How Quarterdeck Helps Berwins Stand Out in a tough and crowded marketplace
Sarah Smith , Managing Director
Law has become a crowded marketplace, there's also the online market as well. It's a hard market. We've had to modernise, we recognise the traditional model won't stand. If you're going to summarise one reason why businesses fail, it's because they don't adapt. There's a tension between providing a brilliant service for a client and being efficient, and therefore profitable. You're dealing with the most emotional situations, you've got to have good systems behind you so that you can be efficient, whether it's people or process, so that whatever has to happen, happens, so I'm not worrying about how does that letter get produced, I can worry about my client.
Berwins, founded 30 years ago, is a mixed practice law firm based in Harrogate and Leeds who practice traditional law like property, wills and probate and also specialise in niche areas like mediation, parenting coordination, and digital. Berwins is a large law firm that still maintains a family feel. In our experience we can simply say Berwins are nice people, they have the feel of what people imagine to be a family. It's warm, welcoming, friendly, everyone's lovely. We hear an awful lot of not very nice things about working for law firms. We've never met anyone who has anything other to say than it's a very positive and supportive place to work.
I use the family analogy with people. If people are honest, it's not always easy to get on with your family. I've yet to meet the family who functions like you see in the adverts. You might not like them all the time, they might drive you nuts some of the time, but there's that loyalty and you'd go out of your way. Berwins is like that, we don't all get on all of the time, but when the chips are down or if anyone's going through some difficult times, or celebrating success, everyone comes out in support. We have our weekly "what's going on" email and it's full of shout outs to other people, so I use the family analogy a lot with people, especially new starters.
Unless you walk around with your eyes closed then you'll have noticed how many law firms there are around. More competition brings obvious challenges for any industry.
Harrogate has become more of a crowded marketplace for law. Going back five years, there's so many more people who want to practice in Harrogate, because there's an attractive marketplace. We've had a lot of incoming firms, we've also got the online market as well. We were worried that online would be bigger, but it's still there chipping away. It's a hard market. We've had to modernise, we recognise that the traditional model won't stand. If you think of other businesses that have failed, it's because they haven't adapted, if you're going to summarise one reason why businesses fail, and I appreciate it's more complicated, but essentially it's because they didn't adapt. Being able to adapt and move on is a big challenge.
For any market with a lot of competitors companies have to work hard to win business. Rather than engaging in a race to the bottom Berwins puts emphasis on great service and the client.
Law sits between being a service industry and being a product. You'd naturally classify law as a service industry but if you come to us to sell a house, or produce a will you actually take something tangible away, we do produce a product for people. It's very much about the people and their journey, but you have to have decent materials and a good venue and it brings an interesting challenge. We've done quite a lot of work on our employee handbook, what we call "Baseline", trying to get everyone to operate in the same way. So that if you see me in the family team, or how you're greeted at reception, or if you're buying a house, it should be the same experience, regardless of the product. Getting people to understand that it's not one or the other, it's both, is a big challenge.
While getting the product and customer service right is essential, so is making sure it's profitable.
The other thing is the tension between doing a brilliant service for a client and being efficient, and therefore profitable. I've always found that quite hard, particularly in the kind of law that I've done, you're dealing with someone's divorce and the most emotional situations, which means you've got to have good systems behind you. So that everything we do can be efficient, whether it's people or processes, so that I'm not worrying about how a letter gets produced, I can worry about my clients. That's really important to me.
Like many aspects of running a business this is all easier said than done.
Lawyers can be hard to manage, surprise! You will often hear: "Oh, it's different in my department". That's quite hard to manage. In commercial you're dealing with a corporation and someone in family is dealing with Joe Bloggs. But ultimately we have to get a service delivered and a product out and even the corporate guys are dealing with a person; you can't have a conversation with a company. Ultimately we're dealing with people. One of the challenges is working out what the difference is, are there some things that have to be done differently or are they done differently just because it's convenient? We can't all operate as individual lawyers in our little silos, that's always a challenge when you've got a bigger law firm.
The key to great service, happy clients and profitability lies unexpectedly in Berwin's Operations department. An area most law firms would neglect.
The other department that we don't talk about very often is operations, they have a firm wide role, the rest of the firm are their clients. They can't be expected to deal with 40 odd different ways of doing things. So we need to be consistent, I always use John Lewis as a model, whichever store you go into and whichever member of staff you speak to, you should have a similar experience whether you're in Guilford or Leeds.
