Lawyer of the Month: Lesley Larg
The first in her extended family to go to university, intellectual property specialist Lesley Larg was appointed as Dundee-based solicitors Thorntons’ first female managing partner in 2021, taking over from Craig Nicol who held the post for 10 years, seven of those years as joint managing partner with Scott Milne.
It was the beginning of an exciting next chapter in her career – and, as she stresses, a fresh phase for the firm as it began to implement a new strategic plan with a continued client-centred approach and aims for ambitious growth. It also, she says, felt like a “natural progression” as she had fulfilled several roles at the firm for 20 years.
Thorntons had already demonstrated an appetite for expansion through an extensive series of M&As: in 1990 Thornton Oliver WS merged with Fergusson Robertson & Co, creating Thorntons WS, the largest law firm outside Edinburgh and Glasgow at the time.
It became Thorntons Law LLP in 2005, acquired Pagan Osborne in 2017 then the Edinburgh operations of Morisons LLP, merged with Kim Barclay Solicitors and Stuart & Stuart LLP, and secured the lateral hires of the nine-strong MacRoberts office team in Dundee in 2022. In August came the announcement of a new Inverness office which is Thornton’s 14th, joining offices across Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Angus, Fife and Perth.
The firm though had shown an aptitude for nimble strategic thinking at a much earlier stage. Sir Thomas Thornton, its founder in 1857, was a keen supporter of Thomas Bouch who hatched the radical plan to bridge the Tay at Dundee and was successful in doing so, even though “Scotch caution was scared for a time” as a contemporary source reported. Undaunted by the spectacular destruction of the bridge he had assiduously lobbied for, Sir Thomas swiftly signed up to be a solicitor for the promoters of a second structure – which has rewarded his tenacious confidence by surviving until the present day.
Such optimism chimes with Ms Larg’s long-term strategy for Thorntons to be a progressive and prosperous business. “When we did some research on Sir Thomas, we discovered that he had decided to start the firm despite being in the middle of what was a huge recession at the time.
“When I talk about the firm, I often mention the bravery and vision he had in persisting with his plan and how that spirit has fuelled Thorntons and its weathering of other recessions and the recent Covid-19 pandemic. Our heritage still plays out in the business today.”
Her own vision includes the firm achieving a turnover of £60 million and a national presence by 2025; this year it should reach around £43 million. “In percentage terms, this is just part of a growth trajectory that we’ve been on for several years. It’s no sudden departure – it’s continuing to build year on year.”
Some £8.5 million of that comprises residential property and estate agency but £14 million is made by Thornton’s private client business and Ms Larg believes the firm will have one of the biggest, if not the biggest, private client operations in Scotland. “Commercial work also makes up a large proportion of our work, and growth areas include immigration and intellectual property – so we cover lots of areas.”
In this environment it’s essential to increase revenue: “Any firm that has static turnover will find themselves in a tricky place because of rising costs such as wages inflation and energy prices. That’s not easy to deal with without progressing turnover.”
As an IP specialist, digital transformation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) will inevitably be important to the future and while there are a number of transformation projects across the business (including predictive AI regarding case outcomes in litigation and personal injury) she says these are incremental changes, representing cultural shifts as much as technological ones.
“We’ve been holding client focus groups around bringing a high-quality digital element to the legal process as we have to ensure that we’re building something that’s useful to clients, something they actually want.”
Growing up in Dundee, Ms Larg went to what was considered one of the city’s worst performing high schools, subject to serial threats of closure and sometimes literally the school of hard knocks. “Two or three inspiring teachers helped me with advice about studying law or medicine, which was relatively rare for people at that school,” she recalls.
“I actually wanted to do Law and French at Aberdeen but didn’t have the financial means so realised I was going to have to stay at home and take a place at the University of Dundee, which turned out to be challenging in itself as almost everyone else on the degree course seemed to have a parents who were solicitors or had some other connection with the law – I barely said a word for the first couple of years.”
Volunteering for the Children’s Hearings Panel she was Initially attracted by family law as she worked her way through university in retail stores and bars, then secured a traineeship with Bell and Scott in Edinburgh. There she was introduced to commercial property then IP working on intellectual property law matters for an Edinburgh Festival venue.
“A friend, David Cabrelli, now a professor at Edinburgh Law School, told me that Thorntons was developing an IP team, so I applied and took up the post. Even some 20 years ago very few law firms had intellectual property teams and Thorntons was my opportunity to be part of that and to enjoy their trust and support in doing it.”
While she is committed to developing inclusivity and diversity at Thorntons and keen to set an example for her daughters and inspire fellow women in the profession, she has said she sees herself as “somebody who is in the privileged position to lead this amazing law firm. I just happen to be a woman”.
Her two daughters, she says, “absolutely keep me on my toes. Their needs aren’t so obvious as they were when they were little; now it’s about helping to guide them through all that goes with being a teenager these days”.
With a husband who has lived on the surfers’ haven of Tiree and a nephew who is a wave surfer, the challenges of kite surfing and wakeboarding keep her love of sport alive when on the west coast and Ms Larg says a more leisurely afternoon might be spent paddle boarding on the Tay. As she also runs, cycles and is a member of a tennis team, her sporting schedule sounds about as exhausting as the legal demands.
Though these she concedes are similarly exacting: “The profession is not a straightforward one to enter, regardless of your role. It can be stressful and tense at times and I think wellbeing should be much higher on the agenda. We started to see that during the Covid-19 pandemic but we mustn’t lose sight of it now and continue to pay it a lot of attention.”
Meanwhile, she is clear on Thorntons’ position in the legal marketplace. “We’re very well placed to partner with English firms in the Scottish element of transactions because we’re not competing with them, but we’re primarily focused on Scotland because there’s a very significant opportunity for strong independent Scottish firms. I’m confident with the strategic model we’ve chosen – and I don’t see us departing from that.”