Ian joined Lewis Silkin as an articled clerk in 1990 at a time when few City firms still had a presence on the High Street. He joined the Peckham branch, dealing with housing disrepair claims and landlord/tenant disputes. It provided invaluable experience in finding creative solutions to resolve highly emotive problems – an important skill for his later role as managing partner.
Ian joined the mainstream commercial practice at Lewis Silkin when he qualified in 1992, specialising in litigation. Those were straightened economic times and much of the work was property-related litigation, rather than the Intellectual Property (IP) work he aspired to specialise in. But, with persistence and a search for the right experience, he moved to work in the IP field full-time, becoming a partner in that practice around six years after qualification.
Even as a young partner, Ian was interested in the way law firms were run and organised. His first managerial responsibilities came when he and a number of other partners formed a central working party to build up the partnership’s IP and IT work, dubbed the ‘Media, Brands and Technology Group’ which became a strong growth story for the business in the years that followed. His experience made him a natural candidate to lead it.
Ian was elected to the role of firm-wide managing partner at the relatively tender age of 37. His age meant that he was keen to hold onto elements of his legal work alongside managing the partnership but, ultimately, the responsibilities of firm leadership took priority. He explains: “I certainly over-estimated my ability to do both. For a number of years, I was involved in an element of practice but eventually focused exclusively on the CEO role.”
At the beginning, he had little sense of what the challenges would be. Certainly, there was the annual cycle of budget and reporting, building internal time with partners and communicating with staff. While this creates challenges, it is at least predictable. On the other hand, he also had to steer the firm through the Global Financial Crisis and other periods of economic instability, which created difficult trading conditions for many clients. There are always problems that come from leftfield and, to help develop his own management skills, Ian gained a London Business School MBA to complement his specialist legal training.
Alongside driving strong financial growth in the business, he believes he and management colleagues have together nurtured a strong working culture, which in turn has sustained Lewis Silkin’s reputation as good people to do business with: “I have tried to ensure the firm operates in a way that helps people to do their jobs properly, with an operating platform that is fit for purpose. This includes technical architecture, business development, finance and people management – they all need to have the resources they need.” This strong culture and positive working environment have been recognised in national awards many times during the period of Ian’s leadership.
Ian’s role has also been to chart the broader strategic vision for the firm, making sure it is heading in the right direction. That means focusing on specialist areas and building up meaningful expertise, ensuring the partnership has good clients and good people in the right positions.
He believes these strategic calls may become more difficult in the years ahead and therefore merit dedicated resources. The legal world has become more dynamic, he suggests, with the advance of technology and demographic changes. He says: “We will need to engage and build consensus, letting people have an input in this more dynamic environment.”
Over the last few years, Ian has been involved in setting up various complementary service lines - some directly through the LLP and others via separate trading entities, such as the group’s media consultancy business. As he explains: “There is a great deal of opportunity for firms and wider professional services”.
In creating a future-proof legal firm, Ian believes the leadership team needs to call on a full range of technical management skills, as well as diverse approaches and styles: “It needs an original thinker, energetic networker, detailed obsessives. If you get that team right, you’ve got all the right skills and thinking styles.”
So, what does it take to be a good managing partner? “Certainly, technical skills – a sharp legal mind and a very good knowledge of all things partners and colleagues are doing. You also need a good working knowledge of performance management discipline and to be able to manage senior people. And the ability to articulate what you are bringing to the business is also key.”
That said, softer leadership skills are also very important, particularly within the management group and partnership. Change is only possible by building consensus around a positive view for the future, particularly where tough decisions are involved. “Be as open as you can with people, try to create some point of positive focus and a two-way information flow.”
After fifteen years of firm-wide leadership at Lewis Silkin, Ian stepped down from the CEO role towards the end of 2019, working with his management team colleagues over a number of months to ensure a smooth transition of responsibilities.
He says: “I found being managing partner and CEO very enjoyable. It’s a privilege to be always at the centre of affairs and to represent the firm in senior business circles. Also, it’s been rewarding to preside over a successful period for the firm, when it has grown continuously and achieved recognition for a range of outstanding achievements”.
Since stepping down, Ian has been drawing on his leadership experience to develop a number of new business ventures for the firm, with particular emphasis on legal technology and new service delivery models. In that work, he continues to network actively in the firm leadership community.
By necessity, this briefing can only provide a short overview and it is essential to seek professional advice before applying the contents of this article. This briefing does not constitute advice nor a recommendation relating to the acquisition or disposal of investments. No responsibility can be taken for any loss arising from action taken or refrained from on the basis of this publication. Details correct at time of writing.
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