As HFW pursues a highly expansive growth strategy, Leaders League interviews its newly elected Managing Partner Jeremy Shebson alongside recently re-elected Global Senior Partner Richard Crump.
When in June 2017 Holman Fenwick Willan shortened its name to HFW, it was midway through a 3-year period of unprecedented expansion. HFW has a tradition of making bold moves when it comes to building its network of offices; it was one of the first London-based firms to establish offices outside the UK, setting up in Paris in 1977 and then shortly after in Hong Kong. In the decades since it has continued this expansion at a steady pace, with offices set up in, among other places, Singapore, Australia, China and Dubai.
Since January 2016, however, the firm has gone into overdrive, expanding into no less than 8 new markets. This has included a fully integrated merger with US firm Legge, Farrow, Kimmitt, McGrath & Brown, a new office opening in Abu Dhabi, the firm’s 19th globally and 5th in the Middle East, and a formal association with Shanghai shipping boutique Wintell & Co, the second-ever such association under Shanghai Free Trade rules.
HFW has also been recruiting partners at an impressive rate. In 2018 it added 24 new partners, including nine internal promotions and 15 lateral hires across Abu Dhabi, Brussels, Dubai, Hong Kong, Houston, London, Rio de Janeiro and Singapore.
All this expansion has had a positive effect on the firm’s bottom line. Revenues are up 30% since 2015, increasing by 8% between 2017 and 2018 to reach a record-breaking £179.1 million. International operations now account for close to 60% of the firm’s total turnover, up from 35% in 2011.
To get exclusive insight on what we can expect from HFW following this incredible 3-year period, Leaders League talked to newly elected Managing Partner Jeremy Shebson and Global Senior Partner Richard Crump, who was recently re-elected to the position for the fifth time. Here’s what they had to say.
Leaders League (LL): Many congratulations to both of you on your election victories. Jeremy, what will your priorities as newly elected Managing Partner be?
Many thanks. I have three broad priority areas. Firstly, I want to ensure that HFW is a top tier firm across all of our key sectors and services. Secondly, I want to focus on maximising the opportunities offered by the breadth and international scope of our practice by making sure that we are working closely together across our sectors, services and office network. Thirdly, I want to ensure that HFW is a place that clients want to work with and keep working with. This means a focus on regular engagement with clients.
LL: Richard, what will your priorities be in your fifth term as Senior Partner?
I want HFW to continue to grow as a firm, making sure that this growth is targeted and focused on our key sectors and services. For example, we've been expanding the firm’s transactional offering – we hired seven transactional partners last year. Commercial litigation will be another area of focus – we are a big disputes firm, with more than 350 disputes lawyers globally. We have a really good story to tell and have sometimes flown under the radar, but we are now keen to raise our profile.
Internationally, the Middle East and Asia-Pacific have been strong areas of growth for us – we recently opened a new office in Abu Dhabi and have made a series of lateral hires across both regions. We now have 19 offices across five continents and will continue to invest in strengthening and broadening our practices around the world.
LL: Richard, Jeremy is the fourth Managing Partner you will be working with, what in your opinion leads to a good working relationship between Senior Partner and Managing Partner?
The key to a good working relationship is communication and alignment in terms of what we are both looking for HFW to achieve as a business. The interaction between the two roles could be mapped out in a Venn diagram. On the one side, I am responsible for growth and developing opportunities, while on the other side, Jeremy focuses on implementation of the growth and the integration of newly added elements. Where our roles intersect is in analysing how feasible growth opportunities are and how they could be implemented. That intersection is key, and it is important that we are aligned and communicating with each other. We have already worked closely together throughout our careers here and have an excellent working relationship.
LL: Are there clearly defined boundaries between the two roles?
Richard (R): My role has more of an external focus, looking at opportunities for growth. I focus on the three- to five-year plan for the business. Jeremy then must analyse how these growth opportunities fit and how pursuing growth affects firm profitability. He is more on the operational side.
