Introducing Tina Williams: A commercial leader on managing mergers and moves in the City – Part 1

28 May 2015

Tina Williams, Chair of corporate City firm Fox Williams, has enviable experience in the world of business. During her professional career, she has advised clients on issues crossing the full spectrum of the corporate and commercial practice area, from M&A and corporate finance to partnership and limited liability partnership matters. Since 2005, she has applied her own expertise to growing Fox Williams as Senior Partner and, latterly as Chair, to strengthening her firm’s international relationships. We spoke to Tina about issues affecting law firms and her own dual role as both adviser and manager.

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Tina, what was the vision for Fox Williams when the firm was established? How is it different to other City law firms?

Initially, in 1989 we wanted to offer a high-quality, partner-led service to business clients. That basis for the firm has never altered; we have never adopted a highly leveraged model. Further, we wanted to run a firm at which people would enjoy working.

We have a tremendous respect for other City firms and their lawyers but we feel that we have differentiated ourselves by our recognition and focus on our clients’ industries. More recently, we have centred on a number of sectors within which we aim to be amongst the ‘best in class’: financial services, professional practices, technology and fashion.

 

Given your sector approach, do you remain a full-service law firm in terms of practice area?

Yes, we are full-service; client issues are multi-dimensional and require specialist advice across a range of practice areas but our lawyers all offer an industry as well as a practice area focus. When dealing with a matter, they have a greater understanding of which issues are important to a client because of that industry knowledge and clients really value that knowledge.

 

Did the recession influence your decision to focus on sectors?

It is certainly no coincidence that firms have had to think more carefully about their place in the market since 2008/2009. Differentiation and what clients value have become increasingly important to all firms, not just Fox Williams.

 

Recruitment will have played an instrumental role from the outset for Fox Williams, and this is an integral part of your own practice area also. When managing team moves and lateral hires, could you tell us more about the due diligence process you undertake?

Of primary importance is to find lawyers who understand their market and are self-starting business builders with a strong commitment to client service. We look for examples of business building and we find out how the individual has gone about that process; we also speak, with the partner’s consent, to clients and former colleagues of the individual. By doing this, we can find out if the lawyer is not only technically able but also respected in their field and ‘user-friendly’. All of these characteristics are important.

 

What do you feel is of particular significance or importance when recruiting at this level?

Culture fit is key; we test someone’s values and aspirations and find out how realistic that person is about what they have achieved and what they want to achieve in the future. If these ingredients are right, profits will usually follow. However, it is very much a two-way process. The firm must be the right platform for the individual as well, and not all firms are the same. Team moves are much more risky. They enable a firm to grow quickly but the culture fit must be right to ensure that the team can be fully integrated.

Ultimately, any recruitment requires a leap of faith. People are complex and it is not always a straightforward process but due diligence is crucial, particularly with partners who are becoming increasingly mobile in the workplace.

 

Have you shied away from recruiting teams as a result of culture fit in particular?

Yes; we have recruited teams which have been very successful for us but there have been occasions where we have stepped back precisely because some individuals within the package haven’t been quite right for the firm.

Risks must be weighed against benefits; a team hire can be extremely successful and help you to achieve something quickly which would otherwise have taken years, but it is never without its risks.

 

Who do you perceive as Fox Williams’ competitors?

We are a City firm so certainly the competition presented by major corporate practices is relevant to us but we will concentrate on our own offering, understanding our clients and what they want from us and delivering it.

 

The talk of the profession currently is the growth of firms and ownership outside of the traditional partnership and LLP model. What is your view on the role of ABS firms in the marketplace?

I don’t think that the ABS model itself is a threat. The threat comes from having too many lawyers to do the same amount of work, coupled with increased competition from deregulation. There has been an ‘unbundling’ of services, such that clients only instruct lawyers to carry out the work that requires a legally trained individual. The increased competition, plus a genuine need for greater investment, will drive changes in the market. There is a place for market leaders in all spaces, whether consumer, global or otherwise.

High street practices carry out high-volume work and they are on the front line when it comes to fighting against competitors new to the market. The challenges facing high street practices are different and much more diverse in comparison to those faced by premium end practices; investment in technology, advertising and other factors will create considerable competition on the high street and may make it increasingly difficult for these firms to remain profitable.

 

Is there any positive now to a firm remaining as a partnership or LLP?

I don’t see a firm’s structure as being particularly relevant to its success. ABS firms introduce a more corporate way of thinking, increasing efficiency and profitability but I believe that, as firms grow, this happens anyway. There is not necessarily any link between good structure and good governance but it is increasingly important to be effectively managed.

 

Tied with the growth in ABS-structured firms is the rise in merger activity, particularly since the economy has started to improve. From your viewpoint, what is the key to success in acquisition and integration for firms?

My key three points would be:

  • having a sound, strategic rationale for the merger;
  • a good cultural fit; and
  • communication in every direction from the outset – up, down, internally and externally.

The leadership team must ensure that everyone involved understands and buys into the fact that it is a strategic move and that it will lead to benefits, not for clients but for them too. Some partners don’t always agree with the strategy or the merger partner and the sooner this can be flushed out in a civilised manner the better, hence the importance of communication. Mergers often create an opportunity for people who are unhappy to leave a firm without notice or restrictions; if someone doesn’t want to be with a firm, it is better for them to move on.

 

Are we seeing more mergers purely as a result of more alternative structures or do you feel this could be as a result of smaller firms feeling they need to make more of a statement in terms of size in order to compete?

There can be an insecurity that comes with size and a feeling that being bigger must be better. I don’t see ABSs themselves as a driver for consolidation however. There is increased competition and a need for increased investment just to remain in the position a firm is in; in order to up their game and stand out, they may need the bigger size and greater strength in depth.

 

What is the appeal for two competing firms who decide to merge? Is it purely financial or are there other motivators?

Tina Williams

The appeal must be where a merger will enable two firms to achieve something which neither firm could achieve on its own, whether that is increasing the size of the client base or geographic reach, acquiring new skills or increasing cross-referrals of work between offices. Increased profitability has to be the ultimate goal (it is no fun if 2+2 = 3) but this is not always at the forefront of a decision to merge. The commercial 

rationale behind the merger and answering the question ‘what would persuade more clients to use your firm and generate more profit’ should be the main driver, addressing what you do and don’t have already.

 

Thank you to Tina for taking the time to talk to us.

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Part two of the interview will be up on our website soon.

For more information about Fox Williams, please visit: www.foxwilliams.com