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Stephen Gold – Achieving my own law firm success & helping others achieve theirs

In this edition of the Your Law Firm Success podcast, Stephen Moore chats to Stephen Gold. Stephen eponymous Golds Solicitors was one of the most disruptive law firms at the turn of the millennium. Stephen explains how they identified their market, honed their service, eradicated the unnecessary and grew their firm until their ultimate integration into Irwin Mitchell.

Today Stephen is a law firm consultant working with law firm leaders all over the country. This is absolute gem of an episode full of advice, help and guidance for aspiring law firm leaders.

 

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My name is Stephen Moore and I’m the presenter of the your Law Firm success podcast this podcast explores the roots to Law Firm success we chat to those who have done it those who are doing it and those who help law firms do it this podcast is brought to you by MLT digital the leaders in law firm success so in today’s edition of the you Law Firm success podcast we are talking to Stephen Gold was probably one of the most successful lawyers that I know Stephen covers the reasons for his Law Firm success as well as sharing some stories and ideas around his work subsequent to that in which he works with law firms all over the UK helping them to become more successful so Stephen nice to see you thank you for coming on today um it’s a pleasure as you know this is a podcast about your Law Firm success and you a achieved that both as a lawyer and you’ve also helped many firms achieve Law Firm success in your in the role that you perform now as a as a law firm as a consultant to lawyers um I was hoping that what we could do before going into that and what you see as being the pillars of success is if we could have a chat about your history I know it might seem prehistoric now or maybe it’s like looking in the past but I’m sure it’s well before pre it’s well before prehistoric um to talk a bit about your past because you’ll be suitable B suitably bashful I imagine in terms of what you actually did achieve but what you did a was really remarkable and the name of your firm and your name became very strongly related with to a certain extent disruption but Innovation and growth and sales and strategy so perhaps we could start on that Stephen with a brief history with a brief history all right um well I trained in Glasgow I became a partner in a firm in Glasgow and then I decided to set up on my own and in the middle of the plans for doing that I got diagnosed with cancer and I was off the road for about a year which was uh an interesting experience put it I’ll put it that not when I’m over Keen to repeat but um an interesting experience and my and we opened in a small office on the southwest of Glasgow uh me my wife my mother-in-law who was a trained bookkeeper doing our books and one secretary so that was that that was that that was the Empire um and my idea at the time was to have a family off from you know to have a a High Street Family firm that was my I wouldn’t even I wouldn’t even dignify it with the word Vision that was my intention um and we did well actually uh you know we did we prospered um and we began to get you know well out with our own geographical area um and then um I acquired uh a remarkably gifted guy called Jonathan Edwards as a partner who be who is who became and still as my best friend um and among Jonathan’s many skills as he is an absolute genius at uh the application of it and it was his vision not mine to begin with to apply it to Legal Services and to look at how Legal Services could be uh commoditised to a degree how processes could be standardised how we could reduce cost um and it just coincided uh with a moment in time where uh large financial institutions Banks building societies um and other and other Finance houses began to look really closely at how they delivered uh the their products and services to their customers and how they use lawyers in relation to that so if you take for example somebody which was an important service for us re-mortgage where in the old days um if you wanted to transfer your mortgage from lender A to lender B then your sister was usually on the panel of the new lender uh so his so your sister acted for the lender that was fine but from the from your point of view and but from the lender’s point of view it wasn’t fine because they had almost no control on the quality of the service that you delivered how quick it was what price you charged the consistency of quality um and so they began to develop uh a strategy of saying to a small number of law firms if you have got the capability to handle this then we will give you tens of thousands of cases to handle we will use the legal service as a sales Aid in our product we will say to we will say to our customer base uh we will you if you take your mortgage with us we will uh give you the legal fees for not we’ll give you the legal service for nothing to get that done but the but a condition of that is you have to use our appointed our appointed firms and originally that was very big in England uh and the Breakthrough for us came when you we thanks you know so Jonathan we developed uh the ability to provide that service and I then made the links with the law firms in England who were already you know substantial in this market and said to them why don’t you use us as your Scottish end um and it kind of Grew From there uh and you to cut a very long story short uh we became the market leaders in Scotland on the back over period of you know a small period of number of years and uh and we developed a ranger services on in Retail Finance and Commercial finance and insurance and debt recovery and a number of other things and it and in the end it wasn’t just Banks and building societies and similar it was large consumer organisations who were offering products to their customers and wanted a similar uh service where they could have a service level agreement with a firm to do deliver a service at a certain price um I should be candid and say that we made one big mistake um in what was a very successful ride overall which was we tried to apply the same principles to convincing and we came across from that it just didn’t it just didn’t uh fit it’s far too individual a service and the and trying to impose systems and processes on it yes there are aspects of the process which you can definitely make more efficient but overall everybody’s different uh there’s no there’s little there’s little uniformity between one client and another and that that that didn’t go well and we um and we came out with that we learned you we learned all we came out of it that’s what happens when you’re trying to do new things sometimes you succeed and sometimes you fail but the but the growth really happened when we got we got to a point where the technology side of the business was going incredibly well and alongside that we had a conventional business of um of Private Client of some commercial of property work um and it was clear that while we had the opportunity to have Market leadership and you know really big expansion in all the technology and commoditised uh technology LED in commoditised work um we were never going to be anything more than second or third division in the other stuff and it was taking a lot of resource um which could have been applied to the to the to the first part of the what become the larger part of the business and so we took a very deep breath and got rid of all the convention what I would call the conventional work uh which was a painful and difficult process because you know you made relationships with people and there were quite a number of businesses we acted for a long time and did a lot of work for who were we were we were upset to lose them and they were very upset that we would that we made this decision but we looked after them uh and it was 100% the right decision uh because it because it allowed us to focus on what we were really good at and it freed up Capital to allow us to invest in technology and systems and people yeah um and I think the business in one sort of mad period the business more than trebled in a small number of years uh which just caught the wind uh of what was happening in the marketplace um and so one thing I always say to I always say to my clients when I’m Consulting with them and we’re looking at creating successful strategies for them um is to really ask yourself the question what Market

