Suzanne Lee on mfg’s historic journey

22nd Apr

In her trademark matter of fact manner Suzanne Lee declares: “We are the oldest firm of solicitors in the country. We date back to 1556.”

Typically, in the very next breath, Suzanne brushes aside any thoughts that Kidderminster‐based mfg solicitors are mired in the past. Rather she proudly states that they continue to maintain a vibrant presence on the West Midlands legal landscape nearly 470 years after the firm’s foundation.

“One of my concerns, when I was appointed as the first female managing director, was the weight of all that history and how terrible it would be if the firm failed to thrive under the first female in control!”

Modestly, Suzanne confirms her concerns can also be consigned to history.

“We are not brash, we are not loud, we do not tend to blow our own trumpets, but we have a reputation for being good lawyers and good employers. We are thriving, we are a significant presence in the West Midlands legal sector.

“Longevity helps in any industry. In professional services that longevity, and our success, is down to our clients and the great service our people provide to them throughout Worcestershire, Shropshire, Birmingham and beyond.  That great service is all about the great people employed in this firm.”

The light touch is never far away during a conversation with Suzanne, a latecomer to the sector who began her legal training at 41, rose to managing director and will soon hand over the reins to a new MD whilst taking on a short-term boardroom role as chair of the Kidderminster firm.

As she reflects on the firm’s history: “I was not employed, back then (1556), I hasten to add. Our firm like most law firms, has evolved significantly since 1556.

“It was originally established in Bewdley. Back then, Bewdley was bigger than Birmingham as a centre of economic activity. Letters then were regularly addressed Birmingham near Bewdley, spices were brought up the River Severn to Bewdley, it was quite an economic powerhouse at one point.”

The proud history of the firm which today trades under the mfg banner has been written by Jim Quinn, a former Senior Partner with a national reputation for working in the agricultural field whose detailed book “A Chronicle of County Lawyers” recalls the origins of the company which grew to become one of the UK’s most enduring legal practices.

Jim, now in his 80s and still working part‐time for the company, writes: “What seems clear is that the firm in Bewdley, under whatever name, goes back many centuries.”

And centuries later, mfg is still evolving, as Suzanne reveals as she outlines its latter‐day history. “When I first joined in the 1990s, we had many offices, including Bewdley, Stourport and Kidderminster. The partnership decided in 2002 that we should close down Bewdley and Stourport.

“There was an outcry because there was a genuine concern that clients would not be prepared to travel to Kidderminster (from Bewdley). Since then, we have reduced from some eleven offices to our offices now in Kidderminster, Worcester, Telford, Bromsgrove, Ludlow, and Birmingham City Centre, employing just over 200 people.”

One of those mergers ‐ with longstanding Birmingham firm Pearson Rowe ‐ provides a clear insight into the principles and values by which mfg operates, as Suzanne explains.

“We were not planning a move into Birmingham, but a fortuitous opportunity presented itself. The Management Board were flexible enough to see and grasp that opportunity.

Suzanne Lee | BusinessWorks-Magazine
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“Pearson Rowe were a longstanding Birmingham practice with a good reputation but much smaller than our firm. Succession planning is so difficult for smaller firms – we get approached a lot, but we are quite particular. The culture must be the same, you have to like the people. That culture remains the backbone of our firm.”

That emphasis on office culture and ensuring that any acquisitions are in the best interests of both parties seems to have paid handsome dividends at mfg, where turnover hit £12.3 million last year for an organization with forty-three partners and one hundred and seventy staff across six offices.

“Our turnover of staff is a lot lower than the average. We have long‐serving staff, both as partners, fee‐earners, and support staff. We have quite a few staff who joined us as juniors, worked their way up the ranks and are now significant fee‐earners, which is amazing.

“I am a collegiate person and I do not think there would be anybody in the firm who would disagree with that. Our management team operate in a collegiate manner, and I believe that culture permeates throughout the firm.”

Like many organizations across the UK and internationally, the management team led by Suzanne found themselves working out how to navigate their way through the biggest medical emergency in 100 years when Covid‐19 struck two years ago.

“In the first lockdown, we acted very quickly to  provide  laptops and technical support  for most people. Whilst we did have to  furlough many  support staff ( during the lockdown period)   we were able to rely on a very motivated and talented group of staff within each office that ensured that the firm was effectively able to maintain pre covid work output.

