Diana Bentley talks to Moore Blatch managing partner Ed Whittington about the firm’s strategy for growth
‘We’re a bit different from many other firms. We’re a London / Hampshire firm, so we’re not a national firm, but not an entirely regional one either,’ says Ed Whittington, managing partner of Moore Blatch. That handy geographical positioning, along with a canny eye for growth opportunities, has helped propel the firm, within the last decade, from the top 200 firms in the country with a turnover of £11m, to a place in the top-100 with a turnover of £28m. ‘That’s significant growth,’ Whittington points out proudly. A clutch of lateral hires, strategic acquisitions and a robust approach to business development have helped the firm shape a sharp profile, but it has yet more growth in its sights. ‘Our longer-term aim is to achieve a £36m turnover,’ Whittington reports. ‘Our vision is to continue to grow, to create a great working environment and to be profitable.’
Whittington has plenty of energy for the task ahead. At 39, he is one of the youngest managing partners in the top 100, and he relishes the role. He rose to it quickly. After joining the firm’s property and rural division in 2010, he became involved in running the commercial property team when some senior partners retired, then managed the whole property department, before becoming managing partner in September 2016. Whittington rather modestly says he doesn’t quite know how this happened, but admits to an inherent attraction to management. ‘Running the property team became a natural platform from which I went on to the managing partner role. But I think I instinctively always wanted to be involved in management: you step up and help out,’ he says. ‘I like the team environment and seeing people enjoy themselves, hitting their targets and doing well.’ He is a keen reader of works on management and leadership, and says that professional coaching has been invaluable in helping him do his job and gaining a wider perspective of his stewardship of the firm. ‘Coaching is prevalent among CEOs in industry, and running a law firm is no different to running any other business. The more you look outside your profession and become aware of practices and developments in other businesses and industries, the better, and coaching can help with that.’
The practice and model for growth
The firm’s long history is a testament to sound leadership. Founded in 1797 in Lymington, where it still has an office, Moore Blatch now also has a flagship in Chandler’s Ford in Hampshire, as well as offices in the City of London and Richmond. It has a complement of 164 fee-earners, including 45 partners, with a total staff of 330. Whittington credits his predecessor, David Thompson, with having a strong vision for the firm, which he pursued astutely and which included establishing a London office to better serve the firm’s clients and to differentiate it from local competition. ‘We’re positioned in the private client and small to medium-sized enterprise (SME) market, and work for individuals, family businesses and owner-managed businesses – some of which can be quite large,’ Whittington explains. The firm’s practice areas include many that you might expect – commercial, professional negligence, real estate, education, employment, family and divorce, wills, tax and trusts – but certain fields have been targeted for growth and greater specialisation: Moore Blatch is now known for its expertise in areas like rural affairs, medical negligence, major trauma and personal injury work. The corporate team also specialises in advising technology businesses: ‘We can deal with all phases of development, from a start-up, through the growth phase, to a sale of the enterprise,’ Whittington says.
Growth has been achieved through a series of carefully selected lateral hires and acquisitions. For instance, the Richmond branch had been strongly focused on medical negligence, but when the firm sensed there was a need for a broader range of services in the area, specialists in private client, conveyancing and litigation were taken on. In the last year, six lateral hires were made: a property lawyer in London, an insolvency lawyer in Hampshire, and matrimonial, private client and property lawyers in Richmond. ‘Our lateral hires have filled strategic roles in our practice, but they bring in business too,’ says Whittington. ‘Fortunately, people are attracted to our culture and our position in the market.’
The firm has also developed a good template for acquisitions: taking on firms whose owners want to retire and are struggling with succession issues. Since 2015, two practices in this position have been acquired in Richmond: one which specialised in residential conveyancing and another heavily weighted towards conveyancing, commercial property and private client work. Another, similar acquisition, of a practice in Hampshire, is also under way. ‘Lots of firms like us are private client and SME firms. The older partners are looking to retire and haven’t got anyone to take over. In these cases, the acquisition can work well for both parties,’ Whittington explains. ‘We can absorb the run-off insurance, which is often a problem, and the older partners have the assurance of knowing that their clients are being handed over to trustworthy lawyers of another generation.’ The firm pays a multiple of profit. ‘When you buy a practice, you’re buying an opportunity to be introduced to new clients, which is worth paying for. Having the principal of the business stay on is fundamental, as they help foster your relationships with the clients.’ Whittington says this model is a sound one. ‘We’re looking all the time, but people approach us, too.’
