Ken Woffenden, managing partner at Stevens & Bolton, discusses his career, why he left Simmons & Simmons and how he’s helped to grow Stevens & Bolton.
Ken, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for The Brief. Firstly, can you give us a quick summary of your own career to date?
I spent my first 27 years as a corporate lawyer at Simmons & Simmons. I held various roles at S&S during that period, including five years in the firm’s Hong Kong office as head of corporate and subsequently as managing partner. For my last five years, I was head of the corporate and commercial department in London.
What prompted your move from Simmons & Simmons to Stevens & Bolton in 2004?
I really enjoyed my time at S&S. I was fortunate in having lots of different roles and some very interesting work, especially on the international side. But with four young children it was tough commuting every day from Guildford to the City. There was a poignant moment in the year before I decided to leave when my youngest daughter, then five, spotted me early one morning and asked if I’d had a sleepover. This was because she never saw me from one weekend to the other and thought I didn’t live at home! It got me thinking. The opportunity to move to a high quality firm in Guildford, only ten minutes from my home, was too good to miss.
What were your main objectives when you became a managing partner?
I took over as leader of the firm in 2012, when it was already performing well, despite the serious downturn in the legal markets in 2008/9. My predecessor, Richard Baxter, did an excellent job steering us through those challenging times. My main objectives were to build on the firm’s success, talk to each partner to understand what was on their mind and then devise a new three year strategy for the firm to provide a robust framework for our business planning and decision making. That strategy, called Project 2016, was put in place at the beginning of 2014.
What are the key services now being offered by Stevens & Bolton and have they changed since your arrival?
S&B is a full service law firm. We have 35 partners, 115 lawyers and 185 people. The core practice groups are corporate and commercial, real estate, dispute resolution, IP/IT, employment/ pensions/ immigration, tax and high-end private client. These practice areas already existed when I joined the firm but they have grown significantly in turnover and headcount over the past 10 years. We have also developed some new practice areas including insolvency, restructuring, construction and, most recently, aviation.
The firm is based in Guildford so do you find that clients located in London are happy/ willing to use a firm located outside the capital and has your previous role helped to attract corporate clients?
Our office is in central Guildford, close to the main line station, but our client base is geographically very diverse. As well as clients based in Guildford and Surrey, we have lots of clients in London, the rest of the UK and overseas. The fact that we are very close to London (35 minutes by train) is helpful to our many London based clients and they seem happy to use us, particularly since with our lower overheads we can offer competitive, value for money rates. Our many international clients also like our location as we are convenient for both Heathrow and Gatwick. We rarely find that our single Guildford office location is a problem. We like the cohesion and team spirit which comes from everyone being under one roof – we’re all in it together!
As for whether my previous roles have helped attract corporate clients, they probably have although when I joined the firm it already had a strong corporate practice and indeed this was one of the things which convinced me to join. We now have a corporate team of seven partners, with a great team of associates supporting us, and last year Chambers ranked us as one of the top four corporate practices based outside London, alongside some much larger firms. My city and international profile may have helped, but it has been a real team effort and it’s definitely not just about me!
The firm has recently reported that revenue rose from £18.05m to £19.87m in the 2013/14 financial year. Many firms are still struggling in a changing legal market so what’s been the secret to your success so far?
The legal market remains very competitive and it is still a real challenge to grow turnover and profit. We were delighted to report growth in turnover and profit last year, for the fourth consecutive year. We have seen growth across all of our core practice areas at the same time which is gratifying. We have also recruited a record number of new lawyers over the past 12 months - over 15 in total. This growth is due to a combination of more work from existing clients, plus some great new client wins including through our new aviation practice and, most recently, getting onto the BP legal panel for employment work which was an important breakthrough for us. Our strong relationships with friendly foreign law firms in Western Europe, the US and other key jurisdictions have also contributed to this growth.
Can you tell us about the firm’s future growth strategy and what the aims/ambitions are for the next couple of years?
Our new three year strategy is aimed at delivering sustainable and profitable growth by continuing to develop the profile of the firm and energetic, focused business development right across the business. We aim to deliver real value to our clients not only by providing value for money but also investing significant time in broadening and deepening our client relationships. Another important part of our strategy is to continue to make S&B a really great place to work – we find that lawyers who join us from big city and national firms are not just motivated by money, they are looking for a firm which, whilst offering high quality work, also really looks after them in terms of providing a supportive and friendly culture, career progression and investing in learning and development. This has been key to our continued ability to recruit high quality people and our retention rates are excellent.
What would you like the firm to be in 10 years time?
More of the same; hopefully bigger and even better! Probably still one office, in Guildford. The legal profession has changed immeasurably over the past 10 years and will continue to change rapidly. We can’t afford to be complacent and must anticipate and adapt to market change and client demand. But I think there will always be room for a firm like ours, with a strong focus on strong client relationships, value for money service and being a great place to work.
What is your view on the rise of ABSs and their impact?
ABS structures and new entrants to the legal sector are having a huge effect. At the moment these are focusing on mainly high volume, low margin work such as insurance litigation and consumer law, which lend themselves to commoditisation and the use of technology. However, the impact is much wider and affects all commercial law firms since the drive to greater efficiency in working practices and providing more for less impacts on all law firms. Any prudent law firm leader must address these issues. Overall this has been a positive development. Forward looking, well managed firms with a clear strategy have nothing to fear.
In your opinion what makes a good lawyer?
Good lawyers need intelligence, creativity, energy, the ability to explain complex issues in simple terms, great communication skills and – most importantly – a good sense of humour! Not many lawyers can measure up to all the above, but those who do will always be highly sought after by clients, regardless of practice area. They will also be extremely busy!