How does a Tunbridge Wells law firm compete with the big London rivals and grow to become a leading provider of legal services in the south east? That’s one of the questions Adam Hignett put to Gavin Tyler, Managing Partner at Cripps
With around 200 legal professionals, plus offices in Tunbridge Wells, Kings Hill, Sandwich and London, Cripps has transformed itself over the decades from the stereotypical law firm of the old boy network to a thriving company which commercialises law.
Having joined in 1984, after following his father into the business, Managing Partner Gavin Tyler has both witnessed and overseen the many fundamental changes which have affected the firm and the industry at large.
“There have been several big changes over the past 30 years,” he explains.
“When I first started, it certainly was how people imagine law firms to be.
“I remember in the 1970s, after my father became a lawyer and travelled to London, he would don his pinstripe trousers and took a bowler hat.
“Back then law firms were not even allowed to advertise. That was not until the late 1980s.”
This restriction on marketing meant those in the legal profession were left with little choice but to find clients through personal networks.
“That led to the perception of the old boy network and that was just the way it was,” continues Mr Tyler.
“It was not peculiar to the profession, it was the way the whole business world worked back then.
“But I think the pace of change since the early 1990s has been phenomenal.”
One of the major changes came about when lawyers started to diversify and looked at how they dealt with litigation – the process of settling disputes between parties – which had traditionally been done as a favour for clients, before the penny dropped.
“Suddenly we said, hang on a minute, we are providing the client a service, we have got them out of a spot of bother and we were adding something. So we said ‘why don’t we start charging for that?’
“When we did we found the clients were not objecting because they saw value in it.
“That really took off during the 1990s,” he says. “During this time, the mentality of the profession also began to change. Modern lawyers realised they were part of a broader business world and could no longer focus on purely the intellectual aspects of the law.
“If they want to do that they should teach law or do a PHD in it,” he adds.
Their ability to capitalise on litigation led Cripps to receive another boost in the middle of the decade, when it was appointed to the Solicitors Indemnity Fund Panel, effectively letting it represent other lawyers in legal trouble.
The fund itself is paid for through contributions from legal firms proportional to their size, and helps provide insurance for participating members.
“That was a tremendous credibility boost for us as we were then representing the big City firms and very much holding our own,” says Mr Tyler.
“And we got quite good at it because of our approach, which is about fixing things rather than seeing the law as an end in itself.”
The success was not unnoticed, however, with Cripps taking a big market share in the field and deriving a large portion of its business from it.
“So in 2000 the profession decided, in its wisdom, to put it to the open market as some of the bigger London firms felt they were subsidising the smaller players.”
Cripps suffered a setback as it lost its position, but other opportunities had come along for the firm, which moved into property law surrounding large infrastructure projects such as the Docklands Light Railway and HS1.
In 2010 another threat to the profession loomed, when areas previously classed as ‘reserved services’ – those which only solicitors were legally allowed to do – were opened up to outside competitors.
“The business world began looking at how they could make money out of the law and apply to it commercial thinking as opposed to evolved legal practices,” says Mr Tyler.
“Many large companies, ranging from the ‘big four accountancy firms’ to the Co-op and even Eddie Stobart, the haulage company, became involved.”
While not every venture has been successful, it did change thinking in the legal profession.
Another major shift in the legal sector has been an increased focus on marketing, particularly around branding.
“Back in 2014, we realised it was essential to build a sustainable brand and to move on from the core values we had developed about ten years ago.
“We had also undergone the merger with Vertex and grown significantly. We had become a very different legal practice.”
The firm hired professional branding consultants to help them articulate what sort of business Cripps is and what it wanted to be known for.
“We recognised that many of our future clients are more likely to be economically active people in their 40s or 50s with both personal and business needs, so we needed to adapt in order to service all their requirements.”
The new brand encapsulates how Mr Tyler believes the firm approaches its client base.
“We very much offer advice and don’t treat the law as a process, as that is not what clients are looking for.
“It’s about working with them to help get them where they want to be.”
Looking ahead, he said that technology and automation was likely to have a major impact on the profession.
“Some of the more extreme predictions suggest that by 2020 the role of junior lawyers will be obsolete due to artificial intelligence,” he comments.
“I do not believe that will be the case, but it will certainly being doing some of their work.
“If you think about reviewing a whole load of documents, you can either put them through a scanner to search for certain words, key phrases and names, or give them to an individual who will take days and charge fees.
“But you have to ask ‘do lawyers really like wading through paper?’ It gets hours on the clock for them but it is not very appealing.
“That’s why it’s important for lawyers to get back to giving advice and spending time building relationships with clients.”
Who is Gavin Tyler?
Mr Tyler attended Skinners’ School, where he was a member of The Cadets, and decided he would go to Sandhurst Military College if he was unable to study law.
However, he attained good A levels, to the ‘surprise’ of his teachers, allowing him to study law at Manchester University and in London.
He followed his father by joining Cripps in 1984 and mainly focused on litigation, before later retraining in employment law.
Mr Tyler was made a partner in 1990, aged 29, and managing partner in 2013.
Cripps was founded in Tunbridge Wells in 1852 and now has offices in Kings Hill, Sandwich and London, and is due to move into new offices on the former Kent and Sussex Hospital site.
In 2013 the firm merged with Vertex Law, doubling the size of its corporate and commercial practices.
Cripps recently won the Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year Award.