A networking encounter led to a fruitful venture for the co-founders of gunnercooke, a group aiming to shake up the legal profession using its innovative business model. They explain their approach to client satisfaction and staff development – and stress the importance of delegating the day-to-day management of a fast-growing firm
Darryl Cooke While working in private legal practice, I had become disenchanted with the way in which legal services were being operated in the corporate world.
Sarah Goulbourne As a buyer of legal services, I’d always been a client. I was very clear about what I wanted from a law firm, how I wanted that to be delivered, which lawyers I wanted and how I wanted to pay for their work.
Cooke Sarah and I met through our membership of a networking group that my firm at the time, DLA Piper, had established. We had been looking to set up separate, slightly different law firms, but when we came together and discussed our plans we both thought: ‘Why aren’t we doing this together?’ Whereas Charles Rolls and Henry Royce met at the Midland Hotel in Manchester, we met at a coffee shop in Alderley Edge.
Goulbourne It was a true entrepreneurial start-up: two people, two laptops and one idea. We funded it out of our own pockets – we had a small bank loan and a small overdraft, which we have never used. It was so exciting and challenging. When you set up a business with someone, you need to trust each other from day one on every aspect of it. I think that our backgrounds helped us in this respect.
Cooke We believed that the legal sector served neither clients nor lawyers well, so we wanted to change that with our business model. I went out and spoke to lots of financial directors and chief executives. Our first question to them was: ‘What do you dislike about lawyers?’ The second was: ‘What would you do if you had your own law firm?’ They felt that they didn’t always get the partner – the senior-level attention they wanted – particularly when they were dealing with the large practices and corporate law firms.
Goulbourne Clients would see a senior lawyer at the start and at the end of the engagement, but in the middle they felt that there was a dip in service quality because the traditional model doesn’t allow senior lawyers to give clients the time they want. Our testing gave us confidence that we were on the right track. We focused on product, process and people.
Cooke Everyone here at gunnercooke has 10,000 hours of experience in their specialism – and that is a point of difference. If you’ve read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, you’ll be familiar with the use of 10,000 hours as the mark of experience.
The other big issue that FDs and CEOs said they were concerned about was fees. This was less about size and more about uncertainty. Because they were billed by the hour, FDs would be shocked at the end of an engagement when the fee was double the quoted figure they had accepted at the outset, leading to awkward negotiations.
People also said that lawyers are not commercial in the way that other professions are, which is why we went for a profit-sharing model. When running their own business, lawyers do become commercial – and, when they work for a fixed fee, they manage their transactions efficiently.
Goulbourne This gives people more of a sense of ownership in what they do. When they join us, lawyers must explain their business plan for the first year and what they hope to achieve, because you need parameters.
Cooke We’re trying to create an organisation of happy, balanced lawyers. It helps that we share that vision.
Goulbourne As gunnercooke grew, Darryl and I recognised that we couldn’t do everything ourselves, so we have assembled a young, dynamic board that’s helping to develop the business. I think that many entrepreneurial firms stagnate at a certain stage of growth when their owners can’t let go and acknowledge that they need others around them to reinforce and deliver their strategy.
We have established a good support structure, because the work is stressful – corporate clients can be very demanding. We’ve got a dedicated partner services manager who is always there to talk to. Nurturing, coaching and making people feel that there is someone there for them is key to our model. We’re both passionate about personal development. I recently went on a coaching course at Henley Business School because I’m interested in the theories behind coaching. It’s a huge leadership skill.
Cooke When we set out, we said: ‘We don’t only want to grow our revenues. We want to give something back to society.’ Some of the large charities we looked at have huge back offices, but a lot of small ones don’t have that kind of support – about 70 per cent of third-sector funding goes to one per cent of charities. We’ll train an entrepreneur to work with up to 10 smaller, ambitious charities to make them more efficient. We’ll then connect these organisations with our corporate clients.
Goulbourne Our lawyers love this arrangement. Charities often come to us with requests such as: ‘Do you have an employment lawyer who can help us with a contract?’ For our professionals to give their time in that way is easy, but it’s also rewarding for them, while the charity is so thankful to receive some free legal advice.
Cooke As we were starting the business, a friend offered me the following advice: ‘Either be the best or be different.’ It is difficult to be the best from day one, so with gunnercooke we set out to be different. Now we are trying to be the best.
Goulbourne We have a management team running the organisation’s day-to-day operations, so Darryl and I can focus on how to take the business forward. We’re now a professional services group, so there are strands to an overall strategy of which the law firm is only one piece.
Cooke We want to turn this organisation into a much bigger business. We have developed a consulting practice; we’re about to launch an operating partners’ practice; gunnerbloom will develop young lawyers; and our charity, inspire, is growing quite significantly. We’ll add more elements as we expand further.
Goulbourne Darryl is on a constant quest to explore and discover new things for us to try out in the business. He’s an avid reader – I have never met anybody else who can read so many business books at one time. That helps him to bring vision and commercial thinking that we can apply to our situation. For a relatively small business, we think big.
Cooke Sarah is really good with people. She spends a lot of time talking to the partners and we pride ourselves on being an organisation that no lawyer should need to leave in order to organise their lives. We say that other law firms can copy everything we have – except our culture… We’ve become very close. Sarah often says that she sees me like her own brother. I certainly see her like a sister.
Gunnercooke: Vital info
Structure The group comprises Ignition Law gunnercookeConsulting, gunnerbloom and inspire
Founders Darryl Cooke was educated at the University of Leeds and King’s College London (LLB and LLM).
He has worked as head of corporate at Hill Dickinson; head of private equity for EMEA at DLA Piper; and head of private equity at Addleshaw Goddard. Sarah Goulbourne was educated at University College London and Manchester Business School (LLB and MBA). She has worked as head of legal at Stanley Leisure; a non-executive director at the Countess of Cheshire Hospital NHS Foundation Trust; and company secretary at REA Holdings
Gunnercooke was shortlisted at last year’s IoD Director of the Year Awards. Click here for a list of this year’s winners