Weightmans is clearly doing something right when it comes to its business services professionals. Take HR Director Sam Airey and Marketing Director Sarah-Jane Howitt. Both have been with the firm for a long time – Airey for 16 years, Howitt for 10. And both recently joined the firm’s partnership ranks.
They are a great example of the career development opportunities now available to today’s business services professionals. Business managers in law can, and do, leave their mark.
The right thinking
Both Airey and Howitt talk about how much the firm has changed in their time, in terms of size, scale and reach – and how many professional development opportunities have arisen because of that. It’s the culture too that Airey describes as both a strength and a differentiator. ‘People are very approachable,’ adds Howitt. ‘If you have a good idea, partners go with it.’
Perhaps that is why Weightmans stands out as one of the few top-50 firms that obtained an ABS licence (in 2013) and then used it to promote both to the partnership – Howitt becoming the firm’s first non-lawyer partner in 2014, followed by Airey in 2015. It joins just a handful of other top-50 law firms doing the same, including Irwin Mitchell and Kennedys.
This is a firm that is willing to look forwards and do things differently. For Airey and Howitt, it has also opened doors.
The partnership prize
‘Becoming a partner was an important step in two ways: it was a positive signal to business services functions that we make a different but equal contribution to the firm,’ says Airey. ‘And personally, it is important my team brings HR expertise, and that’s easier when I’m invested in the firm. Being a partner is part of the commitment you make.’
Howitt agrees. ‘Becoming a partner was an opportunity to show I was committed to be part of the firm as an owner, not just an employee. That was well received by partners, it made them think differently about things.’
Partners are not renowned for embracing change, however. Was there any resistance to the development? ‘My personal take was that I don’t think it had ever crossed their minds for us to become partners,’ says Howitt. ‘And then when it was suggested there was no negativity, just a bit of surprise. Once they were used to the idea, it was more like, why not? It’s so well established for lawyers to become partners it’s easy just to think in that way.’
In terms of the day-to-day, neither Airey nor Howitt think that becoming partners has changed the specifics of their roles. Over the years, both describe a shift – from more administrative, process-driven roles to ones that are far more strategic and advisory. ‘We’re much more future focused now,’ says Airey. Becoming partners sits within that broader development.
But they have noticed a more subtle change in dimension since becoming partners – a ‘positive reception to us wanting to commit in this way’ that ‘changes your attitude’. They say that Weightmans has always been committed to its professional managers – ‘there weren’t distinctions between us anyway’, but perhaps it has cemented a perception that they truly are all in it together.
They also agree that partnership for non-lawyers is far from the norm. ‘It still depends on the firm,’ says Howitt. ‘We network with people, some of whom say they’d never have the opportunity to be partner. Some are viewed at board level, others not. It’s not to do with size, but culture and management. But it is changing. Things are very different to what they were five years ago.’
‘This is a very exciting time in law – there’s a dynamism that is presenting real opportunity for business people to contribute,’ says Airey. ‘I’ve seen amazing work in other firms by other professional managers – it’s a coming of age of professional management.’
At Weightmans, the focus now is on unifying business functions, ensuring that teams are collaborating effectively. Helping that is IS and Operations Director Stuart Whittle, who brings a particular interest in business process improvement, including embarking on Lean Six Sigma.
‘His role has given us a common focus, helping us to see the bigger picture and to work better together and with partners and teams. It’s helped in terms of how we’re viewed too – people see business services as contributing to wider goals,’ says Howitt.
Not surprisingly for a firm that has opened up the partnership to business services professionals, Airey adds that a big focus of her HR team is investing in people, on the firm’s leadership development programme and its employer brand. A firm that is recognised for having a culture that both recognises and rewards talent is one most likely to succeed in attracting more of the same.
There is perhaps just one caveat in all of this. Airey says that many of the functional heads and directors have been with the firm for a while. Such success in retaining talent can bring its own challenges. ‘We have to consistently challenge ourselves and develop/move things on. We have to be open and honest with each other about what works and what doesn’t.’
The big picture
Offering partnership opportunities to business services professionals may not become standard practice anytime soon. But these steps at firms like Weightmans raise a thorny issue for other firms. As business services professionals increasingly prove their worth at more senior levels, how do you continue to reward and nurture their development and ensure their commitment/loyalty? Not all business professionals will be interested in partnership, but all will need to feel valued and adequately rewarded. And that isn’t helped by a partnership that remains closed to all but lawyers, sending the dangerous message that even your best business talent is second class.
Finding ways to recognise the ever-growing value of business talent in law will be essential in months and years to come. Only then can the legal sector hope to secure the ever-growing list of management skills it will need to prosper.