Hello and welcome to the career success podcast. I’m Jason Connolly. If you are a regular listener, welcome back. But if this is your first time, thanks for joining us in this series.
Every week we talked to the biggest names in business but also up and coming and emerging business talent. We will understand what key business leaders have done in order to rise to the top. We will also talk about success habits and what they do in order to ensure they stay at the top of their game. Listen and find out hints and tips to help you in the world of business. How do you set up your own business and make sure it’s a success? Also how to drive business growth and get your company notice? Myself and my guest will offer practical advice to help you in your career from those who have made it, we would talk about the challenges, adversity in the mountains they’ve had to climb in order to reach career success. In this episode I’m joined by James Knight, CEO of Keystone law. Keystone has grown from a startup to a leading law firm of its kind. Today. They’re a full service aim listed firm with over 350 lawyers, averaging 22 years PQE gained at some of the country’s best law firms. They’ve got 45 support staff and thousands of clients. They’ve also won countless awards and considered to be a significant force within the legal sector. Now James is joining us qualified as a solicitor in 1992 with city law firm Trelane Handlings. He practices a commercial lawyer in Oman, Dubai and Hong Kong before returning to England in 1999. In 2000 James started his own legal consultancy, helping small to medium size companies receive a level of service and value that was UN obtainable through conventional law firms, exponential growth and strong demand for this type of service led to James. To establish Keystone law in 2002, James now focuses on Keystone’s day-to-day operations as well as the firm strategic direction and growth for James. Thank you for joining me. Not at all. Thank you for asking me on the show. Thank you. So Keystone law, I know who you are, but for those who don’t know, you give us a bit of an overview of what Keystone are there. Not like a conventional law firm, and we get lots of people who are listening to this show who aren’t even lawyers. Give us an explanation, or Keystone are. I think, well, Keystone is a law firm. It provides a conventional law firm service to its many thousands of clients, but it’s a different animal. It’s a different beast. It’s got a different DNA. It’s got a different personality. The lawyers work from their own office environment where wherever that may be may be at home, maybe in some other commercial premises, and they get up. We work on a performance based remuneration structure which is a fancy way of saying that people get a percentage of. Billings and a high percentage. About 75%, but the factors. Those are the nuts and bolts of what it’s about. What’s interesting about K. Keystone is the by removing office politics by removing management meetings and by supporting lawyers rather than driving them with billing targets by giving them the freedom and the flexibility and the autonomy to work with clients in the way that suits the clients. You end up with a situation which a very different, very happy place you end up with delivering a very good service, but really, it’s also what we sought to achieve and have really achieved is to creating something that is not just for delivering great service to clients but also actually being a very happy, comfortable place, a place that has got a very positive energy to it. It’s interesting what you’re saying. Obviously a lot of people now. Working from home, this is it seems to be the new normal within a pandemic. We’re still going through it at the moment. How can you support people that aren’t in the office? Is it sounds like the two don’t go hand in hand. Well, I suppose what we did is we spent 20 years building it and that which helps. It wasn’t exactly perfect right from the start, but over 20 years we’ve developed infrastructure. We then also we we call it long corridors. We compromise for those long corridors. Buy lots of drinks, parties, dinners, see training events because you’ve got a flat structure. I you don’t have different titles. Everyone has the same position. People are working together, collaborating. You end up with a very, let’s say, an event or party is a very is great fun and very conducive to people establishing relationships. So you end up with 400 knowing each other. Much, much better than they’d know their colleagues in a previous conventional firm where everybody would sit in the same building, not talking to each other. So it’s a very it’s a very different animal. It’s really interesting. You say that because I I would assume that I would know my colleagues better from being in a room with them. What do you think the key to? There’s lots of people out there have got businesses they’re running. Businesses are struggling to manage people through whatever it is. Microsoft Teams zoom whatever. But what do you think the key to managing