Inside a law firm's strategy

Pinsent Masons partner Alastair Morrison explains his firm's strategy and the contribution trainees can make to it

All successful law firms provide legal advice and services tailored to their clients' needs and informed by knowledge of the industries in which they operate. Beyond that, however, their ways of organising themselves and their client relationships can vary significantly.

To win a training contract, and to start developing into an effective lawyer, it's important to understand your chosen law firm's philosophy and approach to business.

Pinsent Masons is an excellent law firm strategy case study as the firm prides itself on having a clear and distinctive way of doing things. To find out more about it, and how commercial law firms in general operate today, we spoke to Alastair Morrison, partner and Head of Client Strategy at the firm.

The strategy

"Clients don't think of things from a legal perspective," says Alastair "- they're looking at their own issues. Our approach is about looking through their eyes and thinking about their needs and the sector in which they operate."

The strategy manifests itself in two key ways. First, the firm has developed a high level of expertise in the four industry sectors it's chosen to focus on globally: advanced manufacturing & technology services; energy & natural resources; financial services; and infrastructure. The firm also operates in ten smaller "core industries and markets" that are more UK-focused, but which still account between them for almost 25 per cent of the firm's revenue.

Second, unlike many law firms, the firm is not primarily structured round areas of legal expertise - like corporate, property, or litigation. "Our business development and legal teams are structured by industry," says Alastair, "so our sector approach is hardwired into the organisation. That means our energy relationships, for example, are developed and run by our energy sector practice group."

Why the firm chose to follow it

Alastair explains that the firm chose to follow this strategy to suit the firm's strengths. "We saw that what distinguished us as a law firm was our deep knowledge of certain sectors and our ability to develop legal solutions for clients in them. A lot of law firms try to cover all sectors, but we came to a conclusion that doing so wasn't the path for us. We wanted a focused business, which meant deciding which sectors we could really make an impact in."

The sector approach also suits Pinsent Masons because, Alastair explains, the firm classifies itself as a "relationship-driven" rather than a "transaction-driven" firm. This means the firm has chosen to build up strong relationships with particular clients and work for them on an ongoing basis, rather than advising a very wide range of different clients on specialised transactions, such as mergers or IPOs, as some firms do.

"We do act on heavy-duty transactions," says Alastair, "but usually for our key clients. And our strong relationships with them mean that when the economic climate isn't so good and there are fewer big transactions, they still give us work."

What it means for the firm's lawyers

The firm's sector approach helps its lawyers to become rounded professional advisors as well as legal experts, explains Alastair. "Traditionally, lawyers become specialised in particular legal skills. You want to have this expertise, but the trick to being an outstanding lawyer is to learn to contextualise your expertise and apply it to what's going on with a particular client operating in a particular industry." For example, says Alastair: "Many construction lawyers would never look at the share price or the annual reports of construction companies. But doing so is commonplace at our firm."

The emphasis the firm places on sector knowledge means it highly values relevant experience outside law that graduates bring to the firm: "We'd look favourably on relevant technical capability - for example, the knowledge you acquire from a chemistry degree would be very relevant for working with our energy or life sciences clients."

What it means for trainees

As part of the sector approach, Pinsent Masons trainees are encouraged to start developing close relationships with clients right away. "We assign trainees - known as relationship trainees - to our major clients for the duration of their training contract," says Alastair. "And as they move practice areas, they stay involved with that client and the firm's relationship with them."

Alastair believes that this system helps trainees build a solid foundation for the rest of their legal careers. "In many firms, what tends to be valued most in junior lawyers is their ability to deliver legal expertise, complete tasks on time, and work effectively as part of a project team. These things are very important here as well, but the longer you're in the profession, the more important sector knowledge and relationship skills become. Therefore we think that our trainees should have their minds on these areas too."

The firm's plans for the future

Alastair thinks that increased sector specialism is what more and more clients will want to see in the future, so the UK's legal industry as a whole is likely to move in this direction: "I think we'll see lawyers delivering a wider range of solutions for clients in a particular sector - clients want one team of lawyers with a number of different skills focused around the needs they face in their particular industry."

Pinsent Masons is responding by aiming to develop its existing sector-focused relationships with clients into ever-closer cooperation. "It's about moving our relationships from being very strong into almost partnering relationships - so we work with the client rather than for the client," says Alastair. "In practice that means putting together teams made up of sector-specialist Pinsent Masons lawyers and in-house lawyers to tackle projects together that neither us nor the client would be able to put together on our own."

Doing so means plenty of exciting opportunities for junior lawyers to be part of the firm's strategy while developing their own careers: "We often send trainees to work with clients at their offices," says Alastair, "helping our lawyers build their commercial awareness and experience is a key part of what the firm is aiming to do."

The firm's strategy: the sector approach

Expertise and focus

The firm has chosen to specialise on building client relationships in four key industry sectors: advanced manufacturing & technology services; energy & natural resources; financial services; and infrastructure.

Structure of firm

The firm's employees are organised into teams by sector as well as by practice area.

Training

The firm's lawyers are encouraged to develop sector as well as legal knowledge from the beginning of their careers.

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