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Ince Group collapse, impact of remote working, rethinking divorce, solicitors in crisis, and more

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The collapse of the Ince Group: the story thus far

As previously reported by your faithful correspondent, last month saw the shocking but perhaps not completely unexpected announcement that the Ince Group had collapsed and was due to be placed into administration. I say “perhaps not completely unexpected” because it was known throughout the industry that Ince was in pretty deep trouble after failing several times to publish its accounts and having its stock suspended on the LSE. Still, the news was met with dismay within the legal profession and beyond. Below, I’ve provided a roundup of how some of the reactions and commentary played out on LinkedIn.

In his post on the Ince situation, which also signposts to his related article on the Seatrade Maritime website, specialist maritime journalist and editor Marcus Hand conveyed the shock felt by many at the collapse of this listed law firm with a 150-year history: “I never thought I’d actually be writing about the venerable law firm filing for administration. Generally in shipping, good markets or bad, it’s always assumed that lawyers and their firms will continue to do well, be it doing deals on the upside or dispute resolution on the downside.” Quite.

Law-firm startup specialist Michael Burne expressed his empathy for all the people employed at Ince, seeing it as another manifestation of the darker side of some law-firm management practices:

“I have huge sympathy for all, having experienced corporate struggles myself. I have seen at first hand the price people pay and the scars it can leave. I have also seen life after and can confirm the grass will be greener! For 15 years I have been saying there has to be a better way to run law practices and I am more sure than ever that there is.”

Michael was one of several commentators who focused on the human price being paid. Freelance legal journalist and media consultant Ben Rigby wrote a very insightful comment highlighting the similarities between the Ince situation and previous City administrations and voiced his concern for Ince’s trainees and what could be done to help them:

“Imagine, if you will, being at the start or middle of your training contract and seeing the firm collapse under you. This will be difficult for them in a hardening recruitment market.

“In previous administrations, the City of London Law Society (CLLS), as with Holborn & Westminster, helped man the lifeboats and arranged for training contracts to be transferred to City law firms and beyond. I think a similar effort may be needed here.

“Many have commented on the absence of action or comment from the ever-zealous regulator, the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Suffice it to say it, too, has a role here by assisting the most vulnerable in our profession when they need it most.

“The SRA should also be alive to the causes and circumstances that led to two administrations; first, that of Ince & Co in 2019, and second, the Ince Group. No firm is, of course, too big to fail. Once is happenstance. Twice is a coincidence, of course.”

Of course. But the circumstances that led to the failure(s) are also bound to form the material of many future case studies, providing an object lesson in how not to manage a law firm. The reasons for the collapse of Ince will be complex and manifold – but what it all ultimately boils down to, as branding specialist Grahame Jones points out, is that “no professional services firm can survive when the main source of competitive advantage – its reputation – is damaged. Manage it with care!”

My own post, in which I asked my followers what they think will happen in terms of finding a buyer for Ince, yielded some interesting comments. Social media and employee advocate Louise Searley noted that Ince’s social media following had grown strongly in the previous nine months compared to the rest of the UK Legal 200 and wondered if all the speculation had caused people to pay greater attention to the firm – I in turn opined that it was probably mainly journalists, smelling blood in the water. And marketing specialist Catriona Collier wondered if Ince would even be worth buying if its culture had been irreparably damaged by the collapse. I responded by telling her that market sources had told me in all seriousness “that it’d be better to pick off the best of what’s left than take on the whole firm and its issues”.

Well, it turned out that those sources were both sort of right and sort of wrong: soon after we went to press with last week’s edition of Si’s Matters, it was announced that the administrator Quantuma Advisory Limited had found a pre-pack buyer for Ince, with the business and some – but not all – of its assets being sold to Axiom DWFM.

Ince will apparently continue to operate as a separate operating entity and be managed independently. The existing partner group is also staying on for now, in an attempt to resurrect the firm’s core legal services. And Ince’s trainee roles are also safe, according to LegalCheek, thus hopefully allaying Ben Rigby’s fears.

However, you can’t help but feel for the fledgling lawyers at Ince: yes, their traineeships may be safe for now, but they will be completing their training at a very different and much-diminished firm compared to the one they originally applied to.

Paul Hastings – nothing daunted?

In last week’s edition of Si’s Matters, I took a look at the fallout from the now-infamous Paul Hastings slide, and mused on whether the firm would suffer any long-term reputational damage or recruitment issues.

Well, according to an article published in The Lawyer this Tuesday, the slide debacle certainly doesn’t seem to have had any negative impact in the short term when it comes to Paul Hastings’ ability to attract top talent. Indeed, the firm has just managed to bag Samantha McGonigle, a former private equity partner of Weil Gotshal & Manges, for its London team – according to the article, she was drawn in by Paul Hastings’ focus on technology-driven transactions, via private equity clients such as Oakley, Francisco Partners and Marlin.