people remotely is ’cause you’re a seasoned hand at this. Well, yes, I mean we have a certain advantages when you work on a sort of let’s say lawyers are technically self employed there and paid when paid that it’s to a certain degree an organisation like that. And this is a developing business concept. The umbrella concept is self policing to a degree. But we also have we build in incentives so we don’t build in. Let’s say it’s. All about carrot and not about stick. Well, it’s an OPT in culture. This one it may not work for all businesses, but for for this type of business it works beautifully and it can work in professional services. I would have thought across the board, but I’m not an expert in at all areas of other professional services, but the concept, the biggest in the UK is Saint James place wealth management company. It’s got thousands of people and again they. Work under the umbrella with all of the support, the infrastructure, the insurance of the lead brand. They do work in the name of the brand, so if you want to give today’s workforce flexibility in professional services, then this can be a very, very good way of doing it and maintaining control over the. Remote and dispersed working people. And yes you but you you know it’s accompanied by manuals, guidance and you know you’d still have to have rules and and and etc because it has to be properly managed and policed. So what I take from that is infrastructure is absolutely key in managing this operation. I’ve never heard the term carrot without stick. How is there no sticker tools like getting the carrot straight away? That has to be, you know, we’re a law firm we we have to provide. We need to we provide an extremely high level of service. There were many rules and regulations. The legal profession is highly regulated. You know, there are some things that are not negotiable, but following the the the regulations and the rules are providing a a professional fantastic service. Other things are. Very opt in. How much work is? How much work is one wants to do when one wants to take what hours one wants to work? What look what place one wants to work and so it’s it’s yeah it has to have a balance. But this is a very. It’s a very modern way of working to people that aren’t familiar with keystones of the law. This is this is a modern way of working for the legal sector. Yes, other sectors are have been doing things like this for. Decades before, but this is an innovative way of working yes, employed and so on. Technology like a lot of things nowadays, technology is the backbone. OK, so well, we’ll talk about Keystone a little bit more, but so tell us about this journey. Then you were practicing solicitor. How did you get from practicing law to being a consultant or opening to having one of the biggest law firms in the country? That’s that’s mighty big career. As you said in the start, so slow is always been sort of. Provided quite a little variety to me in many ways, but I suppose I’ve worked hard to give that variety from working in Oman, Dubai, and then just going out to Hong Kong in a very interesting times of whilst it was still part of the British Empire before it got transferred across two 97 to China and so they were very very interesting years ago and great great fun. But in 1999 at the. Asia had crashed. Hong Kong had slightly lost its. Glint glimmer or hits with just not quite such a great place to be. And so I came back to the UK and I worked as a bit of as a consultant for various organisations here and there, but I mean, I suppose I was really looking for an organisation like Keystone to work with I an I could not find it, and so I suppose like a lot of businesses are created. This way you have somebody, it looks for the service, can’t find it, so they decided make it themselves and that’s exactly what I did. So the idea for Keystone very much came from you looking for a firm like Keystone and there was nothing else on the market. Absolutely I just thought I couldn’t be the only one right. OK, what what’s really interesting you’ve floated on the stock market? I can’t remember when was that James that was in November right? OK, what was it like to float a company on the stock market? How? What was that transition like was it was essentially is actually quite. I can’t really say that it’s great fun, but it’s. City credit exciting and Ann and I think about it well. Well, I’ll tell you. I mean, it’s first of all. There’s a lot of work for a lot of Advisors. It’s expensive. It costs about 1,000,000 pounds. You my CFO, Fortunately, was up for the job and worked extremely hard. It’s there was one part that is excruciatingly hard work, which is 2 weeks of what they call the road show where you actually go around and sell to about 7 hours a day. Seven different meetings, seven different locations for two weeks, sell, sell, sell 7 hours and imagines that sounds. That sounds like a full day of recruitment, though that would that. That is, yeah exactly. Yes it, but it is, but then it is so exciting because then if you get through it and you manage as they