Podcast: Tim Skipper explains how law firms are updating their Business Services offering

June 12, 2019 • 15 minute read

On this edition of the Infinite Global Podcast, we take a closer look at how firms are learning from sectors outside law to develop their Business Services offering.

UK law firms have placed greater importance on recruiting better Business Services staff over the last few years, resulting in brand new roles being developed in areas such as Innovation, Pricing, Diversity & Inclusion, Client Relationship Management and Tech.

We sat down with Tim Skipper, Managing Partner at legal recruitment firm Totum Partners, to discuss the increasing investment being made in Marketing and Business Development within the sector, in addition to revealing why his firm has banned the term ‘non fee earner’.

The Infinite Global Podcast is available to download or stream on iTunes and Spotify. Subscribe for regular updates and interviews and insights from experts in the world of Communications, PR, Branding and Digital Content.  


Jamie Obertelli is Infinite Global’s Digital Strategy Leader, based in London. A digital content strategist with a background in journalism and PR, he provides clients with strategies that drive engagement and tell their stories to audiences more effectively. Jamie can be contacted at jamieo@infiniteglobal.com   

Full interview transcript:

IG: Welcome to the infinite Global podcast. On this edition we’re joined by Tim Skipper from Totum Partners, to give his thoughts on some of the latest legal sector trends, with a focus on the business services sector.

It’s great to have you here with us today Tim. Can you run through your background for listeners, talk us through how Totum came into being and how the firm currently services the legal sector?

TS: Thanks very much for inviting me today. Totum’s been around since 2003 and we exclusively focus on recruiting business services roles into law firms. We’ve got around 15 people focused on various different functions and those include marketing, BD, Finance, HR, Risk etc.

My background is I’ve been recruiting this sector for around 20 years. I recruited my first business services person to a law firm in 1997 when I placed the Marketing Director at Stevenson Harwood and I’ve been doing it ever since.

IG: What’s the landscape like in the UK at the moment? Are there trends that are starting to develop that Totum has early sight of? Are firms bulking up in certain areas and service lines for example?

TS: Yeah, the overarching theme frankly is that the law firms are now focusing more and more on recruiting better business services people into their various functions, and that’s been a trend really that’s gathered pace in the last three or four years. But we’re also seeing a number of brand new roles being developed around Innovation, Pricing, Diversity Inclusion, Client Relationship Management, Tech etc. So it’s a huge focus on whole area of Business Services and many new roles being created.

IG: How are law firms addressing some of the issues and divisions that come from the partnership model? In my own experience I’ve seen that talented people in Business Services can sometimes feel neglected, unappreciated and not treated fairly. That’s including, but not limited to, how they are remunerated versus partners. I’ve seen a lot of talented individuals who have been pushed to leave Professional Services organisations for completely new sectors at great cost of the business. Is that something that you think is still an issue for the legal sector and if so, are there firms that are taking particular steps to address that?

TS: This is always been an issue in certain firms, but there’s no question in my mind that over the last five or so years law firms have really grasped the fact that and a successful law firm is the sum of its people. That includes lawyers, partners, paralegals and a whole range of Business Services people. So for the most part law firms are valuing their Business Services people. It’s a cultural thing. It’s a leadership thing. If the Managing Partner doesn’t lead from the front and really regale the value that they’re his or her various Business Services people add to the firm then there is an issue, but for the most part that’s gone away actually.

IG: Are firms incorporating Business Services better? We’ve heard of some of the firm’s who are now having non fee earners sitting amongst the lawyers as a function to stop them from being too siloed. Is that something that people are now looking at?

TS: The first thing first, we ban the term ‘non fee earner’ at Totum because it’s derogatory and it doesn’t actually present the Business Services community in the right light in our view. I still get the most people often defer to that frame of reference in many of the law firms that we recruit for. Notably someone like CMS for example, who moved into this fantastic office down at Cannon Street, their Business Services director sits alongside the Managing Partners, the Senior Partner, they sit next to each other in open plan. Obviously in certain environments particularly old-fashioned offices, then you might get the and the Business Services teams in the dark down in the cellar disconnected from the lawyers and the partners with whom they interact. But again, that’s really not an issue these days for the most part.