The hiring of McGonigle marks the continuation of Paul Hastings’ aggressive expansion in the London market in recent times, having previously managed to recruit Linklaters’ Jessamy Gallagher, an infrastructure specialist, and Tom Cartwright from Morgan Lewis & Bockius. The firm also recently promoted Jamie Holdoway, a former colleague of McGonigle’s from her time at Weil Gotshal & Manges.

The slide incident may yet prove to be a mere blip on the radar or a glitch in the Matrix for Paul Hastings, if it continues to attract and retain such top-tier talent. But I can’t help but wonder how long it will take for ‘Slidegate’ not to be the first thing we all think of when the firm’s name is mentioned. Speaking for myself, I know it could well be a lifetime.

Remote working – lowering the Bar?

Last week, The Times ran an interesting article on the impact that remote working is having on the Bar in the UK. In the piece, journalist Catherine Baski reports that many senior barristers have continued to enjoy the benefits of remote working despite the pandemic receding ever further into the background. Baski writes that their absence from chambers is now beginning to have a negative effect on the training of pupils and the mentoring of junior tenants.

The article quotes former Law Society president David Greene, who feels that remote working is a threat to the “collegiate nature of the Bar and the character of chambers”. This seems to be backed up by a survey of junior barristers conducted by the Bar Council last year, which highlighted the “lost opportunities to observe, learn, build professional networks and secure the support to flourish” during the pandemic.

It appears to be a mixed picture, depending on the size, practice areas of members and geographical location of the respective chambers. But in general, Baski reports, junior barristers are definitely seeing much less of their senior colleagues, which inevitably affects the life and culture within chambers.

So many aspects of the legal profession have been changed forever by the events of the past three years: like a tsunami, the pandemic swept away vast swathes of the sector’s customs and conventions. I do wonder whether life in chambers is more likely to return to some semblance of its pre-COVID form than other areas of the profession – there is, after all, a certain glamour attached to being a silk, and the traditions of the old inns (Grays, Lincoln’s, etc.) are a big part of their appeal to those who seek to train and practise there.

But perhaps even amongst the senior members of these august institutions, the immediacy and tangible reality of the new-found improvements in work-life balance will continue to outweigh such noble if abstract considerations.

Rethinking divorce: one couple, one lawyer

It seems that the way British couples ‘do’ divorce is set to change, following last year’s governmental reforms to make the process less acrimonious. Top-60 law firm Harrison Clark Rickerbys is the latest legal practice to implement a ‘unified in separation’ (US) service that allows a couple’s divorce to be handled by a single lawyer.

This ‘one couple, one lawyer’ approach has already been adopted by other firms including Mills & Reeve, Withers, Simpson Millar and O’Sullivan Family Law. The aim is to help couples work through the process and achieve a mutually beneficial outcome without incurring the costs – both monetary and emotional – of going to court, an inevitably adversarial process.

HCR partner James Grigg describes US as “a tailored legal service that fosters cooperation, respect and transparency throughout the process”, and states that “we understand the emotional pressures and complexities of divorce; that’s why our goal is to help you achieve a mutually agreeable settlement that offers peace of mind and protects both your interests”.

HCR and their competitors who offer a similar service should see a decent level of uptake, given that 22% of divorce applications made between April and December 2022 came from joint applicants. Personally speaking, I salute any and all genuine endeavours to make divorce less of a bruising and expensive experience.

The Solicitors’ Charity sees a spike in demand 

Given all the media hype over junior talent wars and sky-high salaries, it’s easy to forget that not everyone working on the front line of the legal profession is living the high life. A sobering article published in the Law Gazette last week highlights that many solicitors are in fact struggling financially and emotionally – along with many other professions – due to the cost-of-living crisis.

The article reports that the Solicitors’ Charity, which aids solicitors in crisis, has seen a huge spike in demand in the past year, with a 50% increase in the number of people turning to it for help. According to the charity’s annual Big Report, it funded 284 solicitors so they could access support for their emotional wellbeing and mental health. In total, the Solicitors’ Charity spent £962,229 in aid for solicitors facing financial and personal difficulties.

The legal profession can be one of rich rewards, but also one filled with potential pitfalls, especially for more junior solicitors, who often find themselves confronted with long hours without adequate support or supervision. The figures put out by the Solicitors’ Charity highlight the continued need for change in many firms. I like to think that TBD and its carefully chosen clients are playing their part in this endeavour.

LinkedIn post of the week – Are boutique firms the natural home of digital nomads?

In a short but intriguing post, Adviserly CEO Robert Flint posits that boutique law firms are a natural fit for digital nomads:

“Boutiques are small, nimble, tech savvy and more often than not have lawyers who work flexibly. It means boutique lawyers work in small businesses, and they are everywhere. Much like digital nomads.”

As is often the case with LinkedIn, the comments prove as interesting as the post itself, giving some insights into how and where some digital nomads spend their time, what benefits they feel this style of working affords them, and what prevents some of the commentators from becoming digital nomads (e.g. being in possession of a husband and a dog). I wonder if TBD’s very own digital nomad, Chloe Christine, can relate?

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this week’s edition.

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