However, there are risks involved in both lateral hires and acquisitions. Particular care is required with integration, he says. ‘Lateral hires must be given the time and support they need to make the most of their network. In acquisitions, you’re taking on relationships with clients. To get your money back and see a return on it, huge effort must be made to nurture those relationships and integrate the clients into the firm successfully.’ The best way to do this, Whittington insists, is to identify a confident, capable partner to take over that practice book of clients and dedicate themselves to ensuring the clients have everything they need across the firm. ‘If you don’t do that, they can drift away and you’ve lost your money,’ he points out.
Not to be ignored is organic growth, but Whittington admits that while this is more sustainable, it also takes longer. The firm has therefore focused on building a business development culture. ‘People here are empowered to network with their peer groups,’ he explains. ‘We encourage our younger lawyers to look for opportunities to gain new clients. We’re part of the Young Professionals Networks (YPN) in Richmond and Chandler’s Ford. 80 people attended the last YPN event which we hosted in Richmond. We try to do things people in their 20s will enjoy, like football tournaments and Christmas quizzes. Our young lawyers are providing the clients of the future. Their peers in other occupations will be the decision-makers in time.’
‘We’re fixed on doing more complex high-value work in all areas. This is as opposed to doing standard jobs cheaply. We want to do superior work, so people are happy to pay a premium for it, and we want to attract the best possible people to do it’ Ed Whittington
A strong culture
Good staffing and attracting and retaining talent are vital to success, Whittington insists. Moore Blatch supports agile working and allows people to work from home. ‘We devote a lot of time to thinking about our working environment to ensure our people are happy. We work hard to foster the firm culture. We’re very open; if people have an idea, we let them run with it. Recently, for example, our paralegals established “The Aspiring Lawyers Group”. They’ve developed literature to help our non-qualified staff discover the different ways in which people can qualify as a solicitor. They held an event recently which included sessions by several partners who’d become solicitors through different routes.’
Moore Blatch’s physical environment has improved of late, too. In May 2017, it moved 200 people from two offices in the centre of Southampton to a building near the M3 at Chandler’s Ford. The move has been transformative in every way, Whittington says. ‘Being in two buildings in one place wasn’t good. The new building is very accessible for our fee-earners, staff and clients, who are based in an array of locations. It has a very modern design and a cafe which is open from 8am to 5pm and serves hot food and good coffee. This brings people together and fosters a good atmosphere.’ The office is open-plan, but also has excellent meeting rooms, and the cafe is used for seminars and other events. ‘We think the quirky, cutting edge decor of the place is a good reflection of our range of clients.’
Whittington is now developing a three-year plan, looking ahead to the firm’s future needs and goals. ‘We’re fixed on doing more complex, high-value work in all areas,’ he reports. ‘This is as opposed to doing standard jobs cheaply. We want to do superior work, so people are happy to pay a premium for it, and we want to attract the best possible people to do it. But we also aim to be reasonably priced relative to traditional London firms.’ Another big challenge, he says, is balancing productivity generally. ‘This means educating our lawyers to capture their time properly and engage in good pricing. In some areas, we use fixed fees, but most of our work is charged on a time basis.’
Another main task is to consolidate Moore Blatch’s operations and update its infrastructure, especially its IT systems. This means that after a period of expansion, it is looking less aggressively than usual for lateral hires and acquisitions. ‘Upgrading our systems is a big challenge, but we have to keep pace with change and ensure our systems are as robust as possible and can cope with future growth,’ explains Whittington.
‘I have huge buy-in for this around the firm. We’ve had a lot of acquisition activity in the last few years, and it’s not easy to update systems in parallel. But there is a sense, too, that we should still seize good opportunities for acquisitions if they present themselves, and are small and manageable.’