Glen Gilson, managing partner and founder of Gilson Gray, spoke to SLN assistant editor Kapil Summan about the rapid growth of Scotland’s youngest full-service law firm.
Gilson Gray was founded on the idea that law could be practised differently; that by running a firm as a business rather than solely as a legal practice, lawyers could both serve clients and produce strong profits.
In 2013, then part of the senior management team at HBJ, Glen resigned and went about building the firm from scratch in his study. What resulted was the largest new full-service legal launch in the sector’s history.
“I had to work out what our service range should look like, what our geographic coverage should look like, what the aesthetics of the business should look like – and it’s frankly easier to police the culture and DNA of your business from that standing start,” said Glen.
The marriage between law and business is apparent across the firm – from the fact it maintains a lean cost base and subcontracts functions like certain cash room services, to the atmosphere itself, which has a youthful vibe and the feel of a trading floor, with people running around getting things done.
But perhaps the firm’s approach is more shrewd than radical. In a post-recession British legal sector that is seeing the “unbundling” of legal services and the success of operations that delegate junior functions to support workers – such as Ashurst’s in Glasgow – diversification may eventually become a necessity for law firms.
Like some of Scotland’s more venerable law firms, Gilson Gray has established a wealth management wing and its fast-growing Gilson Gray Financial Management made a capital profit in its first quarter that largely paid off the partners’ initial equity contribution to finance the firm.
Glen explained: “We are religious about controlling cost and efficient expenditure and infrastructure. We also are able to supplement our legal turnover through investment business and a strong estate agency business. All in all it conglomerates together to produce a stronger profit percentage than traditionally possible.
“Whilst most law firms target about 33 per cent we produced in the region of 50 per cent in our first year of operation. This was largely due to efficient operations, however, unlike law where you start at the bottom of the mountain every year”, with a financial services offering, “you also benefit from an element of annuity income.”
The business-oriented approach of the firm is informed by Glen’s personal background. After studying law at the Universities of Dundee and Edinburgh, he trained at Turcan Connell, with a view to going to the Bar. However, with his family airline in apparent insolvency he took over as CEO and through “a mixture of naivety and dogmatic behaviour” built the business back into profitability before selling it on.
And he is very optimistic about Gilson Gray’s prospects in the next 12 months, its third year of trading, expecting turnover “to go up by another 75 per cent”.
“We have enjoyed significant turnover and profit growth during our second year, which is satisfying, but we are keen to ensure that momentum is maintained,” he said.
With a different business approach also comes a different culture from the traditional law firm, one less hierarchical and which, he feels, can better galvanise the talent in the industry.
Glen explained: “I felt that demographics were very important in that. If you can secure key people with natural, similar life objectives and commercial objectives, they’re all pulling in the same direction, and recruiting high quality DNA is very important in that respect.
“A lot of law firms, naturally, were inherited by their current management board; they didn’t set up the firm, they don’t feel like they’re proprietors within the business, they haven’t vetted every staff member, nor indeed all their partners. Conversely, we have benefited from engagement throughout. Also, we simply do not employ anyone who we feel is not exceptional.”
And Gilson Gray already maintains a roster of high-profile clients including Cala Homes, KPMG, Sports Direct, First Mortgage and Your Move.
Glen attributed the “significant B2B relationships” the firm has built so far to that fact it has “brought across a very senior group of people together to attack the legal market” and “shake things up a bit”.
High profile recruits have included Murray Stewart (formerly Head of Real Estate in Scotland for Eversheds), Craig Darling (who established Dundas & Wilson’s Insolvency Practice in the City), and Andrew Fleetwood (the former principal at Fleetwoods, department head at Eversheds and ex-Magic Circle projects and renewables specialist).
Prior to joining Gilson Gray, Matthew Gray was a member of the Board at Pagan Osborne.
The firm also has one of the leading litigation and dispute resolution operations in the country with the likes of Steven Jansch (ex-Head of Insolvency at Gillespie MacAndrews) leading Insolvency, David Alexander (ex-Head of Asset Recovery at specialists Blacklocks) leading Debt Recovery, Graham Millar (ex-Head of Employment Law at Young & Partners) leading Employment Law and Alex Garioch, who brought the whole commercial litigation team from Morisons. It also boasts Rosie Walker, who recently won Carmichael, and Iain Clark, one of the leading international arbitration lawyers in the country, who heads up Litigation.
Surprisingly, it also has a successful residential conveyancing operation, “generally an anomaly” for a full service corporate commercial law firm, but one that works because of the business model.
With more consolidation on the horizon in the Scottish legal market, Glen was keen to stress that the firm is “very keen” on its “sovereignty”.
“We believe that a strong, full-service, credibly-scaled Scottish law firm may have an advantage over English-parented Scottish practices. It is possible to run off of a leaner footprint in terms of cost and there is often a better understanding at board level of the Scottish commercial market and a commensurate sustainable feeing level,” he explained.
He criticised the English cookie-cutter approach, with its preordained ideas of how much a partner should fee and what associated margin should look like.
He said: “If you’ve lost that sovereignty and autonomy it’s actually really difficult to incentivise and energise the partners because they’re often being driven down a model that doesn’t work terribly well in Scotland, unless you’re servicing the very top end of large corporate legal work.”