Excello Law took home the inaugural Law Society’s Excellence in Law Management Excellence Award in 2017. Duncan Wood speaks to managing director George Bisnought and recruitment director Jo Losty about their win, and why their agile model is so successful
‘It’s clear we’re a new-model law firm. It’s certainly non-traditional, and overall I think that is what we were recognised for,’ declares George Bisnought, founder and managing director of Excello Law. That recognition was from the Law Society: in October 2017, Excello won the inaugural Excellence in Law Management award at the Law Society’s Excellence Awards.
The win rounded off a fruitful couple of years for Excello, which has seen it pick up a clutch of awards (including for Best Agile Working Initiative at The Lawyer Business Awards 2016), agree a strategic alliance with an Australian new-model law firm, and open two new office hubs in the north of England, as well as a flagship office suite in the City of London. The firm has grown in eight years to a team of over 85 fee-earners, with year-on-year growth averaging 30 per cent. It’s clear that the model is gaining ground.
The Excello model
Since launching in 2009, Excello Law has established a significant reputation in commercial law, attracting a host of lawyers from firms such as Allen & Overy, Freshfields and Linklaters.
Excello was borne out of Bisnought’s frustrations with the legal profession, both as a practising commercial solicitor and, while general counsel (GC) in industry, as a client of legal services. ‘As a lawyer, I felt like a square peg in a round hole due to the lack of flexibility afforded to me and a sense that I was not in control of my destiny. As a GC, I recognised that as a client, the profession wasn’t working for me either – I had concerns about the accessibility, cost and quality of legal services.’
Bisnought met many lawyers who felt the same way, yearning for a more dynamic alternative to the rigid traditional partnership model: a new model which would give them the flexibility to work in the way they preferred, while also addressing client concerns. ‘Many lawyers I met were passionate about the law, but hated the environment within which they practised because of the office politics, inflexibility and long hours. My clients were also constantly telling me that the profession was not working for them.’
Excello was one of the first firms at that time to launch as a limited liability company – a model that clients were more familiar with – run by a team of directors and advisers, leaving its lawyers free to focus on their clients. Excello doesn’t share profits in the same way as a traditional partnership: lawyers are remunerated on a fee share model, which gives them an immediate and more generous share of the fees they generate, rather than a fixed share of a communal pot under the profit share model. ‘Our focus is on what is in the best interests of the business,’ Bisnought says. ‘We reinvest our profits for growth.’
At the heart of Excello’s model is flexibility: it provides its lawyers with the freedom to work when, where and how they choose, either from staffed office hubs in London, Chester, Liverpool and Leeds – which they can use for hotdesking, meeting clients and networking – or through a combination of flexible, mobile and remote working. Lawyers are supported by full paralegal, compliance and administrative resources, and cloud-based technology. ‘The flexibility we offer over our lawyers’ work and career path is unmatched in the traditional model,’ Bisnought declares. Working agilely in this way also keeps overheads down and pricing competitive.
The number of high-profile lawyers joining the fold suggests that Excello’s model and approach have struck a chord. ‘I don’t think the partnership model holds as much attraction nowadays as it once did, especially for firms where growth is flatlining,’ Bisnought remarks. ‘We offer a viable alternative for lawyers who are passionate about what they do, but want to be rewarded for their efforts, too.’
Bisnought remarks that Excello is now attracting types of client – blue chip companies, large brands, banks – which may not have considered engaging with anything other than traditional law firms until relatively recently. ‘There is a strong appetite now for a model that understands their needs,’ he argues, ‘which goes back to our ethos of stripping out a lot of the overheads that clients tell us they don’t need, and utilising technology to deliver legal services more efficiently and cost-effectively. At the same time, the client doesn’t have to compromise on quality, because we are recruiting from the City and large regional law firms. Our average PQE is over 20 years.’
Working within a performance-based fee structure, the Excello lawyer has to be a motivated self-starter, with the desire to grow their practice. ‘I think the beauty of Excello is that we offer our lawyers the platform to be able to do just that, by supporting them with their marketing, giving them the right facilities, and fostering a real collaborative culture with other lawyers,’ remarks Jo Losty, the firm’s director of recruitment, and a dispute resolution specialist and commercial contracts lawyer.
