Andrew Chalkley – CEO and partner of Boyes Turner – on his career, being different, mergers, innovation and more

Andrew – thanks for talking to us. Can you give us a quick rundown of your own career and tell us a bit about Boyes Turner?
I joined the firm in 2000. I was particularly attracted to the opportunity of becoming the first chief executive of a growing regional law firm in the Thames Valley - especially given the region’s economic importance to the UK and its record of strong and dynamic growth.

Since then the firm has grown rapidly, both organically and by recruiting good laterals, and much of my time has been spent on making the firm standout, building reputation, improving efficiency and - of course - investing in our lawyers’ technical and broader skills. This focus on our people has really paid off – and we have provided them with stretching and rewarding careers, the opportunity to do interesting legal work in a great working environment whilst working flexibly.

I’ve also spent a lot of time listening to clients and contacts about exactly what they want – and making sure that we evolve with them and always try to anticipate their future needs, which in some cases is a bit of a challenge, but always worth the investment.

The legal marketplace is crowded so achieving tangible differentiation is crucial. How does Boyes Turner do it?
In three main ways:

• Delivering excellent service. This has helped to build some exceptionally strong and long lasting relationships. This has also benefitted us through recommendations and we receive more than most from referrers as well as from clients.

• Actively talking about our strategy and performance. Being open about this has been a major help for many of our clients and helps them in their planning and use of our lawyers. It also helps to develop long term relationships which provide clients with both better service as well as cost benefits.

• Comparing ourselves as often as possible to competitors. This means that both the directories as well as independent awards, i.e. the British Legal Awards, have been useful in helping us to explain to clients and contacts exactly how we are different and the objective review process used by both Chambers and The Legal 500 is a valuable way to show relative quality.

In your opinion what advantages/benefits does it create for clients and referrers?
Simply, it makes it much easier for them to continue to use and recommend us in the knowledge that our industry thinks that we are doing a good job. It also helps us to stand out from the crowd as far as recruitment is concerned with recent examples include the hiring of one of our major competitor’s head of Private Client which was a real coupe as well as a top corporate lawyer with an international pedigree.

There’s sometimes a view that the bigger the firm the better the service, but what do you think?
Economies of scale are of course important for any business – other than a niche boutique, which we aren’t. However, there reaches a point, particularly when clients use you for a number of services, that without careful attention it is possible to lose touch with clients’ decision makers. We’ve always firmly believed that building strong personal relationships is absolutely essential and have always spent a considerable amount of time helping clients to use us as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Mergers is another trend. Are there any in the offing for Boyes Turner?
Over the years that I’ve been here we’ve looked at a number, and are also from time to time approached by law firms looking to get a foothold in the Thames Valley market. We have not sought to open lots of offices - or simply to grow for the sake of growth - as we do not believe having flags on maps for the sake of geographical coverage alone is a sensible strategy unless there is some real benefit for our clients or our business. If we are not convinced that an opportunity will add real value we will walk away from it.

As a firm how do you innovate?
We are probably in the most challenging period that the UK legal industry has faced. The financial crisis of 2008/9 and the subsequent recession led to a major change in the way businesses use legal services. Increased regulation has also had an impact as has the structural changes in the legal market which has increased competition. We have also seen the rise of legal process outsourcers – both on and off shore - that have helped to manage legal costs and increase flexibility and scale.

As a result of these, we’ve challenged ourselves to see how we can do things differently, more efficiently and taken a boarder view as to the benefits we can offer clients. Certainly greater use of technology has helped to maintain competitiveness. We have also looked at providing new services - some focused around legal advice and others around training and supporting those who may need legal advice in the future.

As you would expect, we’ve also kept a close eye on competitors as well as businesses in other industries and learnt from them what works well and what doesn’t. We’ve used their experience to improve what we do and to look for new ways to deliver our existing services as well as develop new ones. At the same time, we also spend a considerable amount of effort working collaboratively with clients looking at how their businesses will evolve and helping them to do this as quickly and cost effectively as possible.

What are your views on flexible legal resourcing?
Anything that provides clients with increased choice and more tailored and flexible pricing to meet their specific needs has to be a good thing. The challenge for law firms that operate in this market is ensuring quality of services delivery and building/ keeping a base of qualified and skilled resources. I don’t think that any firm has really cracked this yet, but there are some strong offerings out there.

The issue that many law firms struggle with is in running this type of operation in conjunction with their regular business which means educating clients and showing them the difference it can make and of course getting the mechanics of services delivery right.

A law firm is only as good as the skills of its team so how do you go about retaining your people?
The answer to this is simple in practice but can - for many law firms - be a real challenge. It comes down to providing a great place to work, the opportunity to do challenging work for interesting clients and increasingly providing a flexible career structure. Well over a decade ago we set out to be an employer of choice and the regular staff surveys that we use to keep a check on this seem to bear this out. There is a real benefit to this from a client's perspective - namely having lawyers on the other end of the phone that really understand their needs as well as their businesses.

Marketing & client engagement – including social media - have now become cornerstones of the legal sector. How much importance do you place on them?
Lots. Making sure that clients understand how to stay on the right side of the law as well as take advantage of the opportunities is no longer the “value added” service that it once was. Any law firm, that doesn’t focus on this sufficiently, will suffer. We’ve found that social media has become an essential tool for doing this. The challenge for advisers though is understanding exactly how individual clients want to be communicated with and not assuming that just because a particular communications channel exists it will be used.

How do you think law firms will evolve over the next five to 10 years?
The UK legal services market is worth just shy of £30bn and employs 300,000 people. It has changed substantially over the last ten years with mergers, new business models as well as new means of ownership. Over the next decade there certainly won’t be a slowdown. Technology will play an important part of this and will potentially, along with flexible resourcing, level the playing field – to some degree.

The traditional high street solicitors firms are likely to continue to have a tough time of things if only due to the IT and marketing required to stay competitive. In the top 200 which accounts for over 95% of the industry’s turnover we can expect to see more mergers as the better run firms are able to attract the better lawyers and clients.

Below the top 200 law firms the remaining 9,800 are turning over £7m pa or less (in some cases considerably less). With the ever increasing competition and the cost of practice (in terms of hiring and retaining staff, investing in IT and infrastructure and compliance) within the industry that is not sustainable. There is going to be significant consolidation and the number of smaller firms will fall significantly over the next five years or so.