say, get it away. In other words, you get people go. I think that’s a good idea. I want some of those shares. Then you and you only know whether you’re on just a few days before it happens. And I suppose you have to be prepared to walk away and to just for it to not happen if. If it’s just if it’s just not flowing, but it and then when you use you open up the stock market. If you’re lucky enough to be given the opportunity, you push the button. The stock market goes starts up, or your name appears the the markets open the kit, the Keystone’s name is there and and and you see the shares started trading and it’s very surreal an I took my I put my mother to do it. She was very she. She loved it all fantastic so you obviously you know your company now that is listed you hear a lot out there, but you know when a company goes onto the stock market it kind of changes. It’s, you know a different dynamic is a different beast. You’ve answerable to shareholders that yeah changes the culture of the company. How’s that impacted on Keystone is, I mean, it’s a very. It’s a very good point. I mean, the conventional wisdom is you cannot be. On the stock market and an entrepreneurial organisation, the two are are counter intuitive. You know they they they what would? They can’t exist. Well I don’t agree and you know, I’ve got sort of three years of experience of of not agreeing really. We have every bit the same sort of Entrepreneurial Nature ’cause we are a law firm and an entrepreneurial organisation which is, again, that’s almost like a slight dichotomy. But it can exist, you know, we make very quick good business decisions without endless committee meetings. But we are we, you know we do so well and we consider the risks etc etc. But we just consider them quickly and and and the ethos and the personality of the business has remained exactly the same as it was before. Yes, it has grown a lot, but you can still, as long as you’re mindful. That with growth comes new challenges where you need to keep the personality and the ethos and the communication and the fun. Then then it can be exactly the same as a pure owner managed business. Well, what do you enjoy most about you all at Keystone now? I think I like there’s a very good question. I mean normally covid aside, one of the greatest things is going to side at the moment. So yeah, it is of course the the social element which is, as we mentioned earlier, is one of the very important parts of retaining cohesion within the business. Yes, sure we make it. We we compensate like everybody else is with telephone and zoom and teams etc etc. But it’s not quite the same but then this is not a situation that’s going to go on forever. I like I quite like the public companies side and sort of seeing the investors you know presenting, but generally generally I like making decisions and I think that in business one of the. Most important things is to be able to make reasonably good decisions. You can’t get it right every time, but at least to have an intuition that you feel comfortable making a quick, reasonably good decision and. That’s something that I’ve always found that I’ve been quite strong at. What would you say to someone who’s maybe thinking right? OK, I want to work for one of these types of Model Law firms, but you know, I’m not sure you know that they’re answerable to shareholders. What would you say to someone to rebut that? Well, everyones answerable to somebody, but very true. OK, and um, it in terms of sort challenges along the way. What what’s been some of the toughest challenges you’ve had to make on this journey? ’cause I imagine there’s been some really tough decisions. You’ve been through a multitude to challenges to get the law firm to where it is now. What’s really kind of stood out. Tell you what Jason the 1st the 1st three years with the toughest you’ve got your quite apart from financially. It stuff. You’ve got nothing really coming in. Or if there is, it’s not coming into your own pocket. But also when you try and do something that is manifestly different in a profession that hasn’t really changed in about years, then you are met with a quite a lot of detractors. Quite a lot of criticism are quite a lot of naysayers, and one of the greatest challenges is, specially when you’re not here doing something that you know there’s no path to follow. You got nobody. You’ve got no template to go by, and obviously it’s very important to retain your your confidence when all about you are. Telling you that your you haven’t got a hope in Hell, but you know the same time you you there’s not everybody. You’ve got some people that are are. I’ll positive and you just draw on that but you you have to be selective and that’s a challenge. Did you have people in those early days you were going out pitching for business? You’re different, you know, we’re scared of change your you know your law firm that isn’t like others was that kind of one of the OS? How does she came up against endlessly? What was your answer to that then? Was it? This vision was so strong and. You were out there, yeah, I mean