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From little acorn to mighty oak

Shulmans’ values help it maintain a strong regional presence, says managing partner Tim Halstead. Matthew Rogers reports

15 September 2017

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If you look after your people, they’ll look after your clients, and then the money will look after itself,” says Tim Halstead, in words reminiscent of business magnate Richard Branson. While perhaps not reaching the lofty heights of the Virgin brand, Halstead has helped grow Shulmans from humble beginnings into a full-service top 200 UK law firm.

The firm’s managing partner largely attributes this success to the firm’s culture, which combines a commitment to excellence, staff empowerment, and a supportive environment. But will this be enough to ensure the high-street firm of yesteryear remains a key player in today’s ever-changing legal market?

A brisk ten-minute walk from the city’s railway station, Shulmans is the second largest single site law firm in Leeds. Founded in 1981 by senior partner Jeremy Shulman, the corporate practice started out on the ground floor of an office just around the corner from its current location. The firm grew organically by nurturing its own talent and making strategic hires. Several of the current partners started as trainees, and some other staff have been with the firm for over 20 years.

“We have grown over 36 years from a little acorn,” says Halstead. “I joined in 1984 and it’s a very different firm now. We have 25 partners and nearly 200 people covering all of the services that most businesses routinely need. We’re very much focused on the corporate market and that’s where we want to continue to go.”

Under one roof

Over the past decade Leeds’ legal sector has grown faster than any other UK city. It hosts a plethora of firms, including heavyweights like DLA Piper and Eversheds Sutherland. This year, the combined economic output for Leeds-based firms is set to surpass £300m, according to research carried out by PR firm Branksome Partners.

Halstead acknowledges that Leeds is a hugely competitive market and one, he says, which is vastly over-lawyered for a city of its size. But, he adds, Shulmans’ strong regional presence matters more to clients than big name firms thanks to an “on the spot service”. At a time when many firms are looking to increase their regional footprint, Shulmans has eschewed expansion to new sites around Yorkshire or elsewhere. “It’s one of our distinguishing features that we’re all under one roof,” says Halstead. “The benefits of having one office allow the firm’s solicitors to collaborate with greater ease than their national competitors.”

But while Shulmans has primarily focused on maintaining its regional reputation, it has also developed a national niche in other areas, such as the removal of telecom masts for development purposes; dilapidation claims; retail pharmacy chains; personal bankruptcy; and residential development. Unsurprisingly, the firm is now looking to expand its client base, but it remains hesitant to go down the national panel route, because Halstead prefers the firm to focus on building personal relationships with clients, some of whom the firm has acted for for three decades. “We work best for our clients when we know them and they know us.”

Staff empowerment

Between 2010 and 2016, the firm enjoyed six years of double-digit turnover growth, up to £12.2m in 2016; pre-tax profit for last year was nearly £4.5m – a 26 per cent rise. With that success in mind, Halstead says the firm’s three big goals are “sustained high profitability, excellent client service, and being a great place to work”. “Everything we do should be aimed at achieving all three of those, so it’s not all about making money. We don’t want to make money at the expense of service nor at the expense of relations with our colleagues.

To that end, the firm appointed a head of operational excellence in 2015, Mel Bulmer, in a new role designed to increase efficiency and client satisfaction. Furthermore, Halstead’s inverse leadership style gives employees greater responsibility. “I do not see my job as sitting in an ivory tower making decisions, but to empower people, giving them the tools to do their job. You can’t just stand there beating a drum, saying ‘you’ve got to bill more’, because it’s never going to happen like that.”

Nowadays, the firm can attract more solicitors than it loses, and from a wider talent pool. Hires from Eversheds, Addleshaw Goddard, and DWF have demonstrated this. “They come here and see the energy and freshness of approach.” Still, with big names such as Hill Dickinson, Shoosmiths, and Stone King all opening new Leeds offices over the last 12 months, Shulmans must now be more vigilant to the risk of staff and client poaching.

“We try our hardest to make sure neither the people who work here nor the clients want to go anywhere else,” says Halstead. “When the recruitment consultants inevitably ring, if our colleagues’ natural reaction is ‘no thank you, I’ve got a good job here’, and if our clients say ‘why would I want to go through the pain of switching solicitors when I get a good service at Shulmans?’, then we’ve done our job right.”

“You can have all the strategy in the world but the culture is key,” he continues. “Jeremy Shulman and I were the first partners. We had the same values and built up a culture and people bought into that culture. That was important. As Jeremy said to me when he first put the title up above the door, ‘every client came from somewhere else’. You’ve got to make sure they don’t leave, which means you’ve got to get off your backside and do something.”

Despite the firm’s positive financial situation, Halstead is preparing Shulmans for any challenging times that lie ahead. “If we keep growing, in five years or so we’re going to become a different sort of firm and the dynamics will change. You don’t want to sleepwalk into becoming a different sort of firm in a different marketplace. That’s quite a challenge for us and one which we are excited about .”

Matthew Rogers is a former reporter of Solicitors Journal

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