31 March 2014
A diplomatic approach combined with the personal touch | David Stanning retires
Retiring senior partner David Stanning looks back on his lengthy career.
It’s been 39 years since David Stanning joined B P Collins, during which time he has helped grow the firm and steer it through a period of immense change. Having handed over the senior partner reins to Chris Hardy on 1 February, David retired on 31 March and we asked him to talk about some of the changes he has seen in his lengthy legal career.
Q. Tell us about your first job.
A. This was with a West End law firm, where life was much more formal, the senior partner was a remote figure and the partners were like gods. Everyone had a secretary, but the firm had only one electric typewriter and no photocopier.
Q. You joined B P Collins after three years with a major law firm in Australia.
A. A year after qualifying, I went to Australia and came back at the end of 1974. The economy was at a low ebb and I was fortunate enough to see an advertisement for a company lawyer in South Bucks. After an in-depth interview over a pint or two with Brian Collins, I joined his firm in March 1975, with the brief to help build a corporate and commercial team. At that time, employment law was really taking off and, with many London law firms dismissing its importance; we had a clear run to offer employment law advice to local businesses. Gradually we gained peoples’ trust in our competence and branched out into giving corporate and commercial advice.
Q. How has the image of the legal profession changed over the years?
A. Unfortunately, the public perception of lawyers has gone downhill. When I began, law was one of the most respected professions. These days there are many different “types” of lawyers and in some cases I believe the reputation of the profession has suffered as a result. Thankfully, in the areas we operate, lawyers still command respect based on their professional knowledge and expertise, which is why many people turn to us to help solve the challenges that life brings. We work hard to provide clients with top quality service and advice and I believe that in return we have their loyalty and respect.
Q. Have client demands changed?
A. Yes, the arrival of the internet has changed the nature of the game. There are now huge expectations of instant advice at the lowest cost, making it very challenging to build in the “time for thought” that is often essential in giving considered advice. I like to use last season’s rugby referees’ call – “touch, pause, engage”. Too often, the “pause” can be missed out and not enough time given to looking at the different options. At a time when the internet delivers an automatic “one size fits all” response, I think the “pause” is important, and it’s an approach I have always encouraged my colleagues to adopt.
Q. Lawyers can now advertise their services, which they never used to be able to do. Has that helped?
A. Whilst it’s right that clients are aware of the choices available, I'm not sure that bombarding them with adverts or having exaggerated claims on websites is that helpful. In my view, there’s no substitute for a face-to-face meeting to lay the groundwork for a long-term relationship, so the client has the chance to see behind the advertising hype.
Q. There have also been new competitors coming into the legal marketplace, with big brand names companies such as Tesco now offering legal services. What’s your view on that development?
A. “Tesco Law” may become a challenge for some small firms but I don’t see this as impinging on our marketplace. The bigger challenge for us is likely to come from larger regional law firms and from accountants, whose reach is now expanding into areas previously the exclusive province of lawyers. Our focus must be on demonstrating to clients how we provide added value and this is more easily achieved on the back of a good relationship.
Q. The law seems a lot more complicated now, is that the case?
A. I’d have to agree with that. There has been a proliferation of new law, with a focus on employment, health and safety and human rights, some of which you have to ask if it is really of true benefit.
Q. What was it like being senior partner?
A. When I took over five years ago, it was a very challenging period for business generally.
I was following on after a very respected lawyer who in turn had succeeded the firm’s founder, so there was a high standard to maintain, especially for one who hadn’t always towed the line. I had to learn to be more of a diplomat, to listen to and understand people and to find the right solution, sometimes through taking some tough and unpopular decisions. Optimism and humour helped!
Above all, the senior partner has to keep pushing to provide an even better service, encouraging the lawyers to keep thinking about our clients and the changes that are happening in their lives. It’s about anticipating their needs, perhaps before they’ve realised that. I believe that’s what differentiates us from many other firms.
It took me a short while to get to grips with things, but latterly I can honestly say that I've enjoyed the job. It's people-focused with a strong business bias – I now have a much greater understanding about business and people, hopefully for the benefit both of clients and staff.
Q. What have been some of the milestones?
A. I believe that major factors in the firm’s success include bringing a previously scattered firm into one centre in Gerrards Cross; engaging experienced professionals to manage the firm so it was no longer run by exclusively lawyers; and converting to a limited liability partnership, taking a more modern and business-like approach without entirely losing the partnership culture.
I’m proud that the firm is now amongst the leaders in its peer group and is regarded by many as a good place to work. I have tried to encourage the B P Collins’ team to walk tall – we should be proud of ourselves, knowing that we are big enough to look after clients very well, and small enough to offer a very personal service.
The firm also works very hard to make sure that we play our part in the local community and are not seen as remote, I think we’ve been very successful at getting involved in a variety of local activities, including the GX Fun Run that is rapidly approaching once again.
Q. What would you say to Chris Hardy as your successor in the senior partner role?
A. Thanks for taking it on! But more seriously, two things – first, there is always a solution to be found and secondly, to maintain a sense of humour. I have every confidence in Chris, he is a very calm character, respected by everyone, well known in the community and he has a great sense of perspective, which is very important.
Q. You celebrate your 69th birthday this year. Will you be taking it easy now you’ve retired?
A. I don’t know what it’s like to take things easy, but I’m looking forward to more time for fly fishing, photography, gardening, cooking and travelling. My wife Glyn, who ran in the London Marathon three years ago, quite rightly insists that we try to keep reasonably fit, so we indulge in a weekly session with a personal trainer (less expensive than the chiropractor alternative). We’ve even entered a family team in the GX Fun Run. She and I also like to spend time in North Devon and also the French Alps with our seemingly untrainable Jack Russell terrier, so those trips are in our plans. I'm extremely lucky and grateful for the opportunities life has given me.