Lawyer of the Month: Chris Harte

Lawyer of the Month: Chris Harte

Chris Harte

It is just over three months since the merger between Morton Fraser and MacRoberts completed and the enlarged firm’s chief executive Chris Harte is pretty pleased with how things are going.

Practice groups are getting to grips with their new capabilities and staff at Morton Fraser MacRoberts – which is adopting the persona MFMac – are on the move, with legacy Morton Fraser staff flitting into what was MacRoberts’ Glasgow base while legacy MacRoberts staff are moving into what was Morton Fraser’s Edinburgh one.

Bar a few IT niggles everything is going according to plan. Still, Harte says, it has been hard work to get to this point.

“Anything worthwhile is hard work,” he says. “The idea that you could leverage all the benefits of a merger just by waving a magic wand is not realistic. We’re in the phase now where it’s cultural – we’re bringing everyone together so they feel part of a new business and it’s important to remind ourselves that everyone is doing a new job because everyone is doing their job in a new context.”

To the outside world, things have moved very quickly for MFMac. Harte and his MacRoberts counterpart Neil Kennedy, who is chief operating officer in the new firm, went public with their plans in September last year and the deal completed on 1 November. Harte concedes that that didn’t leave a lot of time to sort out the practicalities of office moves and IT systems, though in reality it is a year since the combination – which Harte and Kennedy hope will earn the firm a place in a newly configured Scottish Big Four – was first okayed by the respective partnerships and two years since the idea of a tie-up was first floated.

“It’s probably been a bit over two years since Neil and I had a catch-up over coffee and said ‘what’s your view of the future, is it worth exploring something’,” Harte recalls. “We see things in a similar way in terms of seeing a positive future for a Scottish-headquartered, independent firm. The question was would we be better pursuing that aim separately or together. That’s where it came from.

“We’d both had many of these kinds of discussions but this was the one that had legs for us both. Once we dug into it and conversations started to become a bit more serious we were taken by how complementary the firms were. From a distance we could see that the two legacy firms looked like similar businesses doing similar things, but when we got under the bonnet we could see it was more interesting because where they were strong we were less strong and wanted to get stronger and, equally, where we were strong they were less strong and wanted to get stronger. There are lots of ways to make a business bigger, the question is how do you make it better. This seemed like an opportunity to make it better.”

A lot of that is to do with the culture of the enlarged firm, with Harte saying the focus now is on “working hard to create MFMac”.

“As of last week we had 490 people in the business and all of our success is dependent on a thing called MFMac, not MacRoberts, not Morton Fraser,” he says. “We have to build that culture. We decided to crack on with the merger and work on that together. Later this year we’ll have our first set of trainees to join MFMac - at the moment we’ve got two sets, who joined MacRoberts and Morton Fraser. All of those things are about building MFMac, but it doesn’t happen overnight because a lot of people have spent a lot of time in the side of the business they came from.”

The office moves should help with that, Harte says, though he notes that the firm has no expectation that its people spend a set amount of time in the office every week, preferring instead to offer the kind of flexibility that ensures staff can maintain a work-life balance.

“Historically, bringing businesses together was a big challenge due to office space, but the benefit of hybrid working is that everyone hotdesks,” he says. “We do see the value of people being in the office, but equally people value flexibility. We’re trying to get to the Goldilocks position where there’s a balance. There needs to be flexibility at a team level but we also want something that works for individuals and the reality of modern working life is that for individuals what they need changes. You can have caring responsibilities at a point in time but then that changes – I’ve just become an empty nester so that dynamic has changed for me.”

Prior to the merger Harte had spent his entire career with Morton Fraser having trained at the firm after studying law in Aberdeen as part of the first generation of his family to go to university. Both his sons have followed in his footsteps by heading to the Granite City, one to study law and the other sociology. Though that meant the Harte household suddenly becoming much quieter, he says he dealt with that initially by offering a home to a Ukrainian lawyer who was forced to flee due to Russia’s invasion of her homeland.

“The firm is part of an international network and the Ukrainian member of that asked if anyone would be able to offer jobs to allow people to leave Ukraine,” he says. “We took two into legacy Morton Fraser and myself and a colleague put them up in our homes. One is still with us and the one who was staying with us has gone back to Ukraine to work at the law firm she was originally with.

“I don’t think anyone expected the war to last as long as it has and the people who came here had to think about whether they wanted to create their future outside Ukraine or whether they wanted to go back to their families. It puts our moans about IT into perspective.”

An early indication that people outside the firm recognise what MFMac is trying to do is that the enlarged firm is getting more pitch opportunities than either legacy firm would have had on its own, Harte says. Turnover-wise, the firm’s largest practice groups are corporate and commercial, and real estate, which account for roughly a quarter of turnover each, followed by litigation (20 per cent) and construction and projects, and private client (15 per cent each). Harte says it is the nuance the merger has brought to those groups that is helping MFMac get its foot in the door on pitches, with the corporate offering now having more depth than either firm had individually but also having “more fire power” in complementary areas including IP and pensions.

“That positioning is not just around volume but having the skillsets we need to take on particular mandates,” Harte says. “We’re seeing more client pitch opportunities where we’ve been wondering whether either of the legacy firms would have been invited. To be fair, we’ll never know for sure but there have been a couple where we’ve thought probably not.

“Even if we’re not appointed, the fact that we’re getting opportunities we wouldn’t have had access to before is a big positive. Life in a professional services firm is about making sure you compete where you want to compete. We’ll never win every mandate because it’s a hugely competitive marketplace and that will never change. None of the challenges we faced as separate businesses are going to go away, we just think this will make us better at meeting those challenges.”

In turnover terms MFMac is now the fourth biggest firm in Scotland, though with consolidated revenues of £45m in the year to April 2023 it is still some way behind those at the head of the pack it wants to compete in. In the same financial year Brodies smashed the £100m barrier to hit £106m while Burness Paull recorded £83m in the year to July and Shepherd and Wedderburn reported £67m. Two decades ago the Scottish marketplace was dominated by a Big Four made up of Shepherd and Wedderburn along with Dundas & Wilson, McGrigors and Maclay, Murray and Spens. With Dundas now part of international firm CMS and McGrigors and Maclays similarly part of Pinsent Masons and Dentons respectively, the leaderboard of Scottish independents is now dominated by a Big Three. It is MFMac’s ambition to make that a Big Four once again.

“There was a recognised Big Four but three of those firms are now part of larger businesses and Shepherds is the only one that remains,” Harte says. “There’s definitely a new Big Three been established over the past few years with Brodies, Burness Paull and Shepherds but we believe there’s room or someone else to be part of a new Big Four. Our challenge to ourselves is to be that firm.

“If you look at the progress Burness Paull and Brodies have made over the years, they have really motored on. It’s evidence that, done well, there’s plenty of life in the independent model. The question is how do you become the best version of that and we believe it’s by coming together.”

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