Leadership in a changing landscape

It’s not often the whole recruitment team gets to meet the Managing Partner of a successful law firm – one that has won many awards, including Business Services Team of the Year at The Lawyer Awards 2019. But we recently had the pleasure of meeting David Patient, Managing Partner at Travers Smith, at one of our regular knowledge-sharing meetings. These kinds of meetings are so helpful for us, allowing us to understand a business on a deeper level, which in turn means we can recruit more effectively from a point of understanding of business operations and objectives (and people). It helps when, like David, you meet very friendly people too! Our team put the following questions to David. What is your vision for Travers Smith? I would say Travers is still in its adolescence. In 1990, when I joined the firm, we had a little over 30 Partners and £17m revenue; now we have 84 Partners and turnover of over £160m. We haven’t done this by merging. We are only based in the UK (although I did set up our small office in Paris many years ago). We have an International strategy approach of ‘many good friends’. 50% of our partner promotions in the last 3 years were women, and our growth over the last decade has been over 10% a year. As a one-office firm, we know each other well and it’s easier for us to collaborate. Partners can share work and use each other on pitches as one team. Our high profitability and supportive culture means we can keep top talent. All this means that we are dining at the top table – our aim is to be in the top 10 in the UK.

Factors for success

What do you think has made Travers Smith successful? A number of reasons: first we focused on Private Equity in 1995 when many other firms thought we were ‘mad’, but it has proved to be very successful. The second was to not open foreign offices (apart from the small Paris one) but build strong relationships with overseas firms instead. Our inbound referral work now represents 15 – 20% of our total revenues. Lastly, we decided to invest in our disputes / litigation practice - ten years ago this represented 10% of our revenues, now it's nearly 25% and growing. Our close culture and warm atmosphere have also helped drive our success. Did you have ambitions to become a Managing Partner? Not when I started out, but I have always been ambitious. Nearly 15 years ago, I remember having a conversation with a senior partner in the firm, who suggested I should think about the role of Managing Partner. I have been on our management board since 2009, and was Head of the International Board for many years so I was getting management experience and enjoyed it. I realised I was enjoying the management of the business more than being a lawyer, so it started the trajectory.

Critical business services

To what extent has your business services team been integral to your plans to take the firm on to further and enhanced success? Absolutely integral. In any one day, I could be dealing with Covid-19, technology advances, office space, millennial expectations, changes in regulations, etc. Everything is becoming more complicated, which means the breadth of a Managing Partner’s job remit widens and we need support. One of the first things I did was to put in place a dynamic, strategic, professional business services team. They are my "guiding coalition" and they have played their part in the financial success of Travers. It means we can also get on with the jobs we do best. We meet very regularly, at least once a day, and because of the one-office set-up at Travers, we can make changes quickly, respond to the market and encourage innovative new practices. Business services will evolve further. We need highly talented professionals with diverse backgrounds that can keep up with the pace and scale of change. What three behaviours in a business services person makes them a real success and stand out?
  1. Perseverance, resilience and always being ready to have another go.
  2. Someone who is curious and takes time to really understand the business, will promote it and can join the dots between business functions.
  3. Someone who gets on with the job and delivers.

The leadership role

We are sometimes told that it is lonely being a Managing Partner – do you think so? I have a wonderful team who help run the business, a nice bunch of partners, a close relationship with both my former Senior Partner and our current one, and there is my peer group at other firms. At peer group dinners everyone is very open and we can learn from our shared experiences. And I have a mentor I see regularly. So, no, I don’t feel lonely. What are the biggest challenges Managing Partners face in a market that is going through so much change?
  1. Increased competition – disrupters, Big 4, US firms
  2. Cyber-security – as billions of pounds of client money go through law firms' bank accounts every year, we are prime targets for cyber criminals
  3. Space strategy – will we need half as much, or twice as much, office space in ten years?
  4. Sustainability of profitability – as there is and will be increasingly more pressure to manage costs.
  5. Hiring great talent – competition, salary wars
  6. Continuing to improve gender diversity – we are now nearly 25% female partners, an increase of 13% over the past five years.
Huge thanks to David for talking to the Totum team and sharing his insights and thoughts on his career and his life as a Managing Partner at Travers Smith. 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.