‘People can set their own measurements for success within our model, and can see a much more immediate reward for the efforts they put in,’ she continues. ‘They are incentivised to grow their own business and bring in work for others in the team. We have many lawyers who are earning five times more than what they were under the traditional model and doing the same amount of work.
‘As our model grows, we have seen more candidates approach us directly or who are introduced to us by our existing team, who are fantastic advocates for this way of working.’
The firm focuses on understanding its lawyers’ needs and ensuring they have input, adds Bisnought. ‘We run Excello for and on behalf of our lawyers – we are no more than stakeholders – and they feed into that process. The feedback we get from them is important in how we evolve and improve as a business.’
The Law Society’s Excellence in Law Management category celebrates innovation or change management initiatives which produce a significant improvement to performance. How did Excello come out on top?
Bisnought believes the judges saw innovation in the breadth and depth of Excello’s management board. Its team of advisers includes Dame Janet Gaymer, the first woman to be a managing partner in a City law firm, and serial entrepreneur Victoria Vaksman. ‘Our advisers bring a fresh and new dynamic to the business and give us that strong business and corporate governance that we need,’ says Losty.
Losty also points to Excello’s management style. ‘I think our approach is innovative because the focus is very much on achieving success by creating a supportive and collaborative culture within the business. It is about nurturing our team to succeed, rather than beating them with a stick to reach targets. We think that is a real development in law firm management culture.’
As for change management, the business has grown significantly since 2009. ‘We have had to manage how we grow the business, at the same time as concentrating on what is core to us: the needs of our lawyers and clients,’ says Bisnought. ‘It has been important that we maintain focus on our ethos as we have grown.’
Losty adds: ‘But because of the flexibility and agility of our model, we can be responsive to the needs and aspirations of our lawyers and how they want to achieve them. We have adapted and flexed the model to suit where we can.’
They both consider the Excellence Award a great endorsement, especially as Excello operates very differently from the traditional firm model. ‘I think the win will impact us in a number of areas,’ comments Bisnought. ‘The feel-good factor on us as a business; recognition from our lawyers that we are treading the right path and that our model continues to be sustainable; and acknowledgment externally that our model is vital and exciting.’
While Excello has focused in recent years on extending its reach in the north of England, with offices opening in Liverpool, Leeds and Chester, it has always kept one eye firmly on international growth. Excello Law Sweden opened in 2013, and more recently, Excello has announced strategic alliances with new model law firms Rimon in the United States and Nexus Law Group in Australia, both of which have a similar ethos and approach to client engagement.
Clearly, then, you don’t need to be big to expand into other territories. ‘Many UK firms operating internationally are big players and they charge accordingly. If we are delivering the same level of quality, then why not enter those markets?’ says Bisnought. ‘Being a smaller firm hasn’t hindered us. It’s all about identifying opportunities as and when they arise.’
Sweden was a case in point. ‘We found that the Swedish market was very similar to the UK market in the sense that there were a lot of dissatisfied, cash-rich, time-poor lawyers, and dissatisfied SME clients. We felt our model would fit quite nicely in that marketplace.’
Excello’s international aspirations are also attractive to potential new recruits, Losty reveals. ‘We are seeing a lot of London lawyers with an international dimension to their practice. They want to be able to continue to facilitate that kind of work working for us.’
As one of the handful of legal practices to be agile from day one, what do Bisnought and Losty think about the tentative steps more traditional law firms are taking in offering more flexibility in the ways their lawyers can work? ‘It is inevitably challenging when your model wasn’t borne out of the concept of agile working, so it’s hard to be able to incorporate it truly into your model,’ answers Losty.
‘For many law firms which profess to be agile, there are conditions attached,’ Bisnought continues. ‘They may allow you to work from home on a Friday, but they need to know exactly where you are, and it is predicated on having a certain number of people in the office on the day, and so on. We don’t dictate to our lawyers where they should work. True agile working means you can plan exactly where and how you work.
‘Clients are extremely sophisticated – it is the legal profession that is catching up! I don’t buy the argument that the client wants to dictate both the output and where the output is delivered. That is nonsense – the technology on offer today means you can practically work on the moon.’