 

[10:00] do you want to be in um the it’s always said and I think it’s true that there are there are two main strategic questions always where do we play and how do we win where do we play What markets do we want to be in that can be by uh by subject by geography by I know a whole number of but to be really clear who your ideal clients are who is it you want to serve there are a lot of who do work because quotes it keeps the lights on uh and ultimately it doesn’t keep the lights on it just results in the lights burning dimmer and dimmer and a more dilapidated building you know and if and if you and if you if you if you look at if you look at the success the firms that really made a success from the largest to the most Niche you find they all have this in common they have been quite clear about who they are and what they want to serve okay so um and it’s been it’s been the engine of their success I was going to ask you about that and that you described the success of Golds um was it in retrospect that you were able to draw that line between the way you’d approach things and success in in in finding where you play through the experience or the negative experience around also carving off the more traditional aspects of the firm well I I don’t think I don’t think it was retrospect I think you know we it was it became obvious that the more conventional work was taking time and resource and capital away from the other side of the business which had and was if we kept if we tried to keep it going we risked falling between two stools of you know never building a great conventional practice and limiting our potential on the other stuff um and you know we so we took we took that decision as I say it was it was a hard decision no you fight really hard for clients and to win clients and we had some very good ones um and nobody likes to give them up but that that was the that that was the right decision I don’t think we realised quite how right it was that’s an aspect of looking back on it I don’t think um you know uh and we you know no matter what we are we are fond of thinking that everything every piece of success we’ve gained is to do with our Merit and our talent and our hard work but there’s quite a lot of lending as well you know we actually you know this was at a time when um retail and Commercial Finance was going through an absolute Revolution it was the madness that ultimately resulted in the crash um and undoubtedly we got a lot of benefit from that when you know Banks were Banks were lending like uh like there was no tomorrow um yeah I remember that and I remember that period and your role because there’s a few things that have come out of that your role for the firm at that time as it was growing were you doing any legal work my role was no none I mean I I gave up I gave up doing legal work after Golds lasted uh about 25 years from the moment we set up to the moment we merged and I only did client work for the first two couple of years I think after and after that I just realised I was a lot better at making relationships and winning business uh and that’s why I enjoyed far more candidly than doing it there are I mean I take the upmost respect for people in the profession which is the majority of I guess who get satisfaction out of the legal work itself but that that wasn’t that that didn’t do it for me in the same way that being out of the marketplace and competing and uh and bringing in the business um did it the second thing that I was going to ask because that’s been common around the discussions that we’ve had today is those who have been successful have been able to separate themselves from the tools not in all cases you know obviously absolutely but people recognise their skill set the second thing that we talk to firms quite a lot about is understanding which types of work they don’t want to have and as you referred to that earlier as about keeping the lights on but actually it just leads to the sort of gradual um reduction in light or the less lightly that that’s going to continue with any with any vigour so yeah you mentioned that the you the understanding where you play where you fit was extremely important is that part of a of a of a broader picture because I know you’re very strong on two pillars for success for law firms and obviously all we want to do with this podcast is help law firms become more successful so yeah I I I think one thing I I learned I learned early on was that whether or not you win work is not it’s not particularly dependent on you being Stellar technically in the in the end clients accept as a starting proposition that you know what you’re doing clients don’t um well let me let me rephrase that it’s vanishingly difficult to win work on the basis of saying that I am the best litigator or I am the best conveyancer or I’m the best corporate lawyer or whatever it’s impossible to prove it and as long as you are self-evidently good enough to do the job of the required quality for the client whether you might be marginally technically better than the firm down the road is not that important clients aren’t that interested clients want to be satisfied that you have the fundamental competence to do the job but once they are satisfied about that uh what counts is two things one is the is the service that you give them by which I mean how responsive you are how accessible you are how likable you are as an easy to get on with uh because what people are looking for most of the time uh is not only a service but a relationship they want to feel that you they have a trusted adviser in their Corner who is you is good to talk to is has got a real understanding of what their issues are is clued up on the on the marketplace that they’re in or the kind of circumstances or if it’s private clients and the kind of circumstances in which they find themselves whether it’s matrimonial whether it’s uh executory what you know what whatever it is so service and relationship um are the twin pillars on which business is one in my experience of course it matters that you can deliver that you can you know keep your promises technically uh but and there are a number of them about you know lawyers who are technically very good but lack emotional intelligence or lack ability to make good relationships don’t Prosper to anything like the extent that they should I think that’s part of being it’s part of being in a team and it sounds as if you discussed that with Jonathan and the you know I’ve met before and I you know I could see you going out and doing the sales stuff without any doubt you know and building the relationship seeing that’s been KIRO I would have been less sure about that you know I don’t know if that’s true or not you know you can tell no I think that’s probably a bit unfair I me to be you know Jonathan’s gone on and built you know a really successful you know from independently so I’m not sure that’s I’m not sure I would I would say that but I think I think he would he would probably say that he’s more comfortable uh in other roles other than the selling function whereas I’m the I’m the I’m the reverse so you know it t but you know it takes a team we can’t you know football you know you were talking just before we went on air about you taking your some to the football you know if the this team comprised 11 Centre forwards you know they wouldn’t win many games no they certain they certainly wouldn’t you know and I building a team is extremely important and understanding the different skills that are there but understanding the importance of sales and building relationships for a firm and if you if you’re not bringing business in then you’re not going to get anywhere no that’s absolutely I think it’s sometimes underrated it’s the ability to win work is a different skill and having done both because you know I’ve been a I was a practitioner for