that training is I mean really to be successful in in business or certainly a business that is quite difficult to get going. You’ve got to have this ridiculously myopic passion. But which is unassailable and which which sometimes brings people around. And it’s about selling most of the time. It’s in fact almost all of the time it’s about selling. Just thought. So go on, go on. Yeah, just start, that’s what it is. And yes, that’s the passion that drives one and where the passion comes from is is whoever is difficult to say. I mean, I, and sometimes you don’t even know you. You have it until you are put in a position where you need it. While suppose that’s the same as many lawyers joining the firm, but you’ve got a roomful of Ultra Preneur real lawyers, and to someone that’s new to the law, you wouldn’t necessarily. Associate lawyers and sales people. Even in the same kind of thought process, would you? Yes? I mean, well, I mean, it’s very important for for lawyers to be they have to be salespeople or good lawyers. They have to bring in the work, and they often bring in the work on the force of their personality and legal skills. Just being a great lawyer is not really enough to build up relationships with companies. People you know people like to do business with like minded souls and a lot of businessmen are quite outgoing and ’cause they need to be. The entrepreneur is generally not shy of a word or two and they often like to deal with lawyers that can. They can have a beer with. Yeah, well, I think lawyers are becoming more and more you know part of a business not just for legal but for advice for. Kind of even strategic decision making. Who’s inspired you who? Who sort of inspired you in those early days and continues to inspire you in and in business wise. Yeah, I’ve never really sort of. I mean, I’ve read a lot of business books and I find you know the people. I find the stories you know from Richard Branson onwards, etc. Interesting, I don’t know. I think that inspiration to do business. I don’t know if it’s an inspiration or it’s just a a passion and a pleasure. It’s something that’s enjoyable and it’s just part of your makeup as to whether you find something enjoyable or not. OK, what business books would you recommend if you were better particular title that you think you want to shout from the rooftops about? I used to read these sort of books like who moved my cheese or whatever it was called that was years ago. That one there is like Oh it’s all about adapt gene and things like that. I and then of course they suddenly. Then I realised after awhile that these books business books were written boat by people who have never done anything in business themselves. So then I. Prefer to read the true story business books like by people who have started Twitter and and and done something noteworthy. Yeah yeah, I mean so it’s a good story. Often it’s not quite as glamorous as you as you like to to think. It is. Obviously Branson is the one who’s who’s done very well on the on his on his writing. I used to work for his company but it’s alright. Yeah Greg had a great time there and I think sure the lessons I learned from there as you treat people right and. Even if they want to work for you, is there anything that you’ve decisions that you have made that perhaps now on reflection you might have done differently? Well, we’ve been quite lucky. I’ve never really made anything drastically Bad Decisions. One of the things we did have to rebrand in 2008 because we started off with a in 2002 with the name of account of the firm, which I think at the time. Was OK, but it was. It was lawyers direct and it was a bit as we. You never know where a business, which direction it’s going to go and is it as we as we develop. We started to go into a more and more sophisticated area and I mean I could never have imagined that we would be working for the being able to track to the people we attract and the clients that we have. We’re now now have at the start and so we did have to rebrand in 2008 to Keystone. Keystone law and that was. And that was just an essential decision. So yeah, in hindsight or would have started with a with a different name, but then hindsight 2020 hindsight is a wonderful editor named Keystone. Come from it’s. It is, it doesn’t come from. It is something that, OK, I’ll tell you what it is. It is a name that is not. It does not sound like a normal law firm and yet is not incompatible with a commercial law firm. I always wanted to have some of this stone in it. I don’t know quite a hard name. the Keystone. Of course in the in the bridge. As you probably know, is that central stone that holds 222 parts of the bridge holds the thing up. So the there was symbolism for me as well as like. So there’s there seem to be a soul to it. Some some, some some purpose. Some reason we haven’t really flogged it to death. That concept of the stone in terms of how we present ourselves, sounds like it was something that was marketable in your mind as well. Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of that. It just felt right. What would you say then to lawyers? Starting today? There may be thinking about going into a career in law, or there may be at that stage where they’re undergoing a training contract. What advice would you give to a lawyer that starting out in the early parts of their career now? Well, the legal the legal world is actually a lot tougher than it used to be. I mean, it’s it used to be always synonymous. That is, well, it’s more commoditised now. It’s not as respected. You know you go back. I don’t know from 40 years or something like that and the lawyer and the doctor and the accountant were well was sort of nice bit of golf and plenty of money, that sort of thing and and it’s not. And this was before the bankers and the brokers and the. Those sort of recruitment consultants and the the and it was. It was a lot easier time since then that you know. And the the world has changed. The lawyers are not really. It’s only incredibly hard. A place and not actually very well paid. Except Yes, the top London City firms. They still pay very well and to say that they require their pound of flesh is an understatement and you you know it. It’s again as I mentioned before. If you have the passion for it then that’s that’s most important and also to choose to choose. There are many different law firms out there as you well know that they have different personalities. Suit different types of people, so it’s really actually quite important to to to talk to people who know and to. Get themselves placed into a firm that has the personality that makes it a home for them. ’cause he’s going to spend plenty of time in it. You mentioned about it becoming kind of more kind of consumer based it becoming more competitive. Do you think that’s a good thing to the end consumer? It certainly has, in real terms, have bought legal costs down. Again, I’m sort of not talking about the large magic circle big city firms. Whether I mean the law is a big subject because you’ve got legal aid, access to justice, etc. It’s it’s we operate in one particular area of that, and that area has become much more commoditised and much more competitive and less fun. So maybe it’s better for the consumer, not necessarily better for the lawyers, but then that’s gave us the opportunity. And that’s why Keystone has been successful. And to bring it back to the advice we’re giving, obviously it’s difficult. It’s not easy. We know laws hard. Now we know there’s more competition for those people qualifying out there. There is more people than there are jobs out there for training, so that’s approx extremely competitive. Yes, but it knew was gonna give someone one bit of advice. They want to go into law. They’ve researched it. Well, what would that advice be? Make sure that make sure you work hard. It’s as simple as that. And and to ask then, so you’ve had a successful business, let’s bring this back to business. Then we’ve got someone there. If it’s maybe thinking, but I want to go out and start a business. You know, sometimes during times of great adversity and struggles, you know they can come great success stories, even through things like Covid. I’ve heard successful is aware people have open businesses. Sure, what advice would you give to someone maybe thinking about, starting a business that you know it might even be in the legal space? I don’t know. What would James Knight say to that person was good? You’ve got to see. Obviously you’ve got to. You gotta persevere. You gotta have a passion for it, but then also I think this one when everyone says you gotta keep on going, keep on going. One of the things very important to remember is that if you’re just banging your head against a closed door, you might need to think again and to actually go out, right? Well, then everyone tells me I have to keep going, but you do. But you, really you really have to also. Fill the feedback and then and then if it’s not working in one place. Almost like feel around like a man in the dark because you know somewhere along the line though it there is an offer there, you’re on the you’re probably on the right path. It just needs a tweak here and there. A little bit of a different angle when when I started out in doing this current business it was it was. It turned out a very very different animal and we had to just see. When you get a success, go right. OK, focus on what made that successful. That particular. Why was that? Why did that make it work when everything else hasn’t? And then throw your energies into that? So it’s kind of looking for the thing that you know maybe shines out but feels right following that absolutely, and no matter how right you are, if you’re trying to swim up River when everybody everything, all the energy, the people, the the, the fashion. If you like, the popularity is going in the other direction. You know you’re you’re not gonna get there yet, but I kind of feel the market fill which directly. But yeah, you can’t swim upriver all the time, but it’s very difficult given that sort of advice, because also you know you you you, you do have to keep plowing on when. I