The law firm boss who’s not moving anywhere but up

Elizabeth Fournier
LAST weekend, Bryan Hughes found himself hanging 50ft above the ground, attached to nothing but a rope. In an effort to face his son’s fear of heights he’d taken him on the high wires at Center Parcs, but when they reached the highest point Hughes found himself feeling a growing sense of panic.

“I made the mistake of looking down and all I could think was that I was not enjoying it at all, and how there were lots of other ways I’d be happy to prove myself. But in the end you just have to jump off and dangle there to convince yourself it’s safe.”

It’s an uncharacteristic admission of weakness from the Eversheds chief executive who has led the law firm since 2009 – long enough to hone a polished management style that seems perfectly at home in Eversheds’ slick Wood Street offices.

Hughes’ job title is the first hint that Eversheds is positioning itself at the forefront of the growing trend for law firms to re-brand themselves as mainstream corporate concerns. The traditional managing and senior partner roles still exist, but the Eversheds management team is packaged into terms a lot more familiar to UK plc – a telling move by a top 10 firm looking to secure its future in Britain’s brave new legal landscape.

“Most of the big firms have adopted more of a corporate structure,” explains Hughes. “We are not the biggest firm in the world but we are a reasonable-sized business. Having said that, we’re still a partnership and the culture side is very important to us. It means there are limitations, but the checks far outweigh the balances.”

Hughes heads up the firm’s managerial board, comprising the managing partner, finance director, regional director and head of international. From this executive – answerable to the partners through chairman John Heaps – the structure of the firm cascades downwards via a senior mentoring team made up of sector and regional heads, a group that Hughes calls the “decision making body of the firm”.

His move towards the management side of the business started at a regional level – he was made managing partner of the Cardiff office 12 years ago – but has since followed a steady progression through chief operating officer and UK managing partner to his current position at the top.

It’s not a path he’s keen to reverse, despite admitting that he sometimes misses the client-facing side of the law.

“I probably couldn’t go back to that,” he says. “I think they would have to completely retrain me and send me back because the intellectual challenge and excitement of running a business – a big, multi-sided and multi-national business – is quite compelling.”

Hughes’ enthusiasm for the firm might have something to do with the amount of time that he’s dedicated to it. Though it’s not uncommon for a lawyer to stick with one firm for the majority of their career, even in an industry known for its loyalty Hughes’ 27 years of unbroken service is notable.

He joined Eversheds’ Cardiff office as a trainee fresh out of law school in 1984 and has stuck with the firm ever since, with even his move to London not coming until well into his shift towards the management side of the business.

Unsurprisingly, Hughes is keen to present his linear rise to the top – he’s never even taken time away from Eversheds on a client secondment – as a positive. “You understand the business, the people, and the alliances,” he says. “It means you are able to get things done within the inevitable organisational politics.”

As his wife and three sons still live in the Welsh capital, Hughes – who despite his allegiance displays no hint of a local accent – has since joined the ranks of the weekday commuter and calls a flat in Smithfields his London home, but still tries to get back to Cardiff every Thursday night for a weekend with the family.

That is, of course, when he’s not travelling around Eversheds’ growing network of international offices.

“This is my first day back in London for about three weeks,” he explains. “It was Chicago last week, Dubai the week before, and prior to that we had a couple of Harvard professors with us for a three-day consultancy session. Before that, I think I was in Zurich.”

Hughes’ slightly jumbled itinerary, along with a newly acquired talent for picking up colds from air-conditioned planes, is a symptom of the increasingly international focus of the firm – one of the major shifts he has seen in his time at Eversheds and a mission he was keen to take on when he took the CEO job.

“We need to try not to think of ourselves as a UK firm with a global network, but as an international law firm. When I started in Cardiff, partners would go out to branch offices down in the docks and the Birchgrove area. Now our guys go off to Hong Kong and Paris – all over the world.”

The firm is currently waiting for its Beijing licence to be cleared by the Chinese authorities, with all fingers crossed for an office opening sometime this year.

Closer to home, Hughes admits the outlook is far from certain. Though Eversheds reported an upbeat seven per cent rise in revenue at its half-year results last November, Hughes says the rate of growth is likely to drop slightly to around three to four per cent for the full year, after the Eurozone crisis kicked in at the end of last summer and “put the brakes on a bit”.

Still, it’s something of a turnaround for the firm, which saw flat revenues in 2010 and a decline of between six and seven per cent in the two preceeding years.

