Culture and Leadership with Jackson Lees Solicitors

Jackson Lees article

Culture and Leadership

Group Chief Operating Officer Joanna Kingston-Davies and Brian Cullen, CEO of MAPD, which recently acquired the Jackson Lees Group, a multi-disciplinary law firm with circa 300 staff in the northwest, share their experiences and approach to driving through the firm’s culture across all their teams. In focus is how they have empowered their people to ‘be themselves’ throughout the past several months during the Covid-19 pandemic.

When we completed our first acquisition in March, Jackson Lees via a MBO, having secured funding to embark on our acquisition strategy, little did we expect the first fortnight of our ownership to coincide with a national lockdown…

More than ten weeks on, it’s safe to say that it’s been quite the rollercoaster and a huge learning curve for us all! It would be easy to feel despondent about it (and let’s be honest, we’ve had our moments) but overall, we feel incredibly lucky. Whilst it’s still painful, Jackson Lees is big enough, with the right people, systems and infrastructure in place, to be well placed to get through these crazy times, but we know that so many law firms are not in the same boat – and we hope to be able to help and work with some of those who are finding it tough.

At Jackson Lees, our people have been our inspiration over the last few weeks. Save for the usual sense checks through surveys and conversations, it struck us that nobody really gets to properly test a culture until an emergency of this nature happens; and whilst we’ve never ever have wished for this, we’ve found it really rewarding to see years of investment into our culture and our people pay dividends. Our culture is built upon two very simple foundations: alignment of sense of purpose to our core value of Making a Positive Difference (#MAPD) and allowing our people to be themselves. That manifests itself in many different ways, from the raw and heart-wrenchingly honest blogs that so many of our people at all levels of the organisation post on our Workplace intranet, to the many kind gestures that people make towards their colleagues on a daily basis which create a real sense of togetherness and belonging.

We’ve always been passionate about regular and transparent communication with our people and our biggest success of all through lockdown has definitely been the way our people have responded. For years, we’ve been champions of vulnerable and authentic leadership; sharing our own emotions and stories to humanise situations, make them feel more real and encourage people to really be themselves.  If we don’t talk about our own bad days, good days, experience as parents and emotional reactions, other people probably wouldn’t do so either.  The feedback on this through lockdown has been that it’s helped people tremendously and made them feel part of something really special.  It’s not all altruistic by any stretch; we’re a business like any other and profit and cash are critical, but we have definitely found that the result of a happier and engaged workforce is a really positive impact on cash and billing.

When we introduced new career paths for Directors, Associate Directors and Associates, for example, we knew it would help to give our people more direction and that we could empower them to contribute more in helping to shape our direction; but we didn’t necessarily expect them to thrive together as a group or to contribute to the extent that they have.  We first introduced these career paths to ensure that we created a rewarding framework for people to aspire to, and feel part of, when equity partnership isn’t an option.  The framework follows our standard recruitment principles.  We don’t interview in the traditional way and curriculum vitae are of little interest to us; we’re far more fascinated by people’s “Why”.

Understanding what makes people tick and what gets them out of bed in the morning is, for us, a much more effective way of recruiting, and promoting, than looking for technical skills which are usually a given but can be taught on the job if necessary.

Really getting to the core of someone’s sense of purpose and the degree to which it aligns with our own core value of #MAPD is absolutely fundamental to successful recruitment and promotion. It’s also a real leveller because the framework applies to everyone within the business regardless of seniority, experience or job role.  We scrapped annual appraisals a while back and metrics-based purely on financial performance some time ago.  Everyone in the business now has a Roadmap which is an ever-evolving document that the individual owns and takes responsibility for.  It attaches as much importance to how we do things as it does to what we do; and it ties personal aspirations and objectives into the MAPD Academy so that we can make sure we encourage our people to thrive through appropriate training or mentoring interventions.

We’ve learnt that, whilst some of our greatest leaders and contributors happen to be lawyers with considerable years of experience, so are some of our administrators, paralegals, marketers, finance team and junior lawyers.  We see our model as universally applicable regardless of the shape or size of the business.  It’s simply about fairness, empowering budding leaders so that they thrive and contribute further.   It’s about everyone finding what they’re good at and becoming even better at it rather than trying to fit square pegs into round holes.  We so often hear lawyers within our sector talking about how much they hate networking or managing people.  For us, if being a lawyer is what they’re good at, we’d far rather they focus on it and make more of an impact doing it well.

Conversely, we have seen some great lawyers move to operational roles and excel at it because that’s what they love, and they add more value to the business in that role than they do putting hours on the clock.  We can also positively impact their development through the various tracks of learning and development interventions available through our MAPD Academy that they follow as pre-requisites both before and after becoming Associates or Associate Directors.  That way, we know that we are truly helping them to be their best selves and do their best work.

