The Signature Story
Williamsons is fundamentally a litigation law firm with a commercial bias but in recent years we’ve expanded our commercial and residential property, wills, probate and similar services (I’ve always disliked the term “private client”) and corporate commercial work.
From the perspective of the high street, where we are situated in this charming Somerset town, it’s perhaps easier to define us by what we don’t do. Primarily that would be crime and family.
As a mainly claimant litigator, I find it ironic that most of my own work areas are now under attack. It’s not just the competition - they’ve always been there – but the government with its curbs on costs recovery, massive hikes in court fees and the starving of administrative resources. Happily, the freedom I have in managing and steering this business has enabled us to adapt – hopefully to survive.
Our mission is a fairly simple one. We strive for excellence in technical performance and in the manner of delivery. However unwanted the client’s necessary interface with the legal process may be, we’ll try to make it not just bearable but as pleasurable as possible.
The theory is that as well as making others happy, we’ll enjoy what we’re doing and perhaps earn a few quid from it to pay the bills. So……how did we get here?
About 32 years ago I climbed off a train at Crewkerne station, headed for an interview that I hoped would secure me articles of clerkship (which in those days was the rather quaint title for what we now call “training contract”).
It was a hot and sunny Thursday afternoon, the first in September. I had concluded some while earlier that travelling via London and enjoying a night out on the Town with my best friend perhaps hadn’t been the smartest move on the eve of this big day. My three-piece wool suit, tie and inexplicably heavy grip bag only served to confirm that view.
I’d made the simple error of assuming that Crewkerne train station was in Crewkerne. As the train rumbled off in the direction of Exeter, there was no immediate sign of life. Only the tumbleweed was missing.
At the foot of the road bridge a couple hundred yards from the station things were more lively. Leaning against the fence at the side of the road was an old boy watching the occasional car pass by. I politely interrupted to ask directions. Pointing to his right he told me, “be that way – and keep walking”.
So I did, with the bright sun beating down on me, my wool suit, my grip bag and faint but enduring headache.
Twenty minutes or so later I arrived at the top of the main street and paused to take in the sight that greeted me. It was fair week, as it had been in hundreds of years past and still is today, and this attractive little country town was packed with stalls and rides.
I confess to having had some misgivings as I threaded my way through to the solicitors’ office at the other end to deliver my excuses for late arrival. I remember fondly the interview that followed - at times Pythonesque - but that’s another story. Within an hour I was blinking in the sunshine again, beginning my trek back to Lancashire.
Three and a half weeks later, having found digs and transported all my most precious personal possessions halfway down the country, I’d be walking back through the same door to begin an association that lasted fourteen years.
Clarke Willmott (& Clarke) had a provincial empire of fifteen offices, including Crewkerne, at the time I climbed aboard. The plan to close or dispose of the outposts and begin the transformation into a regional firm was under way before I joined the equity in 1991 but seven years later a majority of my forty partners decided that it was time for the curtain to come down on Crewkerne.
Family and lifestyle ambitions motivated three of us to undertake the partnership equivalent of an MBO and there followed eleven successful years of The Stokes Partnership in the same location. We recruited, we grew, it was good.
CWC was a big solid firm with a reputation for technical excellence and, quite simply, winning. For me it was also my academy of the practical and political skills of law firm management. But with forty partners, scheduled to meet four times a year yet always with a handful unavoidably missing and no modern executive structure, manoeuvring this mighty vessel was not a quick and simple task.
Three, subsequently four, at my last firm was on the face of it a more manageable number but still things didn’t happen quickly enough for me. Sometimes they didn’t happen in the way I wanted them to. Other times they didn’t happen at all.
It dawned on me that the one thing I needed was autonomy and after a long period of deliberation I summoned the courage to approach my partners. “Guys”, I said “I’ve had an idea. Can we sit down and talk about it without killing each other?”
We did and a little over seven years ago now I moved from one corner of the town square to the diagonally opposite corner along with a handful of mad people who said that they wanted to come with me. Williamsons launched on 1 December 2009 (my 19th wedding anniversary).
Nowadays, partnership – or rather board - meetings are comparatively simple affairs. Most of the time it’s one long meeting that travels from place to place, occasionally interrupted by sleep and a few other activities. Where key operational decisions are required, the director is joined by practice manager. Invariably clear decisions are made and then it’s just a matter of timescales and implementation.
“So that’s decided then. When shall we do it? I tell you what - let’s do it right now.”
Occasionally the shareholder reflects on how the director is getting on. So far he has always concluded that his director is doing OK and that’s probably because - above all - he’s happy.
Michael Williamson is founder and owner of Somerset firm Williamsons and author of the Legalchap blog.