Sarah is aware that small problems can overtime snowball into bigger ones. Sometimes it's easy to get used to areas where energy is draining away on a daily basis. People don't realise the sapping effect of certain little things or certain environments.
A lot of energy can get wasted if you work in lots of different diverse ways. When you waste energy there's a lot of leakage; big ships can be sunk by small leaks. It can be death by a thousand cuts.
The biggest objection we hear is that people are too busy to attend a training course. But actually it's probably one of the best things that you can do to move your business forward.
These small leaks persist, because to get rid of them you actually have to stop and analyse it, and then want to change it. We all know that it's easier just to keep working around it. You can get your work done if you just keep using that little workaround. There was something I thought exactly this about yesterday; I thought this has been an issue for I don't know how long, but I have not stopped, reported it and sorted it. You have to be willing to go backwards a little bit before you can move forwards.
Sarah attended our Inspirational Leadership Programme and the rest of the management team quickly followed.
I did the ILP in 2013, just after becoming Managing Director. They said to me: we think you could do it, you've got the right attitude and the aptitude, but I felt very adrift. I felt I could do with some kind of manual, that was my hesitation. I'd not had any kind of management training and I needed some. I remember talking about it saying: I need something, you need to give me something I can go back to when I need it; don't just give me a load of waffle, I need something concrete. So I went through the ILP and enjoyed it, I got a lot out of it. I wanted the rest of our leadership team to go through it, which we've done over a number of years and anyone new to the management team we put through it. I was a little bit nervous at the beginning when I first started doing it. Because it's quite different, it's almost like when you go to see a musical or Shakespeare, for the first 10 minutes, you think, why is everyone talking like that? or why is everyone singing? It takes a little while to get into it. There can be apprehension, some people in our organisation have said quite honestly, it's not for me, or I don't need it and we've tried various ways to get around that and just ask people to be open to it. It's very challenging. It's someone holding the mirror up to you, you see the findings of the 360 feedback and think, okay, that's not what I thought I was and other people see me differently to how I see myself. So it's certainly challenging. But then I think it's very practical as well because if you've been challenged that you are a defensive person or whatever flaw you may have in your leadership style, it's not like: there you go, get on with it. There's some sort of equipment to help you, there's theory that you can use.
Berwins found, like many of our clients, that once you get a whole management team through the same programme the efficiency and communication of the team increases exponentially. Each extra person who goes through has a multiplying effect not just an additional one.
We're a relatively small management team, because we've had everyone through the training we all understand about working in the same way, and can challenge each other. We can ask: what are your values? what did you say you were going to do? You are effectively saying to people: hang on a minute. A bit like, if you fall off the waggon on a diet, it's fine but that wasn't what you said you wanted to do. So there are ways to get people back on the path.
It's about holding people accountable in a way that isn't going to destroy their motivation. All we, and their colleagues, are doing is reminding them of the commitments that they voluntarily made themselves.
When people have done the ILP programme, they've named it themselves. They've said: these are my values, this is what I'm going to do, so you've, you've got permission to challenge them. That's what we've done in "Baseline", we've agreed as a firm what is our standard. So if someone isn't behaving in that way we've got permission to say: we said we were going to do this and we're not doing it.
Berwins have also taken part in every monthly workshop we've run since 2017.
We're going into a third year of doing the masterclass series workshops. We want to do non law training and incorporate everyone across the firm. Lawyers have to do a certain amount of training each year for the regulatory bodies, usually it tends to be quite technical training but we don't just want to concentrate on being better lawyers. We really like the idea of everyone being involved, giving all staff a bit of time out of the office, with colleagues and with other businesses as well, because you learn a lot from different industries. Law can be really insular, you speak to other lawyers and that's it. But we're not just lawyers, we're customer service people, sales people, etc. I've always enjoyed hearing how other organisations work. The way the workshops work is really good for businesses because you can tap into as much or as little you like, we can put the whole firm across the board or just a couple of people. You can make it work for you, when we first put the whole firm through the masterclass series, not every session worked for everybody, and you have to try it and find out and think about how you select them to go on it, it's trial and error. You learn through everything, whether it's entirely positive or mixed experience.
We also have an ongoing coaching relationship with many of Berwin's executives.