LL: Jeremy, you recently said that global law firms were facing increasingly challenging times. What are the biggest of these challenges in your opinion?
Jeremy (J): All global law firms are facing increased competition, with more firms and their lawyers going for the same type of work. Combined with this increased competition, clients are increasingly demanding on what they want from their legal teams, wanting more for less. This means that global law firms are all under pressure to increase efficiency. That involves investing in the legal support they are giving and in the business of the firm.
R: Price is very important to clients, they expect their service providers to be as sensitive to pricing and costs as they are.
J: There is also increased competition for talent. Attracting that talent is an increasing challenge for firms.
R: Generations now look at their careers in different ways to previous ones and recognising this is key to retaining talent. This means looking at agile working but also recognising that not everyone has promotion to partner as the end goal of their career, and that this is not linked to lack of ambition or lack of desire. Law firms need to be adaptive to these changes to retain talent.
LL: How do you both intend to face these challenges?
J: It is all about listening to clients, understanding their needs and then working with them as a team.
R: We are also continuing to differentiate ourselves as a firm. We already have our sector focus, which sets us apart, but we are always looking at ways that we can develop our business. We recently launched a consulting business, HFW Consulting, and we are getting traction there with clients, particularly in providing learning and development solutions. Clients appreciate the focus on how to assist them in a broader sense.
LL: HFW has seen some impressive growth in the past three years, both in terms of international expansion and new partners. What are the main factors the firm looks at when deciding to expand into a new market?
J: Where we grow in part stems from listening to our clients and going where they need us. Client demand has really been the key driver behind the expansion of our international network.
R: Our new Abu Dhabi office, which opened in October, is a good example of this. We launched in Abu Dhabi when a lot of firms were leaving the jurisdiction. We did that because we had already done a lot of work there and had an opportunity to recruit a good team on the ground from Reed Smith. A lot of firms expand into a jurisdiction by planting a flag there and hoping work follows – we already had a good base of work.
We try to be proactive, not reactive. Our Strategy Board is composed of lawyers representing our various industry groups, with a mix of dealmakers and litigators, and it looks at where there is a need we can service, looking at actual and prospective clients. Having a clear strategy and well-defined priorities is key, but you also need a little bit of luck too, frankly. Sometimes teams can move, and you can hire them; sometimes, for whatever reason, they cannot.
J: Cultural alignment is vitally important. It is essential that any new hires integrate well and improve their lot as well as ours.
R: Our US merger in 2017 was a good example of that. The firm we merged with in Houston is active in three of our six core sector focuses, so there were commonalities of work and clients, which breeds a cultural similarity. That has produced a very good relationship.
J: I worked recently with one of our Houston partners and it struck me just how aligned we were.
LL: Unlike a lot of transatlantic law firm combinations, which are Verein deals, your US merger was fully-integrated. Would you ever consider using a Verein for a merger?
R: In strategy, you never say never, but currently as a management team and as a firm, we want to maintain the 'one firm, one profit pool' model and stay away from a Swiss Verein model. It's not that Vereins don't work well for others, but the one firm model hasn’t stopped us from undertaking significant international expansion.
LL: And what does HFW consider when making lateral hires?
R: Generally, our appetite is quite broad and it’s about finding a person with the right approach and some level of established business.
J: A focus on excellence or potential for excellence is important too.
LL: Can we expect a similar pace of expansion over the length of your terms as Managing Partner and Senior Partner?
R: I would hope that we would be expanding at a similar rate, but we are wary of artificial targets because they may not be the right thing for the business – just trying to meet them for the sake of meeting them can be counterproductive.
J: We need to make sure that we focus on the right opportunities. The opportunities have to be there in the first place.
R: Our US expansion is a good example – we wanted to launch in the US for a while, but we waited until we had good opportunity to do so, with good alignment between all those concerned. It's also important that any investment we make is profitable. You always have to assess the costs relative to the opportunities. But we are willing to invest as a firm and have ambitious plans for further growth.