Ray Black, as Partner and Chief Executive of Barlow Robbins, helped reshape the business with the latest action being the completion of the merger with Moore Blatch to form Moore Barlow, which will place it among the top seventy law firms in the UK.
The management of a law firm can benefit from a non-legal perspective. Ray Black has become a specialist in reshaping professional services firms and helping them build resilience for the future. He helped build Barlow Robbins into a multi-disciplinary legal group with robust management and a technical infrastructure that will be integrated into Moore Barlow.
His early experience of management was gained as a young man running a factory in northwest England. This taught him a number of key skills: “I realised I was good at organising systems and people. I had to look at things logically.” That experience gave an early insight into how to make a business run more efficiently, as well as the type of reputational problems they encountered and how to address them.
After working in the factory, Ray completed a degree in Environmental Studies, specialising in Ecology and Biological Resources. After graduating in 1984, he worked in executive search roles in the City of London, specialising in appointments in the finance and insurance sectors. However, the stock market crash of 1987 resulted in a serious downturn in business and, as a result, Ray decided to further hone his business management skills at Durham University studying for an MBA.
After graduating with an MBA, he became involved with a firm of Rural Practice Chartered Surveyors, covering northern England, as its financial controller. Ray explains: “They’d got in a muddle putting in a new accounting system and network so my first task was to sort that out.” He found that he enjoyed it, quickly becoming involved with the turnaround required, and was promoted to Finance Director. After helping with a number of mergers, he eventually became the Managing Director. “I found restructuring and building a business to be intellectually interesting. I enjoy the commercial challenge, it requires a constructive and creative skill-set.”
Ray’s move into law came about by chance. He became involved with the Law Society as part of the 2003/4 Clementi review into legal services. He was asked to join a panel looking at how alternative business structures might work in professional practices. “I was there representing the chartered surveying profession but I started to understand the changes about to take place in the legal sector. It was quite clear that I could apply my skill-set to this and an added bonus was that the Legal Services Act would result in a non-lawyer having the opportunity to become a partner in a law firm. It aroused my interest.”
Ray moved from chartered surveying to work for a short period of time for a northeast-based UK law firm, giving him an insight into the profession. This provided the determination to go into the legal sector and at the same time he decided to move south with his family. "I sent out a mailshot to 110 law firms in the south of England, which generated a lot of interest. Barlow Robbins was one of the firms I spoke to. They had just merged and needed effective financial controls to be put into place. The two firms coming together didn’t have the required management processes in place. It was a very natural fit for me and I knew I could add value to the organisation in the first instance by introducing appropriate financial and management reports and controls.”
There have been some significant challenges along the way. The group advised a Lehman Brothers subsidiary, which formed about 10% of its turnover. The account was lost with the investment bank’s infamous collapse, coupled with the impact of a recession setting in. A major restructuring and turnaround were required. It was a painful period but the firm found a way through and the business continued to progress. With the passing of the Legal Services Act, Ray finally became a full equity partner in 2010 and was appointed to the role of CEO.
As one of the first non-lawyers at the helm of a law firm, he says: “A legal firm is not a complex business model but it is important to gain credibility among the partners. Lawyers are intelligent and often competitive people. A robust personality is required and it’s helpful to have an understanding of the application of law to commercial enterprises and private clients. I dealt with a lot of lawyers during my career in chartered surveying and when working in London. You have to think strategically. What I do enjoy is working with people and I have also developed a wide network; I feel I’ve contributed to the firm in a lot of different ways. A CEO needs to lead by example and take difficult decisions but also be prepared to bring in good people to build an effective leadership team”.
“Investment in technology and systems was the agreed strategy”, he explains. “All systems are scalable and most are used by 25% of the top 100 law firms and 50% of the top 10 law firms in the UK, some of which also operate internationally. This investment has paid dividends, as full system utilisation in Moore Barlow provides a solid operational platform and real potential for achieving our future growth plans.”
Having successfully completed the merger, Ray is now acting as a Transformation and Integration Consultant.
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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