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Real business story

New ideas and a more diverse workforce will fuel growth

Slater Heelis is a well-established law firm in the Manchester area, and while the pandemic caught them off guard a little initially, it also provided an opportunity to make some important changes. Follow the company's story each month to track progress and improvement efforts.

The origins of Manchester-based law firm Slater Heelis stretch back over 200 years

Chris Bishop first came to Slater Heelis as a trainee in 1990. Over the next 20 years, he progressed through the ranks to become a managing partner at the firm in 2010 and remains a practising lawyer alongside his management role.

Recently, the company was able to triple its turnover through mergers and lateral hires and now employs over 100 staff.

Chris, along with six other UK businesses, will be providing monthly updates as he looks to steer his business through the next year and hit what he has laid out as his "definition of success" after leading his company through the coronavirus pandemic.

Follow the six other stories here:

You can navigate to different monthly updates from Chris using the links at the top of this page. He'll be providing insights on whether Slater Heelis is meeting its five top improvement targets. First, let's look at some of the changes the company has made and what Chris has lined up.

How Slater Heelis started looking forward

Chris admits that the struggles faced in the legal sector in the past year haven’t been comparable to those faced by numerous other industries. When times are hard, he said, lawyers tend to have it good.

Nevertheless, Slater Heelis had seen some significant changes during 2020, and Chris is keen to maintain that momentum into 2021 and beyond.

“At the end of February, we went from a limited liability partnership to a limited company,” he explained, “and we’re in the process of creating an employee ownership scheme where we’re planning to give shares to all the staff.”

For Chris, the switch to an employee ownership scheme is in line with two key targets for the company’s future: firstly, being able to reward staff better for their continued hard work, and secondly, increasing diversity.

“Having been a partnership forever, you get stuck in your ways a bit,” Chris explained.

“We always thought we had this lovely business, but you realise it’s just carried on being the same with lots of grey, white males owning the business.”

In the near future, Chris hopes that there will be significant diversity among the leadership team, and that the business is living up to its commitment to be diverse, inclusive and equal.

“As with a lot of businesses who think they’re doing quite well, we’ve always scored pretty well on diversity and equality within the law sector – we've got a high percentage of women and quite a decent percentage of black and Asian lawyers,” Chris went on. “But then you get to the genuine ownership, and there’s five white men.”

Chris had hoped that becoming more diverse would simply happen organically, but he explained that the team were now dedicated to driving this change forward, positively and proactively.

One of his key mantras for the year is: expanded ownership, but a much more diverse ownership as well.

“By [delivering an employee ownership scheme], it becomes a lot easier to bring in new entrants,” Chris explained.

Previously, staff would have required a significant amount of funds to buy into a partnership, but by introducing the new scheme, employees no longer need that in order to acquire shares.

“You can create other pathways for people to become decision-making owners,” he added.

Rewarding staff for their hard work during the pandemic

Financially, Slater Heelis started the year in a strong position, broadly on target for what they had initially planned to do prior to the pandemic. Although the initial two to three months of the lockdown had seen a dip in trading, the remaining months of the 2020 financial year had seen the business permanently busy.

“Between divorce, death and moving house, unfortunately the lawyers are doing quite well at the moment,” Chris commented.

He went on to add that the business was going to reward everyone for their hard work during the past year, including providing pay increases and bonuses.

Previously, Chris had been aware that the pay at Slater Heelis might not have been comparable with rates at other firms, but felt that the business had tried to balance that out by providing staff with a good place to work. He now hopes that employees will feel that they have both a good salary and a pleasant working culture.

Although the financial year has only just begun, Chris also mentioned that Slater Heelis were in the middle of buying a smallish law firm.

“That will be another five per cent growth for us,” he said. “We’ve got a couple of very good senior lawyers joining us with a bit of a following, so there’s already that potential leap in turnover.”

Defining a vision for success

The upheaval of the last year led Slater Heelis to make significant changes to the business, but what's next for the firm? We asked Chris to set a one year from now success statement – a situation the business would be in that would represent both recovery progress and development for the future. We then got him to identify the five individual targets that would be most important in making that success statement a reality.

Time for some targets

Update one: June 2021 – "There are some brilliant women and people of colour we can bring through"

Top of Chris Bishop's list when considering the five targets that would help him achieve his 2021/22 success statement was to boost Diversity & Inclusion. A mere month in and the Slater Heelis law firm managing partner is making good progress.