The coaching has been very useful, people say they haven't got time to come to courses, people also think it's a low priority for budgets as well. That's understandable because, especially when times are hard, training is seen as a luxury. Things like coaching take people's time and it's another expense, but it's been very valuable, giving people the ability to explore things on a one-to-one basis. When I get coached it's very much about something I kind of knew somewhere deep down but you need to put it into practise.
The most important aspect of any training is putting it into practise consistently and for the long term.
I keep coming back to the practicing thing and that it's not a once and for all. Whatever you do for your job, qualification isn't the end of it. Training is pushing you on as an individual, it's developing teams within the workplace, it gives energy and it makes the place more alive because, you realise, to use a cliche, every day's a school day. There is always more stuff to learn and that's okay, it's more than okay, it's brilliant. That is probably the difference between a company that does invest in training and a company that doesn't. I'm sure you can operate without training, but you'll be stagnant, you'd be like a rose bush that doesn't get fed or doesn't get pruned, it probably still grows. I've got a few plants that I don't look after very well, they're alive, surviving. But there's a difference between surviving and flourishing. Could you operate a company without training? Of course you could (sorry Quarterdeck) but would you flourish? I don't think so.
People, for some reason, have a totally different attitude to learning people skills than they do other skills. Which is strange because if you asked most people they would say that building relationships skills is one of the hardest things to do. Different techniques work for different people. Leadership is about context, treating people the way they, as individuals, will respond to in that particular situation.
It's not like learning French where you learn how the verbs work and you just have to remember it. You could read all the different people who write about leadership and come up with a number of different ways of doing it. You start to pick out the common themes and what works for you, taking nuggets from different people and applying them. It's a skill and a practice, if you're going to do yoga, doing it once a year doesn't work; if you're going to diet and crash diet, it doesn't work. When it comes to soft skills, you think that you don't need to brush up on them in the same way. You would never enter a rugby competition without knowing anything about rugby. But you think you can do all the things in business without really knowing much about it. There is actually a practice you can apply as opposed to winging it all the time.
Lots of companies have values but how many of them work hard to put them into practice? Berwins developed a company handbook called "Baseline" that acts as a guiding light for its people.
Baseline is basically who we are in a little A5 booklet, people have really bought into it, I'm really proud of it. We've had our firms values for a number of years, but we realised: we've got these values but so what? You could go and play lawyer bingo, you could look at a lot of websites and they all say the same thing. If we think we are different, how are we different and how do our values translate into practice? That was the challenge. So we really got people to think about what Berwins stands for? Are we more like a pint of beer or a bottle of champagne? That kind of thing, to help people understand where we want to position ourselves. So the things that we put into Baseline: We will do this; We won't do that, all came from the staff. It's not been written by management and passed down, that's why it works. We do refresher sessions, people are very honest and happy to share. It's great to hear people say: I just thought we did all of this, but actually we don't do it across the board. That's the idea of Baseline, there is a certain expectation that you will behave, as an employee and as a lawyer, in a way that sets us apart. It's not a manual on the shelf; it's an everyday practice. I'm really proud of it and other people have commented on it; a couple of our lawyers have taken it out when they've done pitches for new work and showed it to people. One company asked: are you leaving that with us? He said no it's more than my life's worth to leave you my Baseline. When someone joins Berwins, the first thing that happens is I meet them and welcome them and give them "Baseline" and explain what it is and it's theirs, it's precious and look after it. Then I'll meet with them after six weeks to see if what it says in the book they actually found happening. Then everyone gets refresher training, we just did one last week, a group of eight of us in the boardroom for an hour or so. Asking: is it real? And if it's not real, where's it not real, they're really honest discussions. Baseline is broken down into two very distinct sections: This is what a client should experience in line with the five values, we will do these things, we won't do these things. The next half of baseline is for staff: we will do these things for each other and we won't we won't behave like this to each other. We've got a service to deliver to clients, but I feel really passionately that unless your staff, get it and buy into it and are happy, you can have as many service levels as you want, it'll come across as fake. The feedback that we've had from clients and customers is that they knew that as soon as they came in that we had got the consistency right, that front of house is the same as the experience with their lawyer. It runs through the organisation, runs through the veins of it.
Why does Berwins choose to work with Quarterdeck? Sarah finds our methods different to typical training companies in a way that helps concepts stick and have real effects on people's work.