 

[20:00] a bit I think this I think winning it is a lot harder than doing it I’m not saying that doing it is easy because you know there’s complexity and there’s deadlines and there’s demanded clients and there’s regulation and you know General Hassle and aggravation around it and stress around it quite a lot of the time so I don’t say for a moment this easy but if you have if you have spent the time uh acquiring a skill then to practice that skill is in your comfort zone um and as a practitioner you know you in in a solicitor client relationship as the solicitor you have a degree of status and Authority you know you’re the expert you’re deferred to a degree um and you have a technical grasp so you’re able to you know give the advice if you’re pitching for work you’re a supplicant you have no status certainly no more than the person you’re pitching to wants you know wishes to give you um you can go up or down their agenda at their whim they can say yes they can say no for good reason for Pure reasons for no reason at all um rejection even for the most successful rain makers is a part of life and that’s hard um you know lawyers are if you scratch the surface of the average solicitor then I think you find somebody who is I don’t know what’s it call uh suspicious uh maybe quite reserved in their dealings a lot of the time risk averse petrify the personal failure uh and these are all fantastic qualities for keeping clients out of trouble and solving complex problems but you probably wouldn’t find Richard Branson describing himself that way you know they they’re not they’re not the skills and qualities required to sell what you’re offering and it it’s a and the personal rejection point I think is a really important one you know PE people are often loath to put themselves out there because of the risk of rejection I’ve come you know when I I’ve dealt with you know the been a privilege I’ve dealt with firms from worked with firms that were from Global Giants to you know to small local practices and you would be amazed how many people in the global Giants who you think would just ooze self-confidence uh are you know very weary of putting themselves in the Harm’s Way of you know risky know so it’s a big barrier and you need to and you need you need to be you need to be resilient but when you are working with firms and you’re as you do a lot helping them grow do you raise the issue if you feel that their the partners are maybe not capable of going out and doing this bit of the job a good number of times I’ve been asked to come in and help with exactly that because you know people know I’ve got people know that selling has been my background and because I’m a lawyer you know hopefully I talk their language to understand their world and people ask me to mentor and to coach and that’s a very satisfying part of the job when it goes well um and it’s about honesty firms don’t also you know the culture in many firms doesn’t help because you often have firm leaders saying we want our people to be out there selling and to be you know constantly bringing in the B the business but often their firms have a culture where if you’re not billing uh then you’re not you’re not contributing yeah and a lot of Business Development activity is of necessity speculative so uh it involves spending time which otherwise you might spend you know uh racking up six mil units on meetings and seminars and lunches and you know uh content for the website and you know any number of other uh

