Introducing Helen Bunker: Leading change at Piper Smith Watton LLP

28 Jul 2015

Helen Bunker, Managing Partner of Piper Smith Watton LLP, is leading a landmark change for the firm as they prepare to merge with Blake Morgan in August 2015. London-based PSW will join forces with a much larger organisation, strengthening service provision on both sides. We spoke to Helen about the merger and how she has steered PSW through the move.

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Helen, firstly could you tell us more about PSW’s background and your firm’s ethos?

Piper Smith Watton was formed out of a merger eleven years ago by two practices in SW1, creating a successful private client and property firm. A number of our current partners are PSW ‘born and bred’, having been with our previous legacy firms but more have joined us since, looking for a break from the City and seeking to improve their work/life balance. Our ethos is very much about service and great client relationships; we do not encourage presenteeism and we have always run a very collegiate practice, with partners still meeting face-to-face around the partners’ table.

It has been a conscious decision to keep the firm small. We have 55 employees and 12 partners, 4 of whom are equity; our focus has always been on producing quality work for quality clients.

 

When did you first start to consider mergers and what was the rationale behind the decision?

Initially we were looking for new premises as the lease on our current offices was drawing to a close and we knew that we would need to relocate. Wanting to stay in SW1 to service our client base here, our search didn’t bring up many options with demand far outstripping supply. We needed to reconsider our options; we sat down as a management team and thought about where we wanted PSW to be in ten years. How could we differentiate and what is important to us? As part of this process we looked at growth and how to facilitate it, whether by bolting on additional teams or small firms.

Having discussed with advisers, we worked out who we needed to speak to. Decisions were not made lightly; we consider ourselves as custodians of the firm and we knew that we couldn’t rush. In total, we spoke to 9 different firms exploring a number of options in terms of size, scale and location.

 

What were you looking for in a merger partner?

We looked primarily for a similar ethos in the way that the firm treats its people and clients. We also knew what we didn’t want; at PSW, we encourage building client relationships at all levels and a strong sense of ownership from assistants and associates. This results in greater delegation and cross-selling throughout and we wanted to work with a firm that carried similar values. Strong finances will flow provided that we ensure a good culture fit with a firm running a sound business, with committed people and great clients.

We weren’t looking for significantly larger firms as we didn’t want to lose our autonomy. Whilst large, Blake Morgan’s six offices are important in their own right, with no overall central HQ meaning that all their people in all locations have a role to play. The London office will increase from 18 to 30 partners on our arrival.

 

As a board, how did you find the decision process? Did you need to take the lead and, if so, how did you apply your leadership skills to bring cohesion to the board and the wider workforce?

I did need to steer to some extent but I have never been too over-prescriptive in my approach. This was both a business decision and an emotional one for everyone; our senior partner has been with the firm for 35 years so this was not a step we took without very careful planning.

In my role, it was important to lead and keep our people focused, working through a clear methodology so that potential partners could be ruled out in a logical way, whilst also trusting our gut instincts.

Amongst some members of the firm there was inevitable uncertainty and a fear of the unknown but that has been worked through and all 12 partners voted unanimously in favour of the Blake Morgan merger. Once the decision had been made, I noticed a general sense of excitement about the future; regardless of our respective firms’ sizes, I believe that there would always have been some anxiety to start with as any merger is a significant change.

We are now in a position where we don’t need to turn away work because of a lack of resource or expertise, and from my point of view it is reassuring to know that we are joining a firm with great ‘strength in depth’ capabilities in L&D and business development, of which we don’t currently have the luxury.

 

How did you find negotiations with Blake Morgan?

Partners both within PSW and at Blake Morgan have dealt with the negotiation brilliantly. I cannot understate how professional Blake Morgan have been; many hours have been invested into getting to know our partners and people, ensuring that we understand their culture and familiarising our people with their business. Most of the legacy PSW staff will be based in the Blake Morgan London office, becoming part of a Top-50 law firm.

In terms of negotiation, we both wanted the same thing. As PSW partners, we didn’t want to go into something where we felt we were losing our autonomy and both we and Blake Morgan were working towards the same goal. I will continue to hold an executive management role which reassured our clients and staff. The paperwork and voting processes inevitably took some time but things ran very smoothly. In many ways, we have been having as a merged firm since May, integrating teams, meeting clients and working together when we can.

 

What stood out about the Blake Morgan offering and equally why did they choose to merge with PSW? What will you bring to the merged firm?

Primarily, we will bring a strong private client and residential conveyancing practice to their London office. They currently have a small family team in London but most of that work is serviced out of other regional offices so we will bring a permanent presence, creating a full-service office in London which makes a big difference to both firms’ clients, many of whom are very similar, and lawyers. We will also bring additional expertise in litigation, corporate and real estate.

 

What were, and are, your major challenges in making the merger work for both parties? How are you addressing these?

Certainly ensuring that the integration of our people is done well and reassuring both our clients and the firm that it is very much a case of ‘business as usual’. Our employees and partners have had plenty of opportunity to meet their new colleagues and learn new systems but otherwise, work should remain the same. Likewise for our clients, our PSW teams will be the same people doing the same work under a different name and we are very focused on making sure that message gets across. In time, we look forward to introducing our clients to others within Blake Morgan.

Meeting our new colleagues has taken a considerable amount of time but has been absolutely worthwhile. We have attended associates’ and partners’ conferences which were both excellent ways to meet a lot of people from across Blake Morgan’s offices and we have also undertaken the usual inductions and socials; there has been a huge investment of time from firms on both sides in getting to know each other.

 

Post-merger, will clients notice differences other than a change in location? For example, do you expect to see fee increases?

I only anticipate positive changes. I don’t expect to see fee increases as a result of the merger as both firms already work on similar fee scales. The greatest change will be the breadth of service we are now able to offer; we don’t need to refer clients to other solicitors as much as we have done in the past as we are now able to supply a joined-up team including corporate tax and SDLT specialists, keeping all work in-house.

When we were considering the merger, we spoke to some key clients to obtain their views and opinions. Everyone was incredibly positive, citing that location was not important to them and acknowledging that business would continue as usual.

 

Where do you see a merged Blake Morgan in the marketplace? Is this a ‘strength in numbers’ merger or focused more on service and sector delivery?

From PSW’s point of view there was an importance in market-place resilience and scale does help with that – we needed to be prepared for the future. Generally, in terms of service and sector delivery, we are bringing depth to Blake Morgan’s existing London offering plus a private client team. There are genuine intentions on both sides; they wanted a stronger London offering and we can supply that, together with strengthening the wider Blake Morgan team as a whole.

 

Personally, what will your role be within the new firm? How do you see yourself and your own career progressing post-merger?

I will join the executive management team and our senior partner will lead the succession and tax team in London. Other PSW partners will all join their respective practice area teams, developing client work and junior lawyers.

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I see this as a tremendously positive step for myself and Piper Smith Watton. I hope to bring my 20 years’ experience gained here to Blake Morgan, helping them to develop their private law service and continuing to have a hands-on management and strategy role in my new role. I’m joining a fantastic firm with great people and I’m looking forward to getting stuck in!

 

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

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For more information about Piper Smith Watton please visit: www.pswlaw.co.uk

Piper Smith Watton were advised through the merger by Jepson Holt’s consulting arm: Totuus Consulting;

for more information please visit: www.totuusconsulting.com