Law firm boss looks back over 30 years in business

Lorne Crerar has learned a lot in the 30 years since he founded Harper Macleod, but one lesson in particular has stayed with him throughout: “As lawyers, we’re not entitled to work”.

While that might not sound unreasonable in the legal world of today, Mr Crerar said that when he started out in the profession there was a structure to every career path that made a sense of entitlement almost inevitable.

“At that time most law firms were very ordered – you served your time and when you got to be a senior partner you earned more than everybody else,” he recalled.

It didn’t take the young Mr Crerar long to realise “that that wasn’t for me” and that he “wanted to do things differently”. So, in 1988, he and fellow Ross Harper Murphy partner Rod McKenzie launched a business called Harpers that went on to take over niche corporate practice Macleods to become Harper Macleod.

That business is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, with Mr Crerar believing its ability – and willingness – to stay on top of changes in the market has been the secret of its success.

“You have to work out what the legal demand is going to be, and we’ve been really good at that,” he said. “We’ve spent time trying to work out where the future demand is because we work in a well-serviced sector.

“You also have to understand where the dynamics of change are going to be and mould the firm around it. The unexpected, for us, has been an opportunity.”

The financial crash of a decade ago was one such example, with many firms reacting to the resultant drop-off in legal activity by cutting their own teams and waiting for their key markets to come back.

“We decided that we didn’t think the wheel was going to turn back to where it was and retrained 20 per cent of our lawyers. That said a lot about our culture,” Mr Crerar said.

The culture of the firm, Mr Crerar believes, has always been to operate as “a business that delivers legal services”. While that was a novel approach in the late 1980s, Mr Crerar said it has become far more common in recent years as firms look at ways of modernising the partnership model.

“A big change in recent years is that more and more law firms have become businesses that deliver legal services,” he said.

“Over the last 15 years you’ve seen very large numbers of Scottish firms disappear, either because they have been unable to cope with that business environment or they have been taken over by other businesses.”

Mr Crerar said that such a “seismic shift” has been of benefit to Harper Macleod, which recorded its best-ever profit figure in the 2017/18 year, when it broke the £10 million barrier for the first time in its history.

This is in part due to the firm taking advantage of other business’s inability to weather the downturn, with Harper Macleod bolstering its practice with the addition of five partners, an associate, two solicitors and two assistants from McClure Naismith when that firm collapsed in 2015.

It has also embarked on its own series of take overs, bolstering its private client practice with the acquisition of Bird Semple in 2014 and entering the Shetland market after taking over Dowle Smith & Rutherford the following year.

Such moves have helped the firm double its turnover in the last decade, from £13.8m in 2007/08 to £26.5m in 2017/18, with Mr Crerar noting that further acquisitions are on the firm’s radar.

“We don’t have Aberdeen or Dundee, which are particularly well-served jurisdictions so we would have to think very carefully about what our proposition might be,” he said.

“Nothing is imminent but we are in a place where we have embedded all our acquisitions and are looking for what the next opportunity will be.”

Having visited all Harper Macleod’s offices as part of the firm’s 30th anniversary celebrations, Mr Crerar, who at age 64 is remaining tight-lipped about his own retirement plans, said he has high hopes for the firm’s future success.

“The firm’s never been stronger, fitter or leaner,” he said. “We live in an uncertain world but if there’s more change Harper Macleod will continue to prosper and grow.”