activities which are essential if you’re going to if you’re going to sell but don’t always pay off or don’t always pay off quickly and people get very concerned that um the you know and ask myself the question you know I could be sitting I could be sitting at my desk uh doing work which is you know which is on my desk and I get paid for that and I’m comfortable doing it if I go if I go and pursue a client then I’m spending time that I that is not chargeable that I don’t get any credit for if all goes wrong or if it doesn’t not all goes wrong but if it doesn’t you know succeed so you know why should I do that so firm leaders have got you know a fundamental obligation to create to create an atmosphere where that these questions don’t get asked where PE they’re entitled to say to their people we expect you to use your time thoughtfully and not to and not to pursue you know not to go on Wild Goose chases and not to not to be propagate with the F’s time and resources but equally to make it clear that to that not to succeed when you’ve made a good faith uh attempt at what seemed a reasonable a reasonable Prospect is not going to be punished that The Firm will allow you sufficient time to engage in in in be the activity and it will allow you the time for that activity to pay off now these are you know it’s easy for me to stay here and say this when you know managing partner would say to me well you know these are very expensive people they pay their way and you know yes they do uh but there’s got to be a sensible balance between what’s H you know what’s building the here and now and uh what and what activity will ensure the firm’s got a flow well into the future you know to kind of a really you know corny cliche if you don’t if you don’t sew the seeds you don’t get the you don’t get the fruits it’s a really I know we could talk about a range of other things but I think um that one is extremely important and you I know you’re very keen on culture but it’s having a a growth mindset and an understanding as you say that if you are spending your whole time doing on the tools then you can’t be spending time out building relationships and that’s really what’s going to give the business the strength and the resource to grow and do you do you have do you have a benchmark for example in terms of how much time youth you believe should be spent on BD by the appropriate Partners or staff within a firm in order to return success I’ve never I’ve never thought of it in terms of percentage what I would say is that if you’re committed to developing your practice that you know how hard it is to say it normal office hours don’t apply you know that to a degree you’ve got to put your body on the line you know I spent you know I wasn’t I wasn’t on the tools but nevertheless I spent you know vast amounts of time on trains and boats and planes and going to strange you know going to places far and wide and coming back you know very late at night and uh and very early mornings and uh 7 days a week and that went on for that went on for for a very long time uh and I don’t necessarily recommend it uh if it’s not what if it’s not what you feel you want to do but I think I think it’s a truism that if you want to if you want to be a serious developer of work in Professional Services that that that if you take the time required to actually think about what you’re going to do and put it all together and then implement it that’s a that’s a big task and I would and I don’t think it can be done when you I don’t think it can be rammed into a small space between the last telephone call and the next email during the course of a working day I think it I think you need to create time and space to think about what you’re going to do uh I also think you need good support you know fir lawyers are in the in the end the service

 

