APIL Conference 17th April 2018

Jonathan Wheeler, Managing Partner, Bolt Burdon Kemp, gave the following speech:

On the eve of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, industry pundits were exhorting us to “get big, get niche or get out”. It’s a cliché, an overused and hackneyed phrase. But also a truism.

Certainly some ‘got out’ since 2012, either by doing something different to PI or going bust. Anyway they’re not here today. On this panel are representatives of those who got big or got niche.

Despite the reforms there’s still a crowded market – because claimant personal injury and clinical negligence work is still very profitable if done in the right way.

I don’t know if any of you caught Lord Sumption’s lecture to the Personal Injury Bar Association earlier this year, where he called for a no fault compensation system for personal injury cases. The partners at BBK don’t think this will be a reality any time soon and nor ultimately did Lord Sumption. But it pays to be tuned in to what’s going on so you can adjust and adapt your business model; our APIL membership is key to that.

To stand out from the crowd you have to realise that you are competing in two markets – the market for clients & the market for ‘talent’ (or staff). Success in both is crucial to the success of your business. You need to identify which area of the market is for you. Which clients? What talent? And stand out to get picked.

Which clients?

We split our firm in 2003 – private client and commercial work was spun off into another firm and we retained the litigation practice. Over the years we honed litigation down to just claimant personal injury and clinical negligence work. We are specialising further not diversifying away from the sector.

We spend a lot on digital marketing – most of our enquiries come from the internet, though conversion is less than more traditional methods, such as charity partners and personal recommendation. But your website is your brochure and it’s important it looks good across all devices.

Our marketing is focussed on only dealing in serious injuries and promoting our lawyers as experts in their field: Photos, direct line numbers, email addresses on the web site. We care about the quality of our service, we talk about bespoke solutions to clients’ problems and the advantages of team working.

We are very specialist – we have departments which just do child brain injury, just do adult brain injury, spinal injury and abuse work. We wanted to set up teams based on the nature of our clients’ injuries (not the mechanism of those injuries) which mirrors the offerings from the charities which support our clients and make it easier for our clients to identify with us. As a consequence, our solicitors really understand our clients’ needs and know exactly what to do to look after them. Oh yes, and we mix up personal injury and clinical negligence solicitors within our groups.

The talent

Do not ignore the talent! Investing in people is the key to long term success.

I am talking about good pay, a great working environment, flexibility. We invest heavily in training, line management and support. We recognise that people want to be able to come to work to do their best work. This will give them self esteem, a real sense of achievement and promotes well-being.

It goes without saying that your staff are the face of your firm. We want people who are passionate about their work and helping our clients and who are technically brilliant. We have gone down the route of employing many more qualified staff rather than paralegals.

How do you stand out in both?

I started with a cliché and I will end with one! You stand out in both markets if you are ‘authentic’. You have got to believe in what you do. I don’t get out of bed in the morning to make money. I get out of bed to change the law and people’s lives for the better. I humbly suggest that if you hold true to that, your practice too will be able to build a sustainable future.