Eight years old, and the winner in the same year of “best firm” trophies from both the main legal awards for the Scottish profession. Jones Whyte must be doing something right, even if its founding partners play down having had any great vision when they set out.
Certainly neither Ross Jones nor Greg Whyte would have predicted even just a few years ago that they would now be heading a firm of more than 200 staff – a figure reached when in April 2021 they were selected to take on the client files of Glasgow practice W W & J McClure, then in administration.
But their story has been one of seizing opportunities that have arisen. It transpires that they didn’t even know each other all that well before they teamed up. As Jones relates it, they met playing five-a-side football, lost touch for a year or so while Whyte did a scholarship, then bumped into each other at the gym, discovered in a two-minute conversation that both were thinking of working for themselves, had coffee together, “and within about five minutes we’d agreed we would pack our jobs in and go it alone”.
So any initial mission statement was just a back of the envelope job? “I don’t think it was even as good as that,” Jones admits.
“I think we were both kind of at a natural crossroads, a situation that a lot of lawyers a few years qualified will relate to,” Whyte joins in. “Both of us had an idea that we would like to have a go at doing things ourselves. Around 2013 it wasn’t quite the usual path; I think having mutual support and someone to bounce ideas and suggestions off, and tell you when you were being daft, was very useful.”
With commercial lawyer Jones launching with civil litigator Whyte, “there was a synergy in being able to do more than one thing. And it worked quite well for us. You can have the best plans in the world but ultimately it comes down to what business is coming through the door. Fortunately, that aspect went relatively smoothly”.
Within a year, two people had become four, and the growth has continued exponentially. As Jones puts it, “We’re probably the biggest wee firm in Scotland just now.” That is, still “a law firm for the person in the street. We don’t have any aspirations to practise corporate law or anything like that – what your ordinary person wants legally, we want to do every piece of that, whether it’s injury claims, power of attorney, buying a house, leasing a shop, anything. That’s our customer”.
Whyte comments: “I think we are for all intents and purposes still a high street firm, albeit one with over 200 people. We now cover most areas of law, and if we don’t we have close partners that we can refer business reciprocally to and from. We don’t spend much time trying to define ourselves but we’re quite happy just now trying to consolidate our position and improve our client offering after what has been a very hectic year.”
Rapidly expanding businesses sometimes overreach themselves financially. How has Jones Whyte kept a proper handle on this? “We recruited an extremely skilful operations and performance director a couple of years ago,” Whyte replies. “He’s an MBA graduate and actually an engineer by trade; he previously worked at Rolls-Royce and in the Middle East. Prior to this our own financial insight was fairly novice. We’re now far more sophisticated in that regard.”
“Pat on the back to Greg for hiring him,” Jones adds. “Lawyers are not always good at that kind of stuff and if that’s not your strength, get someone in to do it.”
Even so, taking on McClure’s work, doubling the firm in size once more, was a pretty massive step. How did it come about? “We were advised of the opportunity by another lawyer we are friendly with,” Whyte explains, “and we had previously referred some work to McClure, so it was a relatively warm introduction. Ultimately it was down to the former directors and the administrator to pick who they thought would be the best fit to hold these files and offer services to the clients. We made a presentation, as did other firms, and they chose us. No more sophisticated than that.”
For Jones Whyte it brought in new practice areas, including a huge step-up of its private client interest. “We did a small amount before, and now it has become one of our major practice areas. That was obviously a huge challenge, especially in the period immediately post-acquisition, but we’re happy to say that we have restructured; we are now able to give any former client of McClure who calls us a clear path as to what we can do for them, and hopefully an assurance that their file is in safe hands.”
The takeover did create a client relations issue, in that many McClure clients had signed up and paid for a trust administration service, and found it hard to understand that Jones Whyte had taken over the client files but not the business itself. Hence a lot of “firefighting” dealing with complaints – some of which made it to the press – when clients were advised that they would be charged for further work. In fact the sheer number of cases meant that the firm was initially advising some clients to consult other solicitors – as all were free to anyway – though following the restructure it is now able to deal with all queries directly. “Understandably, some clients were confused and couldn’t understand that the law firm they had previously instructed didn’t now exist. Some had paid that firm for legal services that now couldn’t be fulfilled. It was difficult to convey the message that while what had happened was unfortunate, it wasn’t anything to do with us and that we are here to offer to help pick up the pieces,” Whyte observes.
Autumn 2021 saw Jones Whyte named Law Firm of the Year at the Scottish Legal Awards; and Law Firm of the Year, Scottish Independents, at The Herald Law Awards of Scotland. What made the firm stand out? Feedback indicated its significant growth, rather than battening down the hatches, during the pandemic. That was happening before the McClure work.
“We aggressively recruited in 2020 because as a young firm, against a background where nobody else was recruiting, we were able to find high quality candidates that we might not otherwise have had the opportunity to recruit,” says Whyte. “Obviously that could have left us with egg on our face, but we’ve been fortunate in that there has been a recovery and the legal sector doesn’t appear to have been hit as hard as some. You didn’t get other firms that had significantly increased revenue, added new practice areas, increased their headcount during the pandemic. Then last April’s acquisition was significant. We weren’t a player in private client, and overnight we became one, so we were adding that significant offering also during the pandemic.”
He adds: “We were brave, and we were lucky. It’s nice to be recognised, but it’s more pleasing to feel that we are going somewhere, that we’ve got a strong team, people are happy to be here, that we’re looking forward into the future and with excitement.”
Awards apart, it is a feature of the interview that neither Jones nor Whyte claim any special status for their firm – on the perfectly fair basis that they don’t really know how they compare with others, for example on having an IT focus (though being a new firm was an advantage here), or a framework for staff wellbeing. They were however among the leaders with homeworking: even pre-pandemic, it was “one of the foundations on which we built the firm” that people were trusted to do their work as and where they wanted to. “We had two simple rules for working from home,” Whyte explains. “One, don’t leave a colleague in the lurch [such as by leaving them to deal with your clients visiting the office]. Two, you make your work from home day as productive as you possibly can.
“We’ve heard lots of people say they became more productive during the pandemic. We had already experienced that, because we think people enjoyed having the freedom to work where they wanted to.”
He continues: “Wellbeing for me is a bit trite, but like everyone else in the 21st century you have to be supportive; you have to give your team the best possible working atmosphere and support – if you don’t they’ll be elsewhere. We put it quite high on the list of priorities that people enjoy themselves as part of their work.”
When opportunity knocks
And next? Whyte again: “It’s fair to say that in 2022 we want to consolidate. We don’t have any massive growth plans. We simply couldn’t do that again in such a short time. I think just now we need to focus on ensuring that the client gets the best possible experience.”
Both however take a “never say never” attitude. Jones affirms: “We have organically grown and developed other practice areas, not by chance but when opportunities have come up we’ve said, we’re not going to knock back that type of work. So we’ve got to this size, not by accident but not by any great grand plans either.”
Whyte adds: “I think we’re lucky in that we both enjoy our work; we enjoy the challenges, the ups and downs; we’ve got a genuinely brilliant young team who are great fun to work with as well as being excellent lawyers and paralegals. I’m sure everyone will say this to you, but our own team surely are. We feel lucky to be here.”
He admits to one factor that has worked for them: “One of the things we’ve found remarkably helpful over the years is to ask advice of senior lawyers at other firms. We got a group who we lean on and take advice from, who have been there and done it, and it’s been amazing for us. These guys are never too busy to answer the phone. We hope to be able to do that for other lawyers in the future because it’s a competitive profession, but actually it’s a profession where we find your colleagues and your peers are delighted to help you, and we hope to kind of repay that to others as we go.”