IG: Interesting that you’ve banned the term ‘non fee earner’. Is that something that you think is becoming a more standard practice in the industry? Do you feel that that distinction between what I’ve just said is ‘non Fee earner’ and partners is starting to be eroded somewhat?

TS: Yeah I think it is. It goes hand-in-hand with the fact that Business Services professionals across all functions, whether that’s HR, BD, Marketing, Finance, Technology, Knowledge or Whatever, they are having to be able to articulate the value they  bring to the firm. They’re doing a lot better now and that’s what the return on investment is being articulated well within the firm. And consequently, lawyers partners are recognising that they are actually adding to their ability to go and generate more business and fee earn themselves better.

IG: That certainly chimes in with what you said earlier about seeing an uptick in BD roles and I assume that also applies to marketing as well. It seems that a lot of the firms we speak to now are recognising marketing in a way that they hadn’t before. It is no longer something that is an annoyance or an inconvenience to the lawyers and actually they see the benefit of being able to expand their network, bring in new business and new matters.

TS: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. There’s been a huge investment in marketing. I should also add that I my personal view is that the marketing and BD director role in a law firm is the hardest one actually to do because most lawyers think they great media marketing and not that many think they’re great at HR or finance, or technology etc. But there’s been a big investment in things like client relationship management, in digital marketing, in brand development in thought leadership. There are experts being brought into to work on those areas and consequently many BD and marketing functions have grown quite significantly as a consequence of that.

IG: What are your thoughts on somebody in Business Services as a partner? Are there any comparable industries where this has worked really well that law firms could potentially learn from? So could you have a non-lawyer managing partner one day?

TS: Where we seen that already happening is in some of the smaller firms. We’ve recruited several Chief Executives into mid-sized law firms, and what I mean by that is £15 to £30 million turnover, it often comes as a consequence of them getting to a point where Managing Partner X is retiring, there’s no  obvious successor and they may then choose the to go down the route of recruiting a business services professional as the new Chief Executive or Managing Partner. So it’s already happening.

Where we haven’t seen it happen yet is in the much larger international firms where the model of Managing Partner, Senior Partner, and increasingly COO reporting to the Managing Partner and helping with the management of all the Business Services, that seems to be more prevalent model in the larger firms.

IG: And do you think that that paradigm change is any closer to shifting or do you think that there’s some work to be done before those larger firms recognise that’s a potential option for them?

TS: In five years time I would envisage that there will be firms where the CEO or Managing Partner is not a qualified lawyer.

IG: What about resourcing and the next generation of talent? Are firms looking outside the traditional recruiting grounds beyond the legal sector to bringing fresh ideas? If so, what areas, and are there any particular firms who are doing this well?

TS: When we go out to recruit a director of any function, what we will do at the outset is try and persuade the recruiting firm to consider people outside of law. The most obvious other sectors to recruit in from are other Professional Services firms. I know you worked at Knight Frank so property, management consultancy, big four accountants Etc. So other B2B, Professional Services environments, that’s a good one where we’re finding most of those situations occurring and where frankly the skills are short. So it could be around transformation, it could be around digital, it could be around these sort of innovation roles. It could be around sector focused BD roles.

For example, we are recruiting a senior global person to look after one of the industry groups at one of the big firms and they want to look at someone from industry in the oil and gas sector so they want something from that background.

So where they’re being driven to it is largely due to the fact they don’t exist within the current sector currently. We look to persuade people to include people on the short list but too often we get to the final two and the person from law wins the day because it’s the lower risk option. So what we’re trying to do is work with firms to enable them to bring in someone who’s new but then give them the best chance of success. That’s all about integrating them properly, maybe giving some coaching Etc. The best Business Services teams in law firms we believe are a mix of people who know, the sector and people who don’t know it and have got new ideas from outside.

IG: And you do find that some of those roles that currently don’t exist in a few years time will become the norm anyway, as those new ideas brought into the firm.