[30:00] has got to be sold by the lawyers because they’re providing it they’re providing the service we’re unusual in this um you know if you if you were to you know look at many other sectors of Commerce and Industry there’s a manufacturing team and there’s an administrative team and there’s a sales team uh and they all go dedicated tasks and hopefully they all met together um you know ERS who have got Ambitions to build their practice have got to be you know on the you know have got have got to juggle this dilemma of finding the time to build the work that they need to do to continue to perform as the fir expect and also to make the time to um develop new work and that and that means that significant amounts of what might otherwise be private time or Leisure Time gets eaten into and you have to kind of make that bargain with yourself um if you’re going to if you’re going to do it properly sorry I’ve just been distracted my dog I don’t criticise people who I don’t incidentally I don’t criticise uh people who say you know what I’m not doing that you know that’s a that’s a perfectly reasonable thing for somebody to say but they have to accept then accept the consequences of the limitations that might place on I think everybody’s got a choice to make and particularly now in the post-pandemic working Arena it’s more difficult I think for younger people to understand I think that maybe the sacrifices that somebody like you would have made in terms of family life in order to grow your firm but to re to reap the rewards that you have now but um but at the same token maybe there’s some opportunity around growing an understanding that there are certain people who become lawyers who actually are very keen to go out and build relationships and talk and are able to demonstrate sufficient expertise that they can talk about it and gain trust and Authority without ultimately being the one that’s actually going to deliver the service yeah that’s that was the case with me and I think it’s I think it’s the case with I’m certainly come across that a lot PE people clients are intelligent they understand that people that different people in a l fir have different functions uh and they and they don’t expect necessarily the most senior people to always do their work and you know fundamentally they didn’t want to pay for it either unless it really merits it yeah and I think um because I think we could talk because there’s so much Stephen you’ve got so much knowledge to be concise on this matter it’s really some key aspects of success when knowing your Market knowing where you play as you described it relationships building there’s a there a you might think this is odd to recommend um the former CEO of proctor and gamble a man called Alan G Lafley uh wrote a book called playing to win a um with uh academic and consultant Roger Martin and it was basically the story of Proctor and Gamble and he and it was it was them who came up with the two key questions where do we play and how do we win and there are subsidiary questions which once you’ve decided that there are subsidiary questions such as what resources do we need to achieve our Ambitions what systems do we have to have in place what constraints do we have and how do we and how do we overcome them um and the success of P&G under his uh um management and Leadership uh was because they identified these questions and then successfully went about answering them and so well I I’ll definitely buy that and I’ll read that but just to bring that back so these top two areas but really you need to build relationships and need to provide time and understanding and a culture within the practice that supports the importance of Business Development versus yeah technical activity and that you are able to ensure that once the business is in that the service is developed to such an extent that it satisfies the client it as you say it doesn’t need to be the best service in the world it just has to meet the requirements yeah um which might be very high you know it’s not it’s not in any way I’m not in any way you know minimising the need to be you know well good enough technically what I’m seeing is that clients are not really able to and I’m not really interested in comparing the absolute technical uh expertise of one from as against other what they what they are concerned to be happy about is that their lawyers are good enough yeah have got the have got have got the skills after that I was given a statistic a long time ago and I can’t give you uh un impeach all sorts for its correctness but it sounds right to me that that as human beings we make 84% of our uh decisions emotionally and 16% analytically uh and as I said I can’t prove that to you maybe there may be a source but it feel that feels right to me uh that you know I I’ve presented innumerable tenders and I’ve helped clients on and tender exercises as well and of course in a tender there’s a spreadsheet with all sorts of criteria on it and which are you know meticulously gone through and ticked off but Underneath It All the clients are asking you know uh can I bear to be stuck in a lift with this guy for an hour okay do how much how much do I how much do I really you know relate um there’s a great there a book if people are listening to this is a really good book called Perfect Pitch by uh a man called John steel you read Perfect Pitch yeah so well you’ll know the story that uh um that he was asked he was asked to be part of a a panel uh Apple was a client of his and apple were uh tendering for certain service and he was asked to be on their procurement panel and he said that one they set aside a day there was a bunch of providers to come in and Pitch to them and every single one had Banks of slide and elaborate promises and you know bells and whistles and he said we got to the end of the day with one to go and he said uh he felt the only the only thing that would be better than the day had was a heart attack uh and the last person came in who was and it wasn’t whereas everybody else has sent in teams of high powered people this one man carrying a small briefcase he came in and sat down and said look there are some things in what you’re asking which we definitely can’t provide but there are some things which we can and we’re really good at it now do you think we could have a conversation I haven’t brought any slides with me can we just talk and still says the B he says we could have kissed him you know uh and he you know he walked away with a huge amount of work in and so because he had the emotional intelligence to understand what it took to connect to a human level and was able in that and having done that was able to demonstrate that he knew what he was doing you’re still doing you’re still doing work with law firms yeah so assuming someone listens to this who where can people find you I have I have I have a website developed by an excellent technology company yeah uh so that’s is it stephengold.co.uk yeah and fire LinkedIn uh I live in London now um but I still travel a bit for work outside so yeah all right well thank you very much Stephen that was brilliant I think we could probably cover I feel like we’ve only just scratched the surface but um I’m also hoping and I think that we’ve got some very key lessons there particularly around the time spent doing business development we could go into the others around strategy culture in the future but I think that one has really important for firms to understand so thank you very much

 

[40:00] you’re welcome good to see you and you cheers speak to you later bye all best bye there so thanks very much for listening to today’s episode I hope you enjoyed it I hope you’re enjoying our content we’d be delighted to hear any feedback that you have you can find out more about the your Law Firm success podcast at MLT digital.co.uk/podcast. Please subscribe please share with your friends please share with anyone who you know that you think would be interested.

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