"We've had some early wins on this one," said Chris, "because we've just had a number of new lawyers join us. From a diversity point of view they've been really good appointments, and they're brilliant people, too."

New leadership

The Manchester-based law firm's commitment to a more diverse and inclusive workforce was right at the top of the agenda when the firm was recruiting for a new head of HR this month. "The question that we kept coming back to with candidates was, 'How do we get this right?'" Chris explained.

"We're making progress, but where we remain wholly dreadful is that the five major shareholders of the business are white men, me included."

To redress this, Chris and his fellow partners aim to bring in some new senior leadership team/board members via internal promotions. He said that there are some "brilliant women and people of colour within the business that we can bring through."

He next expects to have some news on this front sometime towards the end of the year, but he's pleased with the progress they've made. "This whole process of engaging a new head of HR has allowed us to keep thinking about how we're going to create pathways for people internally to make it up to the top table," he said. "And to make sure that the top table is much more diverse."

Spreading the word

In terms of sharpening the firm's digital marketing expertise – another of Chris' five targets – there's some news in the shape of a new junior marketing recruit, whose digital skills will help bolster those of the existing team. Talks are also underway for the addition of an extra one, or possibly two people to the department to handle the firm's SEO.

"We're looking to bring that in-house," said Chris. "We currently pay a third-party web company to do it, and I don't think it will be more expensive for us to hire one or two people in their mid-20s and have them take care of it – plus they'll then become embedded in our culture."

Several close competitor law firms, said Chris, look after their own SEO, and he feels that their impressive Google rankings show that it can work.

Slater Heelis isn't the only business keen to sharpen its digital marketing skills. At Diamonds Factory, a strong ecommerce offering has put the retailer on the path to growthfollow its story here.

Skin in the game

Finally for this month, Chris has a small update on the new employee share scheme that he is hoping to introduce. "We've now had a more detailed strategic roadmap from the accountants, who have provided myself and the head of corporate with how it will work," he said.

Now that the decision to proceed has been made, Chris says the next part is the "nitty gritty" of bringing it all to life. Hopefully, he added, there will be a nice party to celebrate the launch of the scheme (COVID permitting) around September.

New hires at Slater Heelis include Fakhruddin Maimoon (left) and Hannah Costley (right)

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Update two: July 2021 – “We're developing our office to enable hot-desking, team pods and collaborative working”

Manchester-based law firm Slater Heelis is taking a long hard look at a new hybrid way of working and, says managing partner, Chris Bishop, the answer seems to be something that will work for both the business and its employees. In this video, Chris has a brief update on his diversity and inclusion ambitions too.

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Update three: August 2021 – “We're committing to two new pieces of AI which will save us time and money”

Tech was one of the five key areas that Manchester law firm Slater Heelis wanted to make the most of this year, and Chris Bishop, one of the firm's five managing partners, has some exciting news...

Technology

“I think tech is one of our big stories this year, and we have agreed that we will not shy away from spending on it. It's easy to say we're going to be a tech-enabled company, but that could mean anything, so we've decided that this will be the focus of our annual Operations Team away-day at the end of September.

"When you buy big expensive kit, you've got to train people how to use it and also make sure it helps everyone to do things more quickly. The one time we did get in there early – we went to a pure cloud-hosted environment well ahead of the curve – it was a bit of a disaster. Now, we like to evolve gradually.

"Once some of the bigger firms have tested AI, for example, we'd be likely to adopt some of it, but we're not in a rush, especially when some of our team are quite mature and perhaps work at a different pace to some younger lawyers when it comes to tech.

"That said, there are two pieces of AI which we are committing to: one will help us with due diligence, which can review a mass of documents in 30 minutes which a junior lawyer might take a week to do. There still needs to be human interaction, obviously – both inputting the right info and key words and also interpreting/reporting on results. A very similar piece of kit will help with major disclosure cases on litigation."

New product ideas

“One of my colleagues, the head of Wills and Probate, is really interested in whether we could create two distinct products in his area of law, one of which would be based around tech. We might continue to offer our bespoke service, with a specialist lawyer talking you through your will, but also create a separate product – an AI-type product which would be an online, cheap-and-cheerful way of producing the simple wills.

"When thinking about tech, I often come back to this idea of the three-legged stool, which suggests that in the law firm of the future, only a third of our business will come down to the lawyer. One third will be tech, and the non-lawyer, management and process elements will be the other third. I think a lot of processes can be improved by tech, and I hope on our away-day we'll be able to get that message across to our senior lawyers and management team."