How do you get a feel for candidates who will fit a particular firm? At a certain level most of the talent that you work with will be capable, in terms of their technical skills and experience, so there needs to be a way of matching up candidates that will really fit with the firm’s energy ethos and culture. How do you develop an eye for that?

TS: We’ve recruited Business Services people into 48 of the top 50 firms over the last ten or so years. So we’ve got to know the firm’s really well and many of the firms that we recruit for we’ve recruited several directors and many of the teams that sit below those directors once they’ve been appointed. So you gather that knowledge on a gradual basis anyway, but you’re absolutely right before you go out to recruit anybody you really do need to establish what the cultural environment is like, what the leadership is like, what the Managing Partner is like, what the practice group leaders are like, what the other business services directors are like. Because if you’re recruiting a Marketing Director that person has to work with the HR Director, the Finance Director. And that, as a recruiter, actually takes quite a bit of time.

So it might mean that you delay kicking off a project for two weeks while you meet as many people like that as possible to hopefully then get a really good understanding of the culture and environment. So it’s about preparing before you kick it off frankly, and then having the willingness to rule out the candidate who looks brilliant on paper, but he just won’t work out in terms of the fit.

IG: I’ve seen it a number of times where a candidate is appointed to a role and they have a stellar CV, on LinkedIn it looks amazing, and for whatever reason it just doesn’t work. That very much speaks to matching the candidate in terms of ethos and culture.

TS: Absolutely. We’re always measuring the people that we put into these roles and how long they last because it’s no good to us or our reputation if we put in someone who is great on paper and they’re gone any 18 months later.

IG: How are firms adopting more diverse thinking? What are the drivers of disruption that you can see coming for Business Services in the sector?

TS: A lot of the disruption we believe is being driven by the client of the law firm. Clients do want more for less. They’ve got less to spend on their external counsel, they want fewer suppliers and they want a more diverse range of them. So you might have a panel which has Axiom on it, you might Addleshaw Goddard, you might have Allen & Overy etc. So you’re seeing the complexion of the panel’s changing and and those different firms are offering a different kind of service, but it’s the clients who are driving it, the clients who are saying I want our law firm to know our sector to be advising on what’s going on in our industry, to be coming to tell us about what we should be doing, to actually be proactively advising us. I go to a number of conferences and that’s one of the themes that comes out time and time again, so it’s the clients the driving most of the disruption.

Also, of course law firm still want to maintain their levels of profitability and consequently to do that they’re having to deliver their services differently and that’s driving a lot of these rolls around Innovation, Client Service, Delivery etc.

IG: I had the pleasure of attending the LMA annual conference in Atlanta earlier on this year and it was clear there that there are a number of firms who are still to fully embrace digital platforms as a route to market. There are of course a number who are doing it very well and doing really interesting things. I think social media is a great example of something that tends to polarise a lot of firms that we encounter. My feeling is that many are still somewhat reticent to embrace it because lawyers by their very nature are risk-averse and they see digital as something to be avoid. What are your thoughts, especially as a firm that embraces social media and has a very acute awareness of the role it can play in terms of new business and informing your market?

TS: We’ve recruited quite a number of heads of Communications Heads of Communications and that can mean a whole raft of things, but there would never be now a role we’d recruit with a communications flavor to it that wouldn’t have digital at the heart of it. People with really good digital marketing experience are commanding a premium and they’re actually quite difficult to find.

You’re absolutely right, many firms are very reticent about going out there and being really opinionated on social media. We’re still mainly talking about LinkedIn here, but obviously some firms are now looking to embrace Instagram and most firms have a Twitter account etc. It’s still early days.,

Going back to one of the points I made earlier, it’s the digital area that is a good example of people coming in from outside who can make a real difference because ‘industry’ has to be embracing it for a lot longer.

IG: Thank you for joining us Tim. If listeners want to find out a little bit more about your firm where can they do that?

TS: We’ve got a website which is www.totumpartners.com and we’re also on Twitter at Totum Talks and we’re all so we’ve got a corporate LinkedIn page. So any of those and we love to hear from you.

IG: That’s it for this episode of the Infinite Global podcast. Keep an eye on our LinkedIn and Twitter channels for the next Edition.