Law: Horse power with an urban boost: London standards have enabled one rural firm to flourish and diversify, says Sharon Wallach

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The Independent Online
CRIPPS HARRIES HALL is an example of a firm that has had the foresight to diversify in the past five or six years from its private client tradition into the commercial arena.

'We have about doubled in size in those years,' Jonathan Denny, the managing partner, says. The firm, which has headquarters in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, and three offices in East Sussex, is now one of the largest law practices in the South-east, outside London. And Mr Denny believes that when economic revival does come, the growth on the commercial side will be even greater.

The firm, whose senior partner Christopher Hall spends about a quarter of his working time concentrating on equine law for private clients in the horse world, also branched out in 1988 into financial services, setting up a finance and investment services division. 'It was a logical diversification for us,' Mr Denny says. 'The division grew very fast, and continues to grow. Initially, it fed off the private client side, but increasingly it is feeding off our commercial work.'

The success of the firm's policies is demonstrated by the fact that it has gained half a dozen large commercial and institutional clients who had previously used London firms.

'We offer a London service at out-of-London prices,' Richard Paterson, the marketing manager, explains. 'Institutional and, to some extent, commercial work has the greatest potential for profit. That's what we want, but without dispensing with our private client work.'

One reason the firm has held on through the recession, Mr Denny believes, is that it has continued with its programme of financial investment and training while others have been tightening their belts.

'We are more than half-way to establishing a single computer system,' he says, adding that the firm is close to having a screen on every desk.

Training, he believes, is essential for the successful management of change. At Cripps Harries Hall it is undertaken by two full-time trainers working for an IT manager, one of several relatively recent senior non-legal appointments.

Other such appointments include the marketing manager, Mr Paterson. 'We have always taken marketing to be an absolute essential, and not the luxury some other firms think it is. That is why we made the appointment at a very senior level,' Mr Denny says.

Mr Paterson has, Mr Denny admits, proved something of a revolutionary. 'He brought in things I wasn't sure he would get right; for instance, an appraisal system for partners as well as staff. It's the sort of thing that if it does go wrong, it would have been better not to do in the first place.'

However, Mr Denny has been won over, as have the partners. Formerly, he says, judgements on people were based on anecdotes, often years old. 'That is not being objective,' he says. 'It's important to have consistent standards, and to be even-handed with people.'

Mr Denny was formerly the firm's marketing partner and, according to Mr Paterson, he successfully prepared the ground for the arrival on the scene of a professional marketing manager. 'I found a latent sympathy to marketing within the firm,' Mr Paterson says. 'They were keen to get the benefit of my experience and knowledge. They even had a list of ideas and projects for me.'

Mr Paterson has strong views on the importance of good service in all areas of a firm's work. 'The quality of legal advice is taken for granted. What can lead to satisfaction on the part of the client are aspects of the service delivered by the non-lawyer staff,' he says.

To investigate the firm's successes and failures, he has circulated regular surveys among clients. 'One thing that came to light, for instance, was that we didn't do as well as we could have in answer to the question 'Do you find our correspondence easy to understand?' '

Now, with the help of the director of education and training, Mr Paterson has prepared a paper on writing clear, concise English, which will be implemented as part of a programme to improve the quality of service.

On the private side, the firm serves the top end of the market. 'Although we'd like to, we can't service the lower end profitably,' Mr Paterson says. 'The decider is whether you are prepared to sacrifice quality standards. If not, you can't afford to do legal aid work.'

The clients at the top end of the market include those connected with the horse world who turn for advice to Mr Hall.

Horses have figured large in his life. He commentated for many years at the Royal International Horse Show and the Horse of the Year Show and is a member of the Jockey Club and of the council of the British Horse Society.

Work has naturally arisen from his equestrian involvements, and Mr Hall and his small team provide services to non-professional riders as well as professionals involved in dressage, eventing and show-jumping.