Robert Skone James

HOF Lawyers Robert Skone Jones 1920X1080

The disruption wrought by the global financial crisis in 2007/8 forced GJE to formalise the managing partner and chairman roles. Having joined in 1977 as a patent attorney, Robert was the natural choice. However, as a small partnership, all the partners still have a hand in setting the strategic direction of the firm. Those 12 partners meet regularly to discuss what they’re doing. This structure has been important for Robert, allowing him to retain client work throughout his tenure as chairman.

He explains: “The firm expects the managing partners to hold down a practice as well. Initially, there were three partners on the management committee – a chairman and two managing partners. We have also drawn in people from outside, including a practice director. He helps translate our decisions into action and will also bring issues to the attention of the management committee.”

The commitment of managing the practice is time-limited. Robert’s appointment was originally for three years but he stayed a little longer to manage the transition with one of the other managing partners who wanted to hand over responsibilities earlier than planned. After five years, it was decided to reduce the size of the management committee to two managing partners plus the practice director and, at that time, Robert was elected to his current position of Chairman. This is more of a non-executive role, separate from the management committee.

While the approach remains collegiate, Robert has brought in and supported some changes to allow for smoother and more efficient decision-making. While he has managed to do this within the terms of the existing members’ agreement, he is now helping partners to usher in a new blueprint, which formalises many of these changes.

This structure has helped the group through some of its tougher decisions. Robert says: “We had to make 10% of staff redundant in 2011. We’d endured the financial crisis and everyone was looking at the bottom line. Unfortunately, we just had too many people. It was the most difficult job of my tenure but, given the circumstances, I don’t think it could have been handled better. People were unhappy, of course, but the firm worked very hard to help them find new positions.”

He believes a considered, thoughtful approach has been invaluable in keeping the partnership on an even keel: “It is human nature that as soon as a management committee is formed, it becomes the focus for any problems!” He has had to call frequently on his diplomatic skills: “I have the ear of all the partners. I’m quite patient and am always looking for ways to find a new consensus. I recognise that building a consensus takes longer but I think it creates a more enduring solution. That is really important. Sometimes, people will think: ‘I don’t like it but I understand it, so I’ll go along with it.’ It is the nature of the job to have to win people round.”

GJE has some natural advantages in the modern legal sector. The firm is highly specialist, focusing exclusively on intellectual property law, with a strong reputation in its field. However, Robert readily admits there are significant challenges ahead for the legal sector in general.

Notably, he believes the LLP structure may need some review. While he is generally supportive of the partnership model, it does require collaboration between partners and there is always an element of tension between the owners and the management. The management team may want to implement certain changes but, as owners, the partners can block them. This can make it difficult to secure strategic investments in areas such as technology.

It is also an imperfect system when rewarding junior people for good performance. Robert questions whether the partnership model is sufficient incentivisation for the next generation, many of whom may just want to receive reasonable pay, have little managerial responsibility and sensible working hours. “We haven’t got many people coming through who want to manage and that is a challenge.” He can see a change to a more corporate-style arrangement, separating ownership from partnership, which may go some way to resolving these tensions.

Nevertheless, he believes GJE is ahead of the curve: “Our clients have high demands and require a lot of attention to detail. We are getting the systems in place that enable us to do that efficiently.”

By necessity, this briefing can only provide a short overview and it is essential to seek professional advice before applying the contents of this article. This briefing does not constitute advice nor a recommendation relating to the acquisition or disposal of investments. No responsibility can be taken for any loss arising from action taken or refrained from on the basis of this publication.