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Law: A leap in the dark: Calculated risks can be successful, reports Sharon Wallach

PROFESSIONAL or commercial business success can be ascribed in part to the ability to think ahead and a readiness to take calculated risks.

A law firm whose income in the mid-Eighties was largely derived from domestic conveyancing may not have made it to the Nineties without anticipating the danger ahead and seeking a new or additional direction.

Rawlison and Butler, a long-established private client practice in Sussex, has successfully negotiated the recession, with a growing reputation in corporate and commercial work. An example of calculated risk is to be found in Devon, where three Exeter solicitors left partnerships to launch their own - Over Taylor Biggs - earlier this year.

Robin Skinner, senior partner at Rawlison and Butler, explains that in the mid-Eighties, the firm's work consisted largely of conveyancing. The height of the property boom coincided with moves to bring an end to solicitors' monopoly in conveyancing. Licensed conveyancers came on the scene, and draft legislation proposed powers for banks and building societies to get in on the conveyancing act.

Mr Skinner joined Rawlisons 20 years ago from the London practice Linklaters & Paines. A colleague from Linklaters, James Chatfield, telephoned and mentioned that he was looking for a change of scene. The conversation led to Mr Chatfield joining Rawlisons to head a new corporate department.

The change of direction was fraught with danger, Mr Skinner acknowledges. The partners had to take a series of risks: recruiting more City lawyers, marketing what was almost a brand-new firm, and in the process accepting a temporarily reduced income.

Rawlisons had existed in Horsham for 125 years. 'It would have been foolish to waste what we had,' Mr Skinner points out. But he and Mr Chatfield believed that the image the firm needed to promote for its corporate work called for a different environment.

Crawley was chosen on account of its geographical and commercial advantages - its proximity to Gatwick airport and the M25 and more importantly, many major accountancy firms and banking head offices were moving to the area. Attempts were made to run branch offices, but Rawlisons finally decided to have just two sites - Horsham for private client and Crawley for company and commercial work.

The firm is small - six partners and 25 fee-earners - but is cited by The Legal 500 as one of three firms 'widely regarded as the leaders (in company and commercial work) in the Kent, Surrey and Sussex area'.

'We are,' says Mr Chatfield, 'becoming more aware of what our clients want'. This includes the investigation of new areas of potential expansion. The firm is recruiting corporate tax lawyers, considering other specialisms such as intellectual property and is likely to expand the litigation department.

'If you can't do it in a recession, when can you?' asks Chris Over, one of the three partners in the Exeter- based firm Over Taylor Biggs, referring to bearing the risk of launching a new firm. Rawlison and Butler had to face the problem of marketing a reputation from scratch, but the basics were in place; the firm had a name, a business structure, and accounting and other systems.

Over Taylor Biggs really had to start from scratch. The first step for Mr Over, Paul Taylor and Richard Biggs was extricating themselves from their former partnerships - the potential difficulties of which should not be underestimated, Mr Over warns.

Freedom to market a new firm in the same area is constrained by former partnership agreements, the terms of which may include restrictions on using a similar name, on practising within a certain distance and on soliciting clients. However, Mr Over and his partners have been fortunate; they have suffered no animosity from their former firms, who freely pass on their new telephone number to clients.

The partnership had next to deal with practicalities: searching for suitable premises, arranging insurance, ordering stationery and installing telephones and faxes. Premises were found in a trading estate on the outskirts of Exeter, a location chosen to reflect the firm's focus on commercial work. The partners spent a lot of time on the stationery. 'It's worth getting it right from the beginning,' Mr Over says. 'We wanted it to be fresh, and attractive to business people.'

The essential job of marketing begins with a database of clients and contacts. 'Marketing is all about information,' Mr Over says. 'If you don't know where your clients are, there is nothing you can do about marketing yourself.' One early use of the database was a mailshot of brochures and flyers to every neighbouring business on the trading estate.

The fact that Over Taylor Biggs was the first law firm in the South-West to open for business on such an estate gave it a peg on which to hang a news release to local and specialist press. Mr Over, a member of the Law Society's public relations advisory board, organised a press pack including camera-ready artwork and a photograph. 'Almost all used the story,' Mr Over says, 'those who didn't we rang and asked why not'. The marketing programme also included establishing and 'firming up' as many contacts as possible, with a carefully planned series of lunches. 'We have eaten ourselves into the ground for the sake of the firm,' he says.

Over Taylor Biggs is now seven months old, and the partners are satisfied with progress so far. 'We are exceeding the targets we set ourselves,' says Mr Over. 'But it is very early days. I am still finishing off work I brought with me and it is difficult to analyse how much time I spend on that and how much on new business.

'We maintain records of where new work is coming from, and clients' views are monitored by means of questionnaires posted out with every bill,' Mr Over says. 'A clear pattern is emerging that we can use for the future.'

(Photograph omitted)