Graham Huntley – founding partner of Signature Litigation...
Why did you set up Signature?
It is an exciting part of the market to be in. There are real opportunities for the right practitioners to focus on their specialist areas of law without being drawn in a variety of directions created by larger and more diffused practices. The particular reason why it came about when it did was, as I suspect is often the case with these things, a consequence of coincidences. Just as I was weighing up whether to do something different in my career, late in the day a couple of my younger colleagues made clear that they were also looking to move on. Their reasons were inevitably personal to them but they were eventually persuaded not to go off on sabbaticals initially by a client and I am very glad that they changed direction. Happily, they will - before long - be taking up their desired sabbaticals (which are of course so difficult to achieve in the large firms). I think it is great that a niche firm like Signature can offer this to them.
What do you mean late in the day?
Well, some other opportunities had crossed my path, as they do others, and I met some really interesting and impressive people and practices along the way. However, ultimately I could not see the personal attraction in leaving one large and expanding international practice for another. Eventually I found myself pulled towards the attraction of being able to offer the benefits of a small focused family-type operation such as Signature.
What do you mean by family?
That is a reference to the way in which everyone who works in the practice, whether they be copying staff, paralegals or partners, are all treated as members of the firm (but not in the regulatory sense). Under our structure they share all of the firm's available benefits, including its profits. Moreover, it is important for small so-called ‘boutique firms’ to use the benefit that a tight working operation of its people can offer to clients; not only in terms of common focus but also in the much greater attentiveness to legal work (there being so little management in a firm like this) and collective motivation.
So running a boutique firm involves little management?
That depends on how you manage it. As I have said, as in our case, structure can directly motivate people towards common goals (rather than just seeking to impress the goals on everyone through exhortation and the like). However, inevitably at any firm like this that handles major and complex litigation, often from overseas clients in jurisdictions with some political exposure, there is a requirement for significant back up for the legal work. The fairly rapid inception of Signature as a project benefitted from having access to traditional management skills - in particular through Kevin Munslow who retired at the same time in January 2012 from his former positions in management at a mid-sized law firm - just at the time when Signature was becoming conceptualised.
Within weeks Kevin and his team had everything moving in top gear. Now we have a team that includes Kevin and two people devoted to supporting the firm on its compliance, risk and regulatory functions, which is quite a high proportion given the size of the firm. In addition we have other members of a team from Kindleworth who provide support in all the areas of operations, HR and financial controls. Given all that, the lawyers here practice law and I for one am probably doing twice as much of it as I was over the last 15 or more years in my previous firm.
So, do you see more people like you doing this or have you reached saturation point for niche firms?
I can certainly see more people wanting to do it. The market will always balance out supply and demand. I doubt we are at that point yet. Across a wide range of areas of law we are seeing increased demand for focused, lower cost practitioners. None of this detracts from the need for and future viability of the largest international law firms. Those who understand the market will know that in many areas of law the two kinds of practice operate in a symbiotic and often complementary way to increase the quality and availability of legal resources to different sides of transaction or dispute.
With that in mind, do some people not understand the niche market?
Most do and particularly clients who have an ingrained keenness to search out the best value and commitment wherever they can find it. However, some practitioners - particularly those in old established law firms - perhaps understandably demonstrate a lack of understanding. It has been said by one or two that the niche market will not succeed because its funding model is unsustainable. That represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what the niche firms do and how they do it. It is also wrong to think that niche firms are simply a flash in the pan. What is happening here happened - for example - in the accounting profession and in many parts of the financial markets industries years ago.
So, you see no change in the niche market going forward?
I do see change.... It is inevitable. For example, despite the benefits of being small and focused, human emotion will often cause firms that benefit from those qualities to wish to get bigger and expand their practice areas. That, therefore, means we will see the cycle change in several years and many niche firms become too big to retain all of their current benefits. We will probably even see mergers between niche firms. Some of these doubtless will prove counter-productive, but for now that is some way off, I think. The niche market is vibrant and growing and provides a very exciting opportunity for the right people approaching it in the right way.