Creating a mobile app

“One thing that we've done a lot of talking about is creating a Slater Heelis mobile app. This would give our lawyers a way to interact with their clients via their smartphones and also give clients some visibility of their file. A conveyancing client who just wants to check where things are up to, for example, could have a quick look on the app.

"Just before the pandemic we had budgeted £50k to work with external consultants to get to a first prototype stage for this, but that got shelved when the pandemic hit. That's now a live discussion again. We know we have to do it one day. For some of the markets we're in, if you don't have an app you'll soon get left behind."

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Update four: September 2021 – “I'm looking for people within the business who can help us to change and innovate”

A Covid-stricken Chris Bishop may have been in isolation for half of this month, but he's been as busy as ever in terms of thinking about his business' future. In this brief video update, the managing partner of Manchester-based law firm Slater Heelis brings us up to speed on his latest plans…

Update five: October 2021 – “We might need to shake up the way we advertise for new recruits”

As part of his 2021-22 goals, Chris Bishop, managing partner of Manchester-based law firm Slater Heelis, has been wrestling with how he can accelerate his company's transformation into a more diverse workforce. One way, he says, could be to challenge old ways of doing things.

"Making our law firm a more diverse and inclusive one has been right at the top of my agenda this year, and it's really come back into focus over the past few weeks when meeting people who I hope could develop into future partner-owners.

"Within those conversations our lack of diversity was mentioned by one of the candidates, almost in passing, but it was a reminder of the work we still need to do. We did get back the results of the SRA's annual law firm diversity survey a short while ago and it is promising that, among those who responded, we can start to see diversity in our colleagues' backgrounds and sexual orientation. There is, of course, much more that we can do and we will be setting measurable goals for recruitment once we have robust monitoring tools in place."

New candidates are more diverse

"At the moment, when we're recruiting, new hires are tending to change the law firm demographic in terms of diversity and social mobility. I suppose you'd call it slow, organic, progressive growth, but the good news is that D&I has become something that is front and foremost in many conversations that we have.

"With this year's intake of paralegals and recently-qualified solicitors, for instance, diversity in sexual orientation and social background is evident. It is a gradual improvement – it's not as if suddenly everyone we're taking on will come from a socially- and ethnically-diverse background."

Shaking up the status quo

"Something I do want to take a look at is how we're recruiting. If our job adverts don't attract a strong enough response from candidates of diverse backgrounds, then that's a problem. Rather than just repeating what we always do, it's a good time to think about different channels and what we say in our ads.

"We ensure that our job ads do not use gendered language and we are in the process of implementing a more robust monitoring system for applications to better understand the breadth of the talent pool. Once we know whether there are gaps in a field of applicants, we can do more to get our jobs in front of these people and encourage them to apply.

"This will also ensure we can be accountable and measure year-on-year improvements in the diversity of people applying for our roles, as well as those who are successful in filling the positions."

Recent initiatives

“Last year we joined the 10,000 Black Interns programme as a way to ensure we attract future talent and provide opportunities to people from diverse backgrounds. Our first two interns will join us in the spring.

"In the past 12-18 months, we have also nurtured some meaningful relationships with LGBT+ organisations. A number of our staff have completed an intense training course run by the LGBT Foundation in Manchester, to which we also provide pro-bono legal advice. We work with an influencer group of LGBT+ parents and those planning to grow their family. Lots of our digital content has been steered towards highlighting legal issues and the support we can give to individuals and families in the LGBT+ community.

"I've never really talked before about why we're doing all this. While I do think having a more diverse and inclusive workforce is the 'right thing to do', I strongly believe it will create positive, virtuous results. We want talented lawyers from every walk of life to believe that no matter where they come from they can be a future managing partner of the firm."

Recent initiatives at Slater Heelis include nurturing meaningful relationships with LGBT+ organisations and working with Manchester's LGBT Foundation to provide training courses to staff

Where to go next

Chris isn't the only leader sharing his journey this year. Six other businesses across the UK are providing monthly updates as they emerge from the coronavirus pandemic and work to achieve their "definition of success" statements.

Follow their progress so far:

  • location: North West (England)
  • business size: 100-249 People
  • business type: Professional services, finance & banking

Lessons learnt

As Chris points out, leaders often hope greater diversity will happen organically. It's important to be proactive about driving change.

It's easy to get stuck in your ways, so look for opportunities for improvement.

Third party agencies provide a short-term solution, but Chris is keen to bring key skills like digital marketing in-house.