Quarterdeck is really off the wall, I surprise myself by saying that I have become a convert and an ambassador. I make people do silly warm ups and things like that. Some of the training that I've done that sticks most is where you do things that are different, the toxic one with the boiler suits, I will never forget that. Similarly, there are bits of the ILP, which I did five or so years ago. When Drew came back yesterday, I said: I remember that day when we did that, it's memorable. I saw in the diary the other day, all of our non lawyers are doing a workshop, you've called it the most stupid name that I could imagine, I saw it and I just raised my eyebrows and laughed.
Sarah likes Quarterdeck's flexibility and approach to developing bespoke training that targets specific issues. And the fact the training produces real results in the real world.
You're very adaptable, you've worked with us when we've said, there's this thing we need help with. The email course that you came and did, you see it making a difference, people really liked the fact that we all got trained at it. We all said, right: this is what we think about emails, this is how we're going to manage it. We wrote our own email charter and by and large we stick to it. That has gone from being a training exercise to something that's part of us. Quarterdeck is very adaptive. I like it when we say: can you come to us? Can we do the whole firm? or just the management team, or the support staff or whatever?
The biggest benefits of working with Quarterdeck is companies get an objective outside opinion, industry experience and accountability. The only agenda we have is to see our clients do well.
Quarterdeck works with us to provide accountability, and also to be able to step outside the business, because, with the best will in the world, if you speak to one of your colleagues about whatever you're tackling, they come at it with a slant on it. Quarterdeck knows us well and knows the characters that are involved but you're still outside the business and can give it much more objectivity and cross reference it to other businesses. You say, well, these guys did this, this worked for them and offer that kind of experience. It almost feels like a conscience. It's a long term relationship. You know our history, but also you've got objectivity and come at it with a fresh pair of eyes, an objective pair of eyes. That's really useful to us.
Sarah knows that Berwins continued competitiveness relies in large part on having great leaders within the company.
Our mission statement, which is in the front of Baseline says: Operating a sustainable and profitable business and playing our part in the local community. It's really hard to encapsulate anything like that in a sentence. The business has been here for 30 odd years, we want it to continue. The market has changed in the last 5-10 years, so over 30 years there's been enormous change. We've got good people coming through, we need to continue with the evolution and development of the business because, if you look back, you'll realise how things have changed and that you cannot stand still in our marketplace or in any marketplace.
It's hard to tie direct ROI to training, usually it results in a rising tide raise all boats effect, a general raising of attitudes and effectiveness across the board. Many companies we work with just find good things start to happen as if by themselves.
I can't point directly and say: we did Quarterdeck and we got Silver Investors in People, but it was around the same sort of time as we were doing that and we were doing Baseline. We were very surprised to get Silver because we hadn't aimed to get it, but because of the things that we were doing we'd achieved it and we're moving towards Gold. It's a nice thing for me as a leader, it wasn't: right I want you all to go on this training because then we'll get Silver IIP. It's been the other way around, because we invest in people, because we do the important things, the fruits have come.
Berwins found greater productivity after they identified an issue and asked Quarterdeck to develop some bespoke email training for them.
It's hard to do an ROI on emails, but it has worked, it's definitely cut down internal traffic, there's an understanding now, there is more efficiency.
As participants find when taking a Quarterdeck course the most valuable assets to take forward are new attitudes.
It gives you confidence that you can deal with situations, confidence in yourself as a person. It's a difference between conscious and unconscious knowing, the more you can make it a part of you naturally, the more you can be on your A Game, your best self. I had a situation recently where I thought, okay, you're in the right place and you've got the right skills to do it. I will always remember that there is a difference between leading and managing, I was naturally much more comfortable as a manager. Both are important, they've both got their place. Make sure that things happen with process, policy and procedure, that's still naturally my comfort zone, that's the kind of thing I could do without thinking too much about it. Yes, it's important, and I'll never move away from that. But the thing that I find hardest to believe about myself is that I could be a leader because I've never seen myself in that role. I feel like I'm quite a good facilitator, I'm quite a good mediator, anything that's on a collaborative basis. So being asked to go above and step up and, and be very directional. That's what I took away and what I still work on. You hear lots of different soundbites about differences between leaders and managers, and who's a good leader, and what makes a good leader, you're not going to fundamentally change yourself. That's the thing that I've benefited most from. When I finally finish being MD and look back to see a history and a legacy, what I've left and what the next person will take on. That's been the difference for me.