Background

 

John Banister, CEO at Wiggin LLP, started his career as a weapons engineer in the Royal Navy, spent eight years firing missiles and had a turn in the Gulf War. He then completed an MBA and spent time at Merrill Lynch, KPMG and Linklaters. He describes Merrill Lynch as a great introduction to the commercial world, while at Linklaters he was one of just four business managers – they now have 60 to 70. He set up K Legal, KPMGs first attempt at a multi-disciplinary practice and left when it had grown to 850 people. 

In 2003, he moved to Wiggin LLP, a media, technology and intellectual property (IP) firm based in Cheltenham. At the time, the firm had three main objectives: 1) growth; 2) to be best in the market; and 3) have fun doing it.

The firm has since seen massive growth, has 38 Partners and 80 lawyers, and is seen as a leading media, technology and IP specialist. In a true spirit of innovation, the firm also has six other businesses, which still link to the firm’s core offerings:

  1. Incopro – comprehensive and intelligent brand protection and copyright enforcement solutions.
  2. Cirkus and Curio – help content rights owners develop new revenue streams and digital platforms find the content they want easily and quickly on the best commercial terms.
  3. Reviewed and Cleared – specialist media lawyers for the clearance of editorial content.
  4. Viewfinder – offers dedicated executive producing services to producers, creative talent and IP owners.
  5. Overmorrow - a strategic advisory group focused exclusively on media, technology and brands. 
  6. Ariel Ventures – brokers deals with, for example, Walking the Dinosaur.

All have a relevance to Wiggin’s legal work and align to its core business.  John has been involved from the beginning of each business, although many are now managed by others.

John describes the firm’s next steps as moving to a ‘three-legged stool’ – focusing on 1) media, 2) technology, and 3) brand, increasing the synergy between the three areas with growth, internationalisation and opportunities for cross selling. ‘Clients want a service that is available in 70 offices and 55 jurisdictions, and although we do not have offices in those areas, we do have very strong relationships with the best lawyers in each of those places around the world,’ he says.

Our Q&A...

 

What do you do as a CEO?

We do not have a Managing Partner or Senior Partner so I have assumed this responsibility. I am a member of the Partnership Board and I am a non-lawyer partner. Culture change is taking a lot of my time recently as we need to ensure that as the firm grows it retains what has previously held us in good stead: that everyone knows each other, and has a common purpose, goal and agenda. This is much harder to achieve when the firm is growing.  We need to synchronise [aspects of operations] – for instance, offices, communication, etc.  Being a relatively young firm, we have some partners nearing retirement for the first time so we need to consider succession planning. To date all the partners have had a say but it is getting harder now we have 40 partners so how do we maintain this autonomy, but make sure we are commercial?

 

What challenges do you face?

  1. Our Head Office is in Cheltenham, but we now have more people based in London, as well as in Brussels. We need to promote growth but ensure we still hold onto those things that made the firm great including its culture, sharing work, etc.
  2. Regularly reviewing strategy – and ensuring it is still appropriate
  3. Ensuring we deliver a common purpose including communication across all our businesses.
     

Will Brexit impact your business?

Yes, in the short-term. It is an opportunity as it will provide more work. Our Brussels office can help to support this, and we will look to grow the office. It will also impact our content world.

 

How have the new businesses been set up?

Lawyers are not typically innovative but our Partners have created six successful businesses.  Lots of our Partners are not ‘typical’ lawyers, according to psychometric assessments we have done in the past, but they have chosen to work in law within creative industries so this probably explains their increased appetite for investing in the sectors they know well. All the businesses have required investment and they are owned by the equity partners. This encourages our new equity partners to be innovative as they too want to come up with their own ‘cash cow’.

 

Would you introduce think tanks?

No, much of our success has been down to free flow. We roll up our sleeves and get on with the job in hand, which has been part of the fun. However, as we grow, we do need more structure, so it is finding the right balance that is going to be the challenge.

 

Partnership v corporation?

We are a partnership model but we have had conversations about changing. We were very close at one stage and there were good commercial reasons to do so, but it didn’t happen. There is room in our environment to have lots of different set ups and we don’t have to all follow the same route.

 

How do you view pricing?

It is critical. We recently hired a Head of Commercial, who was previously Head of Pricing at Ashurst. He was brought in to be client facing and he makes a genuine difference to how we pitch for work, how often we view our rates, how to structure the firm / work, etc.

 

How has your background in the Royal Navy supported your career in law?

In the Royal Navy, you are given a large amount of responsibility at a very young age.  At 21 I was responsible for leadership training in the Navy. You need common sense, to get on with people at all levels and roll up your sleeves and get on with what is needed.  It is sink or swim. Not dissimilar to a CEO role in a law firm; you do not need to be an expert in every area but you must find the right people who are experts, encourage them and listen to their advice. Also, you need to be good at keeping up with your networks and building relationships. Starting the six new businesses has been an exceptional opportunity as they have provided an outside view and commercial learnings for us all.

 

Huge thanks to John for talking to the Totum team and sharing his insights and thoughts on his career and his life as CEO at Wiggin LLP. If you would be interested in taking part in a Q&A to share your story, we would love to hear from you. You can contact us at [email protected] or follow us on LinkedIn.

 

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