a top 30 law firm by 2025 as it rolls out its unique new ‘house of brands’ strategy.

Chief executive Sarah Walker-Smith also revealed to Legal Futures that she is exploring the possibility of “crowdfunding” staff investment in the business.

The firm – which has 850 staff offering both corporate and private client services out of six midlands offices as well as London, Sheffield and Glasgow – recorded a turnover of £71m in 2019/20, with a profit of £18m.

The stated ambition when it announced the new strategy last week was to double turnover by 2023, as it looks to add more legal and related services to what is already a diversified business, allowing the additions to continue with their own brand and strategy if appropriate under a group LLP.

Ms Walker-Smith said the five-year strategy was to be in the top 30 as a minimum (it is currently just outside the top 50). At the moment, that means a turnover north of £200m, but she described that ambition as “more of a floor than a ceiling”.

To an extent it depends on how the firm grows – while mergers do not need significant financing, acquisitions do.

Shakespeares has access to enough finance to achieve what it wants to at the moment, but external investment and even a public listing – though not under active consideration at the moment – are a possibility for the future.

Nothing is off the table. “We can’t go and get [investment] because we don’t know exactly what we’re trying to finance,” she pointed out.

Another possibility being floated is employee investment through a type of crowdfunding: “We might have employees that want to invest in the business. Is there a way we can do that without having to float?”

Ms Walker-Smith is a chartered accountant by training but during eight years working at high street chemists Boots transformed herself into a marketing director.

“What really struck me as I went into a law firm as a marketing director is that they are still light years behind when it comes to marketing,” she said. “What we tend to do is try to be everything to everybody.”

Shakespeare Martineau, by contrast, is looking to go to market as a conglomerate of business brands, joined up behind the scenes. “If you really target and nail those brands, you’re much more focused on the segment of the market you’re going for and you can take more market share.”

This model avoided many of the conflicts law firms often faced, she said, and allowed different parts of the business to operate under different regulators and potentially with different financing.

It also recognised that “clients don’t differentiate between what’s a legal matter and what isn’t. They just want people to fix things for them. We’ve got to stop being in boxes”.

An example was one of the firm’s existing businesses, town planning consultancy Marrons Planning, a brand Ms Walker-Smith said has become somewhat “lost” as part of the wider firm and forced to operate as the law firm does.

This strategy is more than just about marketing, she stressed – the separate brands can operate their own business model. “I want to liberate [Marrons] and let them fly… To treat town planners like lawyers makes no sense. By having Marrons in their own LLP, they can work how town planners work.”

The approach, she said, “gives us the ability to work together when we want to and work separately when we want to”.

There is a Danish law firm doing something similar, Ms Walker-Smith said, but has branched out and bought a car park and a conference centre. Shakespeare Martineau will not be doing that. “There’s got to be some synergy.”

This meant offerings like cyber-security, human resources, wealth management and corporate finance. She was approached recently by a firm of architects, which sits well with commercial property.

Then she will ask whether it makes sense to retain a separate brand or become part of the Shakespeares brand.

So might Shakespeare Martineau become the Unilever of professional services? “Why not?” Ms Walker-Smith replied. “It would be wrong of me to say ‘yes absolutely’ because we’re just starting out. But in terms of the way we’re looking at it, we don’t see limits. We’re very much keeping an open mind.”

The key, she said, was being agile. This might be difficult the larger you get, but not with this model, where most decision making is devolved to the individual unit. “The different brands can move at their own pace and do their own things, and we’re not tied up in a big bureaucratic decision-making system,” she said.

“We’ve talked about having golden threads, which are the things that keep us together as a group, and golden tramlines, a few rules for everyone that make it work, but otherwise there has to be a strong element of devolution.”

This still meant imposing a “high performance culture” across the business, but how the different parts achieved it was down to them. “They need the agility to respond to their local market and they know that market better than we do.”

Ms Walker-Smith said a modern business needed to be led by people – clients, partners and staff: “It’s about saying how can we truly meet the market where the market needs us to be and meet the needs of our people and have the best talent.”

With competition only increasing, she insisted that law firms should not “sit here like victims… we should take control of our own destiny. We’re perfectly capable of leading disruption from the inside”.

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