From the boardroom to the courtroom, law firms are forums where human dynamics converge, defining their essence as fundamentally people-focused enterprises. To stay ahead in the field, legal firms need to be constantly investing in their people to ensure they have diverse and dynamic teams who can thrive in high-pressure environments.
Malcolm Simpson, Managing Partner at Walker Morris, met with Chris Mansfield to discuss issues ranging from the importance of fostering an inclusive culture to his firm’s commitment to social responsibility and community engagement.
I’ve been a litigation lawyer for around 30 years. For the first 25 years of my career, I was a working litigation lawyer both at Walker Morris and other firms. I’ve always had some people and operational responsibility, but there has been a lot more since I became Managing Partner six years ago. There have been some significant changes in that time, but that has brought opportunities as well as challenges.
Walker Morris is a commercial full-service law firm based in Leeds. We have a wide spectrum of business clients, from banks to private equity firms, and we offer a broad range of commercial services.
As a lawyer, you need to develop a broad range of transferable business skills. So taking a step into a leadership role is a natural progression for an experienced lawyer. But you need to dial down some skills and dial up some others. As partners at the firm, we all need to accept and recognise the role we play in leading the firm and making sure it's in good shape for the future. Those demands have been called into action over the last few years: the pandemic was a significant shock for any business, and for us all as individuals. Though it was difficult, it also brought some positive changes for us both as a firm and as a community. It’s made us think hard about different ways of working, which has been a liberating force for many in our business.
As the market tightens, it’s definitely more challenging to continue investing in the business, whether that’s in people or elsewhere. So you need to find different ways to improve things. For us, that’s about an emphasis on how we deliver our services and support our clients. We’re seeing it as a positive opportunity to invest in technology, innovation, and culture. We want our people to really think about the way we deliver services and how to be more efficient. In terms of technology, I think the profession has been slow to change, but there has been an acceleration in the last four or five years. We’re asking everyone to come together to drive that cultural shift. Ultimately, we are in the people business, so we need to invest in them even when the economy is challenging.
Last year, we ran a great campaign called “I Did That!” where asked our junior lawyers to identify outdated practices and help us to improve them. We’re also introducing an enhanced family leave package, including 10 weeks of paternity leave, and a new sabbatical policy to prevent burnout. We’ve recently launched our Sustainable Careers Proposition, which is about supporting everyone in the business. We’re trying to be more transparent about opportunities for progression, especially for the third of employees who aren’t lawyers. If you’re a professional in finance, marketing, or IT, you might not have the same obvious route of progression in a law firm, so we’re working hard with them to enhance their skill sets so they have the best possible career prospects. We’ve been developing our L&D offerings, creating a portfolio of solutions that can be tailored for each individual. We’ve also been working hard on employee engagement, and we’ve just completed our employee listening survey, which has delivered some excellent feedback.
A couple of years ago, we did a brand refresh, and that came out of extensive discussions with all of our people. As part of that, we’ve adopted the idea that everyone is unique as one of our core values, and we want everyone to have equity of opportunity in their careers. It’s a lot easier to deliver changes when all your people are standing behind you. Our employees might be time-poor, but they want to get involved. When it comes to diversity and inclusion, 90% of our employees believe we are doing the right things. In the last few years, we’ve appointed a full-time DEI manager and developed a number of diversity forums. We have several highly active employee groups dedicated to issues such as women in leadership, race, LGBTQ+, and disability. We’re particularly proud to be a founding member of Stronger Together, a network of firms working together to raise the profile of racial diversity, inclusion and equality in professional services.
Social mobility is a particular passion of mine: about 70-80 per cent of our partners have a state school background. Personally, I had a modest upbringing here in Leeds, and I know many who had it much harder. We have an outreach program with some local schools in Leeds, and we’ve had a fantastic take-up on that. We really want to drive change here in the city, which means so much to us.