It’s amazing what has happened when we’ve really trusted our people and empowered them to make positive change.  One of the best initiatives from our last Associate cohort is the way they now lead the recruitment process; they, rather than Heads of Department, have a culture chat with all potential new joiners around their “Why” and only if there is a mutual fit do direct line managers then become involved.  Our Associates work in pairs and the most unlikely Associates are paired together so that they bring real variety and open-mindedness to the table.  The feedback from new recruits is wonderful; they can’t get over the fact that they never felt that they had actually been interviewed, that the recruitment process is consistent with the reality they discover when they actually join the business and that we meet them off-site for a coffee on their first day and come in with them to take any nerves away.

We’ve seen so many examples of tremendous leadership at different levels of the organisation that it’s really encouraged us to double down on our efforts to empower our people when we return to the “new normal” (whatever that looks like!).

We have an incredible People team who champion our approach to culture and engagement. They work tirelessly on it and they absolutely drive the MAPD training academy and our roadmaps, but for us, they are there to facilitate it and not to “do” it. A strong and positive culture has to be embedded within our everyday lives such that every single person at every level and in every team within the organisation owns it, understands the importance of the role they play in it and feels part of it. It’s not just the role of the People team or the senior leadership team; it has to transcend hierarchy, department or office.

Embedding culture at Jackson Lees has not been without pain and it’s been a journey where we’ve taken a few wrong turns along the way, but we really are now seeing the positives from years of investment and it’s humbling and a real joy to watch.  We’re super excited, now that our attention has turned to acquisitions, about being able to help future businesses within the MAPD Group to further develop and shape their culture.

Brian Cullen & Joanna Kingston-Davies, MAPD Group
Joanna Kingston-Davies, Group Chief Operating Officer, The MAPD Group

joanna kingston-leesJoanna joined the Jackson Lees Group following its acquisition of Lees Solicitors LLP, of which she was CEO, in 2016. In these roles, she has overseen major structural and procedural change over the last 10 years. Prior to Lees, Joanna headed up the HR function at Lovells in Paris where she was involved in facilitating significant growth and change that saw the business transform into one of the largest Parisian law firms and an integral part of the firm’s international office network. A regular speaker and columnist, Joanna is experienced in leadership, business transformation and operational management. Passionate about vulnerable and authentic leadership, Joanna strongly believes in empowering diverse teams to make a positive impact.

Brian Cullen, Group Chief Executive Officer, The MAPD Group

With a career in general management that took him to the Caribbean and the Middle East via his hometown of Dublin, Brian Cullen joined The Jackson Lees Group as COO in 2014 and became Group CEO in May 2016.  He is using his experience in the banking and technology sectors to bring a hugely refreshing and unique approach to legal services at Jackson Lees. He instigated a robust and ambitious employee engagement strategy at the Group, oversaw the acquisition of Lees Solicitors LLP in 2016 and drove a compound annual growth rate of 33% over the following 3 years. Brian has set an aggressive growth strategy for the MAPD Group going forward to expand both within the North West and nationally with the big hairy audacious goal of getting MAPD as a verb in the dictionary!

Stephen Pritchard of Matrix247, the communication infrastructure supplier-partner to Jackson Lees Solicitors for the last eight years, added:  After Jackson Lees’ first acquisition, the existing communication infrastructure came into its own – theirs was a single platform that managed staff remotely across multiple locations, either in disparate offices or remote/home-based locations. This enabled changes required by anyone to be simply done by their own staff via a remote log-on, as opposed to having to manage each on-premise phone system individually at each location.

Being license-based, there was also the option for additional staff or users to be ’turned off or on’ immediately so that the firm only ever paid for what was needed – an invaluable feature while staff were being furloughed during lockdown.  And with a secure IP-based phone system at its core, staff were able to actually take their handsets home, plug them into a home router and work there as if they were sat at their desk. In addition, it allowed some staff who simply required their land line office numbers diverting to their mobiles to be switched on immediately on a per person basis.

Many of the staff mobile phones have now been twinned with office phones. This has greatly facilitated home-working and the maintaining of both professional standards and privacy, as while using their mobile phones the system has still allowed for the outward presentation of their work landline phone number, rather than their mobile number.

In the second article of this series, Joanna and Brian share their Acquisition Outlook incorporating; adapting to the new shape of the market, the impact of agile working, and how to embed meaningful change in an organisation.

Stephen Pritchard, Matrix247


For over 3 decades, award-winning Matrix247 have delivered the following solutions to over 100 law firms nationally. Secure hosted & on-premise telephony, high-speed data networks, SRA compliant mobile devices, video collaboration and we integrate to case management systems for a truly converged experience.

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