As our society becomes more diverse, establishing an inclusive company culture has transformed from a mere aspiration to a fundamental business necessity. In his role as Director of Business Services at Burness Paull, Derek Cummings has helped to guide his organisation to become one of the most progressive employers in the legal sector.
Derek met with Chris Mansfield, Co-founder of Goodcourse, to talk about his journey into people management, strategies for increasing employee engagement, and the importance of fostering a company culture based on inclusion and mutual respect.
I’m the Director of Business Services for Burness Paull. We’re a Scotland-based independent commercial law firm with offices in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and Glasgow. We have clients in Scotland, across the UK, and around the world.
I’ve been in people management for about 30 years now. I started my career in financial services, but while working on a quality management project, I was invited to come on board with human resources. From there, I became involved in people management, moving through different disciplines such as recruitment and employee relations. Around 15 years ago, I moved to Burness Paull to take up a role as Human Resources Director, and I’ve been with the firm ever since. In 2019, I became the first-ever Director of Business Services, which covers all aspects of our operations outside of legal services.
The key thing is to let people do their jobs. You need to bring in people with expertise and let them thrive. My job is to hire amazing people and then get out of the way! As a leader, you don’t need to be an expert in IT or marketing, though you need to know enough to have a sensible conversation. My job is to support those experts, nurture their skills, and integrate them into the wider business. If you see your leadership role as helping and serving others, your job will become much easier. Leadership isn’t about knowing everything or doing it all yourself: it's about connecting people, supporting them, and facilitating change.
Respect and Inclusion have always been a key part of the culture here at Burness Paull. But over the last five years, we’ve been working hard to formalise that. So we’ve appointed an Inclusion and Well-being manager who has helped shift the dial by implementing a more organised approach. We don’t think it should be a top-down or box-ticking exercise: instead, we want everyone to get involved. We’ve developed employee networks around inclusion, including our Be Proud and Race, Faith, and Ethnicity networks. We encourage everyone to come forward with ideas and suggestions to help us pinpoint what really matters to our employees. And that’s resulted in some success: we’ve done a lot of work around mental health, and we’re the first company in Scotland to be independently recognised as menopause-friendly. We’re also serious about widening access to the profession, working with the Robertson Trust to try and level the playing field for aspiring lawyers. Inclusion isn’t something we do on the side — we are trying to weave it into our work on a day-to-day basis. We haven’t found any silver bullet, but we’ve made great progress.
I’m proud of our culture. My experience in HR has taught me that you get the culture you deserve. Culture doesn’t just appear by accident. You must work hard to make it happen: bringing in the right people, rewarding excellence, and dealing with inappropriate behaviour. Ultimately, your culture reflects who you are as a business.
It’s an ongoing challenge. People in commercial law firms are time-poor, and that brings challenges not only for inclusion but a whole range of areas. So you must set the tone from the top and define what matters to the business. Communication is key; if all you talk about are fees and billing, that’s the only thing employees will care about. We can achieve a lot through our culture: what’s happening in our offices and what’s happening in the evenings and at lunchtime. You’ll never get a hundred percent participation, but you can get a critical mass of people involved. People don’t just judge you on what you say, but also what you do — so you need to make sure you walk the walk. More and more, our clients are passionate about respect and inclusion, and it’s a dealbreaker for them when choosing a law firm. Over the last few years, there’s been a huge shift in the legal sector and the wider economy, and firms need to work hard to keep up with that.
Learning needs to be central to everything you do. You need to strive for continuous improvement and always work on getting better. Lawyers can be perfectionists, and criticism can be difficult to take. But feedback is a gift, and it provides growth opportunities. We’ve embraced a philosophy of playing to people’s strengths: you must lift people up to get the best out of them.