Bearish markets are something Hughes has had to deal with throughout his tenure as chief executive, and despite having worked through the economic downturn of the early 90s and the dotcom crash, he calls the most recent financial crisis “unprecedented”.

“I remember going to board meetings where I was reporting on the cash and giving numbers that were lower than last time, and then when the next meeting came around having to adjust the forecasts again.

“I used to joke when I started off, when I began the chief executive role, that I would spend all of my four-year term dealing with the threat of recession.” With his post due for re-election next April, it’s not such a joke anymore.

“I don’t think people are optimistic. If you read the reports here, there and everywhere, they preach doom and gloom, and all the indicators are pretty negative. I think if you’re just sitting there waiting for the good times to return, waiting for the cycle to go from there to there, you’re going to be waiting for a long time.”

In a shaky macroeconomic environment and an increasingly competitive legal sector, UK law firms are being forced to shake up the way they operate and look for new opportunities for growth. For Eversheds, this means following a series of three-year plans put together following months of consultations with partners, management and external consultants.

It’s a process that’s taken up most of Hughes’ time over the past 10 months as the current plan – which kicked off when he began his stint as chief exec – comes to a close this summer.

Continuing to push international integration remains at the top of a lengthy list of objectives, and was a common theme to come out of the myriad one-on-one meetings that Hughes held with the firm’s equity holders. Far from a battle to consolidate clashing priorities into a single coherent plan, the feedback he encountered was gratifyingly consistent, he claims.

“One of the many positives of the consultation was the fact that although there are many different views, we saw a huge degree of alignment in terms of what people feel are the priorities of the business and where next,” he says.

The resulting plan not only has to build on the firm’s return to growth over the past 12 months, but must also stand it in good stead to negotiate a legal sector that’s becoming more and more diversified by the day, with last October’s implementation of the Legal Services Act marking the culmination of years of protracted change.

Combined with a financial sector still shaken by the economic crisis, it has left many law firms contemplating the fact that the easier days of fee increases and lengthy client relationships could be gone forever.

“Lawyers used to have the upper hand when it came to negotiation,” says Hughes. “That has clearly shifted. To put it simply, there are too many lawyers and too little work.

“What we’re doing now is having to face what our general and corporate clients have faced for the last 15-20 years – actually having to produce more for less.”

On top of that is the challenge of fending off new entrants to the markets, after the introduction of alternative business structures (ABS) – dubbed the Tesco law – allowed non-law firms to start offering legal services for the first time.

Just last week, the first ABSs were licensed, with The Co-operative Group announcing it will soon be able to offer legal advice in all of its bank branches. Though high-street law tends to be limited at the moment to personal injury and family practice, Hughes is already thinking ahead to new entrants threatening the traditional corporate markets.

“If you look at transactions that involve lawyers, there are now other people circling that supply chain – the brokers, the consultants, the investors, and the banks. With all of these people taking roles that we used to do and charging separate fees, we have to look hard at how we can provide a wider base of legal business solutions.”

In September 2010, the firm launched Eversheds Consulting, which offers specialised training and advice to companies on how best to manage their in-house legal teams, and just last October it added Eversheds Agile, providing temporary legal teams to companies on a contract basis. Though both businesses are part of the firm at the moment, the new rules mean there’s now potential for either to be spun off and run as separate entities.

After what Hughes himself describes as “quite a hairy ride” over the past three years, you might think he would be ready to return to a more client-facing role – or even break a 27-year habit and look for a new challenge elsewhere.

But the energetic 50-year old is adamant that his ambitions remain firmly with Eversheds ­– at least until he’s had a chance to see the firm through the implementation of its next three-year plan.

“I want to be there to see the end of the journey,” he insists.

“You’re involved in a very intense consultation process where you’re setting the game plan for the next three years. There’s no clear destination, but you keep going and keep driving.”

AGE: 50

WORK HISTORY: Joined Eversheds as a trainee in 1984; upon qualification specialised in commercial litigation; took over the Cardiff office's collection arm in early 1990s; appointed managing partner of the Cardiff office in 2000 and joined the firm's National Senior Management team; joined Eversheds’ National Executive in 2003 when he was appointed chief operating officer; became UK managing partner in 2006 and was elected chief executive in May 2009

EDUCATION: Read law at Cardiff University

FAMILY: Married with three sons aged nine, 11 and 14

LIVES: House in Cardiff and flat in Smithfield in the City

HOBBIES: Coaching and watching children's football, running and generally keeping fit, losing golf balls, plus spending time with family.