In today's rapidly-evolving business landscape, a company's culture and values are the essential ingredients for attracting and retaining top talent. This understanding is at the heart of the work done by Andrew Smith, Managing Partner at BDB Pitmans, who has helped foster a culture of learning and growth at one of the UK’s leading law firms.
In this edition of The Interview, Andrew sat down with Chris Mansfield to discuss issues ranging from the importance of company culture to the challenges posed to the legal sector by the turbulent economic climate.
I’m the Managing Partner of BDB Pitmans. We’re a full-service law firm with 450 employees. Our main office is in London but we also have branches in Reading, Cambridge, and Southampton. We offer a full range of legal work, ranging from private wealth services to collaborating with some of the biggest infrastructure projects in the country.
I was talking to our interns the other day, and they asked me the same question! I think it’s all down to curiosity: I was always interested in how the business worked as a whole and how everything fits together. I got involved very early on when we were still a smaller firm. I was a Staff Partner before our first merger and then I became Head of Real Estate for five years until I was offered the role of Managing Partner.
It’s a real challenge. There’s no doubt that times are hard and people are feeling the squeeze. It doesn’t look like that is going to change any time soon. We know we can’t compete with the salaries of the large American firms, so you have to think creatively. You need to make your firm a place where people want to stay, whether through flexible working or ensuring your offices are a welcoming environment for all. Coming out of the pandemic, there has been a shift from people fitting their lives around work to people fitting work around their lives. It’s vital to get that balance right: to run a successful business, you need your people to feel valued and be working at their best.
Some aspects are tangible, but others are intangible. I’ve often heard our firm described as friendly: we have our core values of respect, working in partnership, and finding solutions. Those values really resonate with our employees and have become embedded at the heart of everything we do. Yesterday, I was speaking with some new interns, and asking them why they wanted to come here. They told me they valued our culture of being welcoming and inclusive, and they had felt that in just a few days of being here.
We’ve tried a lot of different approaches over the years. We were early adopters in recognising the importance of EDI in the workplace, and one of our partners has been a champion of it for ten or fifteen years. I sit on our EDI Strategy Group which is responsible for setting the diversity and inclusion strategy for the whole firm. We also have Business Impact groups which are made up of staff who advocate for different underrepresented communities, including our LGBT group, Faith in Focus, and Health and Wellbeing. Every year, we hold a diversity and inclusion fortnight which brings in external speakers for special events. It includes topics such as gender and LGBT+ rights but also asks some broader questions about things like mental health and caring responsibilities.
You need to be mindful of what people might be going through in their personal lives, but it’s important not to pry. For example, last year I chaired a panel session on menopause, and I was surprised by the engagement we had from our male employees who were supporting partners and loved ones. Finally, we’ve reconfigured our work experience program for Year 12 and 13 students. We’re trying to get away from the old idea of “it’s about who you know” and make sure everyone has the same chance to succeed. We’ve also been working with 10,000 Black Interns and 10,000 Able Interns to help increase access to the legal sector.
We have adopted a mixed approach. On the one hand, we have some mandatory elements: for example, we require all employees to go through unconscious bias training. But other events such as our EDI fortnight are voluntary, and we make sure they are available at all times of the day to ensure that people have the time to attend. It’s about finding a balance: at the end of the day, you are still running a business.
Don’t come in with a preconceived notion of what you want to do, whether that’s a specialism or anything else. Personally, I never imagined I would become a property lawyer, but once I tried it I realised it was a perfect fit for me. Law is changing quickly, and new avenues are opening up, so you need to be flexible. Be curious, and always remember to ask questions.