mean the 1st three years, it feels like you’re putting a steamroller uphill so, but at least you are getting uphill. If you’re just getting nowhere, then you gotta think again. Right, OK, fine. What sort of in the legal world then what? This is a lot of. It’s obviously difficult to get to partnership. It’s very, very, very extremely hard. And you know, a lot of people. You know the part in the boat does sort of passed them by, but what advice would you give to someone that wants to be a partner? Sort of early on in their PQE? What do you think they should do it? What’s the quickest James Knight advice you can give for someone to get to partnership? Yeah, well, there’s it’s not just about the hours, isn’t it? It’s about the it’s about the whole package. It’s about the. About being popular. I mean, isn’t that they always is the case. Do you think partnership is quite driven by popularity? I guess in any setting do you even get? Do you think it comes more down to an individual’s face fitting and you know then being a good person that goes out to social drinks? Or do you think it’s you know? What do you think of partnership? Driver is, well, little is everything is, has got some elements of popularity to it in terms of every every promotion, every success. But I mean not, not nearly as much as it used to be. I would. Think when because now money is such a driving factor, but it’s the number one thing for success in a law firm in employment. It says an employed person or for partnership is to is to bring in work because it’s there are plenty of people that can do the work. It’s not so easy to bring it in. Do you think the legals there’s obviously a lot of talk about things in the legal sector like diversity, this, that and the other do you still think the legal sector has a long way to go? Or do you think it’s there? I think the culture business. I mean, I mean, just social culture is constantly changing. I don’t think the legal profession is as far behind as people like to categorise it as the old sleepy cobweb ridden old mahogany desk sort of world is not really there anymore, but it still gets a lot of bad press. The legal sector compared to that of other sectors. It still seems to be in the industry press. They still seem to get bad press. The legal sector in particular.
I suppose I don’t know. OK, and what’s next for Keystone law and you and Keystone? Well on we we sort of yeah we just. It’s so it’s a wonderful opportunity. It’s a huge market. I set out with ambition for this firm to take it to make it into something really. Really, really special and it is really really special. But and it’s not all about size, but I suppose it’s a bit like having a child or something you want it to be you. You want to make it allow it to become achieve its potential to be all it can be. Just and so we have been one of the fastest growing law firms for many years. I mean, as in top five in the country. And it is such a. We sought to set out to create something that. Had integrity and that was tried transparency and had fairness, and we’ve done that. You know, that’s that’s what the DNA of the business is and just see it do so much better than. A lot of well to do very well as a result. As a direct result of those principles and beliefs is very, very gratifying, and. I you know, I suppose, why do we always we? We always strive for growth and size. Big means better. Well, it doesn’t always, but. In this particular case, yes, I’m I have to put my hand up. I have to admit I’m ambitious. I like growing the firm. I know that if we just stopped growing the firm, then others would over over take us got this competitive mindset. You gotta be up there with the banks I guess, so I guess so it’s fine. All the bad ambition to have is it’s it’s, it’s what everybody wants that I work with in terms of. Things you know obviously is what I just want the shareholders, but I mean, as long as you create the retain the personality and the fun and the happiness and the reasons why people joined and the you know people others that join there bringing work for the existing Keystone lawyers, because there’s always a lot of cross referral Work etc. And an it’s a happy place and yeah, it’s I don’t. It’s just as I I don’t really know. What drives any of us? I suppose it, but you do, but it is. I suppose it changes. It changes it’s not one static thing. No, it’s not. It’s kind of evolving and it’s fluid and so on. That’s really interesting, James. We’re out of time now. But thank you for the insight. Thank you for giving us your time. If there was one last bit of advice, you would maybe give to someone, but struggling in business, they’ve got a business. What would it be? Lastly, on a closing. Hey just keep going, keep going fantastic. You heard that first on the career success podcast. That’s James Knight. If you would like to find out more about James or Keystone Law you can go online, check them out. Google Keystone law. That’s it for this episode of the career success podcast that was James knight and I and Jason Connolly. Thanks very much for joining us.