QHow did you come to join the firm?
A It was my first job in the law. I nearly took a training contract with a firm in Windsor who offered me a position but firstly I knew Hooper & Wollen, as it was then, because my maternal grandfather was a costs clerk with the firm, and secondly, if I'm being blunt about it, I decided it would be a lot easier to live on the £4,500 per year salary at home in Torquay than in Windsor!
QWhat was the firm like then?
A It was a very traditional partnership with a solid private client base, mainly undertaking wills and probate and property work. There was just one office –– the same one we have now on The Terrace in Torquay, where the firm has been since 1868.
QWho has been your most significant mentor?
A I was articled to Alan Brookes, who is still with the firm as a senior partner. He was a litigant and a great inspiration in terms of his drive, focus and pure energy. He works exceedingly hard and is very focused on delivering the right result for the client. He got me hooked in to civil litigation and court work and I really learnt a lot from him.
QHow did you get to be such a young managing partner?
A The firm changed very rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s, taking on more young lawyers and expanding our areas of expertise.
In 1999 we drove forward a change being introduced into many legal practices at the time –– separating out the management of the firm from the actual legal work. That's when I was offered the role. I was 36 at the time and was one of the youngest managing partners appointed. I had already been instrumental in securing a Legal Aid franchise for the firm and was very involved with the development of marketing and client service ideas and it seemed a natural progression for me at the time.
QHow quickly did things change with you at the helm?
A Well change doesn't happen immediately –– to achieve effective change it often has to evolve with a good strategic plan and 'buy-in' from all concerned.
We brought on board more expertise in the early 2000s so that alongside our private client and property departments we developed substantial family law and litigation teams and a growing company/commercial presence.
Then in 2006 Hooper & Wollen joined forces with Courtney Richards and acquired offices in Paignton and Dartmouth, and in 2011 merged with Harold Michelmore to become Wollen Michelmore LLP as we are today. We have also developed a separate business, Wollen Michelmore Financial Planning Ltd, to offer holistic financial planning advice to our clients.
We have taken the practice from a turnover of £1.5 million in 1999 when I was appointed, to nearly £5 million today.
Our staff count has expanded from under 50 to over 120 across four offices. We are now a major regional player and in some areas of expertise enjoy an excellent reputation at national level.
We have worked hard on our profile and are more visible than we used to be. We work hard at all aspects of client care and service and are now being recognised through the winning of awards which is very pleasing.
But fundamentally the ethos of the firm has remained the same which is the key to achieving stability.
QWhat have been the major challenges?
A The pace of change in the law and our regulation has been immense in recent times so keeping up with that is challenging.
The costs of running a full service law firm have escalated so there is a huge weight of pressure on expectation of performance, as there is in pretty well every walk of life these days.
The technology available to us has changed beyond all recognition –– that brings huge opportunities but challenges as well.
The economic downturn brings its own pressures and you must be ready to adapt the business model to adjust. In this role you sometimes need to take a step back to get back on the right course. If you're not prepared to do that and you drive on and on, that could be your downfall.
QWhat is your management style?
A Being managing partner can be quite a lonely role. But I have a wonderful group of hardworking and talented partners who along with a strong management board and our practice director, Clive Meredith, provide invaluable support and expertise.
One thing that I've learnt is that you can't just throw your weight around to achieve your aims –– you must be considered and measured in approach and be prepared to justify and explain decisions.
Equally you do need to be ready to stand up to see through decisions and necessary change.
I do believe that it is right to treat colleagues in the manner in which you would wish to be treated.
I like to think that we work hard to treat our staff well — we have a reputation as a firm that cares for its staff — and that filters through to the clients as well. People are the key to success. Good people providing a great service –– that's it –– very simple!
QStaying with one firm for so long is unusual these days. How do you keep enthused and fresh?
AWell all the changes and growth have given me more than enough to hold my interest!
But I also make sure I keep involved with other roles such as those with the Law Management Section of the Law Society, the Devon & Somerset Law Society and the English Riviera Tourism Company.
I really enjoy my role with the ERTC and it is good to have a 'non-legal' interest — I do feel that the role is helping to contribute towards driving an improvement to tourism in the area, which remains so critical to our economy.
Wollen Michelmore is now enjoying a period of consolidation after some substantial changes which will be refreshing in itself!
QDo you miss actually practicing law?
A I still head up the firm's licencing department and undertake commercial contract drafting which are fairly bespoke areas.
But I also enjoy the management of the business and the development of the firm with the help of our management team.
QDo you ever wish you'd taken that job in Windsor?
A No! I've never regretted staying in Torquay for a moment. And I have had wonderful career opportunities here.
This is also something I, and we as a firm, feel very strongly about –– stopping the 'brain drain'of young people to London and other cities. So many of my school contemporaries left the area to pursue their careers.
Wollen Michelmore now has a policy of spotting and recruiting the brightest young lawyers with local roots, and developing their careers within the firm.
It has paid off for us in that we have enjoyed considerable success developing our partners and lawyers from those we took on as trainees.
We try to pick the right people and encourage them to develop the best of themselves and achieve their full potential. In return we gain from their loyalty –– in a big firm there's usually a substantial turnover of staff but many of our staff stay throughout their careers!
This commitment to our staff of course also filters through to our clients and I like to think we enjoy a reputation for providing a quality, full service for the whole community.