“I think that was our strength really, the fact that we had the ability to transform working practices so quickly and retain a few people on site to process necessary documentation.

“When Boris Johnson told us all to go home that was all very well but there were so many people in the middle of moving house, the civil courts continued to operate (remotely) and there were a lot of corporate and commercial transactions continuing.

“I think we grew up a bit. Before the lockdown, we were really nervous about people working from home en masse. Would the IT stack up? Would they work? Of course, they did, on both counts.”

Suzanne believes the lessons of Covid have given mfg a clearer vision of the future for both the company she leads and the workplace in general.

“I think it brought forward the way we are going to have to think about how people want to work for us. A lot of people are looking for flexitime, are looking to be able to work from home on some days. Others prefer to come to the office – we must take account of what they want to do.

“We are going to make sure as a board that we accommodate what people need but still provide our great client service.  That flexibility will however need to facilitate the management of our practice and the ongoing training of  junior members of staff who do  need that sense of belonging and the feeling that they have someone to turn to from a professional point of view.

“Our view is that if you are productive, and your clients are happy then it can work. I can see moving forward that it seems unlikely that we could ever expect staff to be in the office full‐time

particularly if they are fee‐earners. It is a bit different for support staff because we need them to maintain the necessary office facilities and document production.”

Suzanne Lee mfg Solicitors | BusinessWorks-Magazine
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Suzanne may be firmly a collegiate operator – she stresses she is certainly no autocrat in her role at the helm of mfg – but her path to the top has hardly been the textbook rise of a career legal professional.

After leaving school she worked in commercial roles at Kodak and Unilever for several years in Hertfordshire and Leicestershire, giving her a career hinterland away from the legal world.

“I didn’t even do A‐levels because Kodak were paying such a phenomenal amount of money in the 70s. I was senior staff by the time I was 21. I have broader experience outside the law – you don’t always need it, but it helped me.”

By 1990, and with two children aged six and seven, she was looking for a way into law. “We had enjoyed a nice lifestyle as a family, and I thought I am going to get my own nice lifestyle – I am going to be a lawyer.

“I started off doing a four‐year part‐time law degree at Wolverhampton University in 1992. I had to remortgage my house to fund my legal practice course, which is a one‐year full‐time course.

“Morton Fisher, as they were then, offered me a training contract in Kidderminster. I was so focused and determined. I wanted a professional career. I was a trainee at 41, not perhaps the oldest trainee in the world but knocking on the door.”

But the mid‐life trainee who became managing director never let success turn her head. “I am not on an ego trip. My skills are suited to the role I am doing. I am a completer and I like people – I have always got on with my colleagues in whatever role I have had. I carry authority within the firm, but I am not an autocrat, and it works in the best possible way in my humble view.”

Notwithstanding her impressive career trajectory at mfg, Suzanne is more comfortable talking about the firm and its prospects rather than her own achievements, as she looks forward to the next chapter in her life.

One highly visible achievement is the Kidderminster office premises – Adam House, a prestigious building on the outskirts of Kidderminster and a former carpet showroom from the town’s carpet heydays.

When Suzanne first viewed this building some 10 years ago it had lost much of its former glory. Under her vision and direction mfg acquired the premises, Suzanne oversaw its renovation, and it is now a highly visible expression of the success of the firm. But Suzanne does not dwell on this achievement.

“In July I step down as managing director and Maynard Burton steps down as chair. There is a new MD who has been shadowing me since January, Andrew Davies. I am still a fee‐earner and will go back to being a contentious probate lawyer full‐time. I will become chair for a year and after that, I am quite happy to step back.

“We think we have really planned well for the future. I think the board can now think far more openly about how they push the firm forward even more. If you run too fast, you end up in trouble, particularly if you start making acquisitions and mergers.

“If you do it for the sake of it then you end up with a different cultural base for the firm and things can start to unravel and that has not happened to us. Our culture is key – we have spent quite a long time developing and nurturing it – we don’t intend to lose it if at all possible.”

It would seem that the solicitor’s firm which can be traced all the way back to 1556 is set to embrace a promising new post‐Covid future. Jim Quinn may have to sharpen his pen fairly soon to update the illustrious history of the oldest legal firm in the land……

BusinessWorks Wocestershire & Black Country spring 2022 | BusinessWorks Magazine

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