When Nicola Lowe was appointed managing partner of law firm Harold G Walker, she likened it to being presented with a bowl of spaghetti. “I didn’t know which strand to take hold of first,” she recalls. Arguably it had also been served up in the equivalent of a poisoned chalice.
When she became the first female partner back in 2008, High Street law firms were “very male dominated, very traditional,” and she knew that had to change if they were to survive, let alone prosper.
One of her early tasks was to shake up the firm’s IT, which resulted in Harold G Walker becoming one of the first law firms in the country to have a hosted cloud platform. The investment in technology represented “hundreds of thousands,” but Lowe explains: “The systems had been allowed to stagnate; it required root and branch, not a quick fix.”
In addition to relocating the firm’s head office, her task included looking at what processes could be streamlined, and making sure there wasn’t anyone “hiding in their offices and not bringing anything to the party.”
But didn’t that ruffle professional feathers? “Not really,” says Lowe. “I was voted in as managing partner to bridge the gap between old and new. They know I was prepared to roll up my sleeves and get on with it. If we had continued down the road of being an old-fashioned firm, we would not be here now.”
Even today though, Lowe couldn’t be more different from, well, the managing partner of any professional practice. She went to a comprehensive school, neglected to leave with any O-levels, worked as a nurse and didn’t go to university to study law until her children were teenagers. “If I had knuckled down earlier and taken the traditional route into law, life might have been easier, but I have a totally different perspective and that’s been good for the firm,” she says.
Perhaps no surprise then to hear that she looks for diversity – in a broad sense – among those looking to become lawyers. “I always ask what are you bringing to our party?” she explains. “We want lawyers with character and personality and who have other skills, like IT, not just first-class law degrees from Oxford.”
So perhaps it is a bit of a surprise to discover how much value she places on the firm’s heritage. “We were founded in 1947 by Harold G Walker, who was chairman of Bournemouth Football Club, and longevity is one of our strengths,” says Lowe.
In fact, Harold G Walker are the only multi-office firm in their locale, she believes, which has never been merged or had a fundamental name change. So when the firm decided to update its brand image and make it more consistent, she was careful not to fracture that all-important continuity.
“The intention is to have a brand identify rather like that of a John Lewis,” Lowe explains. “I want people to feel they can trust us and then to recommend us for being transparent and providing a good service.” With this in mind,
brand standardisation across the offices was important. “It’s more important than simply image,” she says. “It applies to the business as a whole. All of our staff wear a company badge and answer the phone in a consistent way.
“There’s the old cliche about holding on to traditional values but delivering them in a way which is relevant to today, and we are really doing that. We know who we are: we are not about glass-fronted offices in a city centre or business park; we’re a service industry on the High Street where we need to be, helping local people buy houses, gain probate, and get their divorces, and to help local businesses with their everyday requirements.”
The firm has encapsulated that in the slogan ‘Your Friend-in-Law’ and Lowe explains it translates to giving approachable advice in accessible language, with prices clearly explained.
“People don’t want a stuffed shirt talking to them in language they don’t understand,” says Lowe. “They want an approachable expert they can chat to about their problems, and we’re not one of those firms where they never get to speak to the same person twice.”
“And crucially,” adds Lowe, “we say this is what you will get from us and what it will cost. Professional practices are going to have to wake up to the fact that people aren’t going to want to buy something, whether it’s a product or a service, without knowing its price first.”
What Lowe firmly believes is that businesses should give back to the community in which they operate, and she is one of a team of solicitors who provide an advisory service at the local Citizens Advice Bureau. Harold G Walker also provide free thirty-minute legal clinics for the community. “How will that help grow our business? The answer is that sharing some knowledge is great PR and is good for business,” Lowe explains. She cites the client who came to the firm because of the advice she’d had at a free clinic four years before. “I think you have to give something to get something back,” she comments.
How the firm has re-purposed itself has not gone un-noticed. Lowe says offers to ‘merge’ have been received but declined. She acknowledges though that every firm of their size might get to the stage where increasing bureaucracy and regulations could make it too difficult to survive on their own.
Regardless, money wouldn’t be the driver. “That isn’t our motivation,” she avers. “It’s doing the best we can do as a firm to uphold the integrity of the profession. As long as I have enough for a comfortable, enjoyable life and to look after my family, I am quite happy with my lot.”
Researched and written for Ward Goodman by DECISION magazine