Slater and Gordon, the law firm poster child-turned basket case, has been a shocking example of how law firms might ‘go public’ and embrace the new age of deregulated law practice, drowning in a sea of debt and bad news days.
Since buying listed firm Quindell, Slater and Gordon’s fortunes turned south spectacularly with much reportage on what went wrong and and the company is now in the midst of a major restructure to survive.
Apart from Australia, the operations in the UK are to see a 16 per cent reduction in its headcount, which is over 3,300 in that country.
But how does the man in charge of the firm in the UK turn around a firm that has lost $700 million.
The company’s annual report for the year ending June 2016 shows the value of work in progress decreased by USD$65 million, of which just under half is due to a decline in case volumes in the Australian and UK practices and the resolution of existing work.
Law Gazette interviewed Australian-based Ken Fowlie, who remained surprisingly upbeat, describing the firm as being “incredibly dynamic” and how it remains looking after the needs of tens of thousands of clients.
Fowlie was himself an industrial disease lawyer who was completing his Sloan masters in leadership and strategy when Slater and Gordon made its move in the UK market with the purchase of Jones & Walker. He loved the challenge and excitement of working in London with what remains as the largest consumer law firm in the UK.
Was there a problem with being the much-heralded, first share market-floated law firm?
‘I don’t think being a listed company in and of itself creates a particular set of challenges for the business. We are a market-leading organisation within the UK; we are doing lots of things; we attract a lot of attention.’
The reorganisation of the business is progressing swiftly, creating three specialised legal services divisions across the UK in future: fast-track personal injury claims; serious and specialist personal injury claims; and general law services.
Fowlie avoids disclosing how many staff will have to go to accommodate such changes, and insists the company has had a ‘very open dialogue’ with its employees about their futures.
The use of technology will inevitably increase (particularly in low-value claims) as costs pressures kick in, although Fowlie insists the quality of work will not suffer.
Fowlie notes that the pasts 18 months have been a ‘pretty strong learning curve’ but he remains relentlessly upbeat.
‘I have been most struck by the vibrancy, dynamism and the resilience of the team that we’ve got within the organisation,’ he concludes. ‘It has had its moments of challenge, no doubt, but it has actually been an incredibly rewarding professional period in terms of learning about myself and about our business.’
Notwithstanding its woes, the company says its UK business has established a £300m annual turnover, an amount that comfortably places the company in the top 20 in the country based on revenues alone.