This year B P Collins LLP has been celebrating its 50th anniversary with a series of events and activities under its Made to Last banner.
Founder Brian Collins has also been sharing his story of how he took a one-man practice and transformed it into the successful business it is today. Here, in the final part of his discussion with senior partner Chris Hardy, we hear about the firm’s move to its present day home in Gerrards Cross and hear why the quality of service and the ability to communicate is as important today as it’s ever been.
We pick up as Brian talks about the change from a network of offices into one central operation:
Chris: The firm was restructured in the late 1980s/early 1990s, what was the thinking behind that?
Brian: It was partly the onset of new technology and the changes that was bringing, but it was also about perception.
By then, we were probably one of the biggest firms in the area, but because we had lots of little branches, all people saw was a small office above a shop or adjoining an industrial estate. That made it difficult to attract larger commercial clients as they thought we didn’t have the size of organisation to handle their work.
Moving to Station Road, in Gerrards Cross, gave us the opportunity to present ourselves to our clients in a much better way, it gave us more credibility and persuaded people that we could cope with a certain type of work.
I would like to pay tribute to Ian Johnson, who masterminded the restructuring and the move into Station Road. He also took over from me as senior partner when I retired in 1999.
As to technology, that also made it easier. I remember when Edwin and I were persuaded to buy the latest piece of new technology many years ago – an IBM Golfball typewriter – we thought we were being very brave!
Chris: How much hands-on lawyer work were you doing by then?
Brian: Plenty, I prided myself on being one of the top fee earners all the way through.
Chris: Over time, the nature of the firm was changing. At one time there was a “typical” B P Collins’ partner but this started to change as different specialisms brought different personalities. Was it difficult to keep that collegiality?
Brian: During the major expansion times our main income was still from conveyancing and property development, partners had to put some of their profits back into the firm because I had this vision of needing to expand and bring in new specialists. It was a question of finding the right balance between immediate income needs and long term investment.
Not everyone agreed with the restructuring and indeed, in 1986, Edwin left as he wanted to run his own practice. He took over our Maidenhead office, where he was then working, and he is still a very good friend.
Chris: I also think a lot of credit should go to you. I was only 29 when I joined and it would have been easy for you and the other partners to take a selfish attitude and not offer equity to younger people like me, who they were bringing in. Instead, you were all far sighted enough to recognise the need to expand and encourage talented people to come in as partners.
For me as a local person, I think it’s very important to be involved in the local community. I think for a time there was a perception we weren’t interested in local business, as senior partner it’s always something I’m keen to address and I’m certainly very involved today. My view is that the firm has grown out of a sense of being part of the community and you should ignore that at your peril.
Brian: I agree. During my working life I was very involved in the local community and I know that other partners were too.
Chris: A lot of work is counter-cyclical. In recessionary times, non-transactional work such as litigation thrived, but now the economic climate is more prosperous again, there’s a definite increase in work such as property and mergers and acquisitions. It’s always important to take a long term view, was that a major challenge for you growing the business?
Brian: It’s important to recognise the contribution that what I call the ‘bread, butter and jam’ work makes. A commercial department may have a fantastic deal one month but this can be followed by a quiet time, whereas things such as conveyancing, probate and will work is always there and I think having a good spread of services enabled us to handle the recessionary times much better than some.
The biggest challenge was always the people side, trying to keep everyone happy and pulling in the right and same direction, but that’s the case in every firm. I always saw the senior partner’s role as a leader and mediator – you might not always be successful, but you have to try.
Chris: How has the legal landscape changed?
Brian: Tremendously. For many years lawyers weren’t allowed to advertise and that was the only time (thankfully) that I’ve ever been in front of the Law Society disciplinary committee. Our Marlow office had a large blank shop window and the Marlow Art Society used it to display their pictures – another solicitor complained and said we were using the exhibition to entice people to our offices. The second time, unbeknown to us, an estate agent used our name in an advertising campaign and there was a complaint. Fortunately, both times the Law Society found in our favour and I’m delighted that in 36 years of practice those were the only two occasions I had to go and see them.
Chris: Public perception of the law has also changed a great deal. When you started, Brian, there was a mystique about it as a profession and people didn’t question you, but now when people contact you they sometimes already think they know it all. In my view, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing!
I believe that it is quality of service and the ability to communicate are the two things which make you stand out from the crowd and I’m very proud of the way we do that at B P Collins.
Brian: People certainly looked up to us years ago, it was quite fun being a lawyer in an area like this, most of the professionals lived locally and did a lot of socialising together, but that’s all changed.
Chris: Another thing that’s changed is the amount of compliance and regulation that we have to take into account. A firm our size can employ support staff with the right expertise to manage it but smaller firms find it less easy – it would be hard now to start a law firm in the same way that you did then.
Also, technology has changed so much. With email you feel very pressured to answer straight away and the danger in risk management terms is you fire off an answer which then comes back to haunt you.
Brian: Absolutely. When I was working, your secretary typed your draft, it went by post to the other person’s solicitor, then came back with red amends. We then made further amends in blue and sent it back, before it was returned with green amends. It took about a month and you almost ran out of colours – now it’s much easier with track changes but it’s also resulted in lawyers becoming typists!
Chris: Technology aside, what do you think has been another major change?
Brian: It has to be the number of females joining the profession. In 1977 just 4% of lawyers were female but now it’s over 50%.
Chris: Definitely – now over 65% of B P Collins staff are female.
Brian: Employers are now also much more flexible in areas such as job share and part-time work. It’s been a dramatic change.
Chris: Yes, I think being able to offer flexible working has enabled us to take on really high quality people who have families and want to work closer to home without the commute to London.
Where do you see the firm going next?
Brian: You have to look at what the clients want and provide them with the service they need. That’s what will dictate future direction. Whatever happens though, as a well-established and well-respected firm we should be in a good position to react to whatever changes come about.
Chris: I think it is a tribute to you, Brian, and those who worked with you that B P Collins was always able to react to changes and thrived in spite of the different challenges of the marketplace.
How would you sum up your success?
Brian: I am extremely proud of what’s been achieved.
When I started out I certainly didn’t think in terms of a 50 year vision. So many people have contributed to our success in so many ways, and even those who didn’t always agree with me have remained friends. We have always had an enormous amount of loyalty and it is a tribute to both the partners and our support staff that we have done so well – it truly has been a joint effort.
Chris: You retired on your 60th birthday in April 1999, how do you fill your time these days?
Brian: I like to keep active. I play golf once a week and go to art classes. I manage a couple of the firm’s previous offices. We have a large garden to look after and my wife and I have a pretty active social life. I am lucky that I enjoy good health and I am really enjoying my retirement years.
Chris: Brian, thank you for your time and your insight into the B P Collins story. It has been a privilege to talk to you and even more to have worked alongside you in those early years. May you continue to enjoy your retirement and thank you for sharing our celebrations.