Traditionally beset with tortuous terminology, law is a profession laden with complexities, but at Muckle LLP in the heart of Newcastle, the term ‘legal ease’ is more than just a quirky sound bite.
With communication at the forefront, the firm is on a course that its partners hope will achieve their ambition – to be the leading law firm in the region for businesses. Underpinning everything is the focus on strengthened relationships with businesses across the region. Behind the wheel is client and strategic development partner Stephen McNicol.
Formerly managing partner at Muckle – a role he took on at the age of just 34 – Stephen has served his time sifting through the intricacies of the legal industry both in the North East and in London, the city of his birth.
His latest post, however, places an emphasis on the key component of engagement, and, as he puts it, provides a welcome licence to implement his expertise on a blank canvas.
“At the end of last summer I stepped into a totally new role,” says Stephen. “A role that was new to the business – that’s incredibly exciting and forward thinking on the part of new managing partner Jason Wainwright. I had an empty inbox and a diary that was blank. I found that very empowering.”
He continues: “Over the summer of 2015 I had a three-month sabbatical. It was a great chance to clear the mind, recharge the batteries and give Jason the time and space to implement the changes he wanted to make.
“It’s no secret that I love the new role. Technical excellence and strength in depth are no longer true differentiators for clients – without them you simply can’t win, but alone they are not enough to set you apart. There are so many good lawyers out there but it’s now all about how you deliver that makes the difference.
“Taking to Jason, I explained that what I really wanted to do was get out and talk to people, because law is a relationship business.
“We can be the best lawyers in the world, but if we don’t engage with people then we haven’t got a hope. Giving clients what they want and in a way that suits them and their business is not a new concept. The hard part is delivering it and I don’t think that you can achieve that without spending time, a lot of time, listening. We want to be a business that listens, adapts and then delivers.
“No, I’m not a salesman,” he adds. “Quite the opposite. I don’t have to come out of any meeting with a piece of work. Of course, I believe very strongly that winning work is a natural by-product of creating the right relationships but that’s what is truly liberating about the role. What I try to do is create opportunities. Opportunities for the people that I speak to, and opportunities for us. The better the relationship, the more chance there will be to create.
“I’ve found that people love to talk about their businesses. It’s great to hear their passion and understand what they see as opportunities and challenges. Sometimes chatting to a lawyer who has run a successful business for 11 years – particularly when the conversation doesn’t cost anything – can be really helpful.”
Pressed on how his colleagues at Muckle have reacted to the new role, Stephen says: “Getting your head around the fact that there might be someone in your business who isn’t tasked with doing legal work and charging for it is difficult, but personally I think it’s hugely valuable. The reaction of the team at Muckle has been really positive and they’ve been quick to see how it can benefit them and the business.”
With clients such as The Football Association, Arriva plc, The Caribbean Premier League and British Airways Clubs on its books,
Muckle could be forgiven for taking its eye off the ball in a regional sense as the clamour for big business intensifies.
But in Stephen’s case, his relationship with and understanding of the wider North East reaches far beyond a superficial sprint finish in the race for high-profile brands.
Currently living just outside Hexham with his wife Niki and their children, Hugo and Freya, his bond with the region began in the late 1980s, and shows little sign of weakening.
“I first came to the region to study law at Newcastle University in 1988,” explains Stephen. “I spent two days here for the interview process and was hooked.
“We were shown around town and had an obligatory night out, and from that point there was no turning back. What attracted me was the people and the atmosphere. It had a vibrancy and a personality that really struck a chord.
“I spent the first 12 years of my life in London, before my family moved to Buxton in Derbyshire’s Peak District. I’ve gradually moved further and further north, but the North East is definitely the place for me.
“I love the fact that we have the best of so many things here. We have a great business community that presents all sorts of opportunities, we’re well connected to London, Europe and further afield and I get to live in beautiful countryside with some of the best cycling around – it ticks so many boxes.”
Following graduation, the customary year out in far-flung places was replaced in Stephen’s case with a 12-month stint in Manchester barristers’ chambers and a Buxton-based law firm before he secured a training contract with Robert Muckle in 1993.
A three-and-a-half year diversion to his native London with Lovells (now Hogan Lovells) quenched a thirst for big-city living before his return to Muckle as head of banking and restructuring.
It’s a spell during which Stephen freely admits he “grew up” as a lawyer, but he has some astute advice for today’s crop of would-be professionals pondering a move to the capital.
“I loved my spell in London,” he says, “and a frequently asked question from young adults when they see my resumé is ‘do I need to go there in order to be taken seriously?’.
“My answer to that is an emphatic ‘no’. The most important thing is to go somewhere that provides you with a working environment that you are likely to love and thrive in.
“If you hate big cities, don’t go to London. But equally, if you hanker after global transactions, you speak five languages and you have designs on working in an overseas office, the North East might not be your first choice. It’s not quite as clear cut as that but it’s a very personal choice that needs some serious thinking and research.
“I was 34 when I became managing partner, and although for many lawyers that might be considered way too early in their professional career, it felt right for me – it was the sort of opportunity that very rarely comes up.
With a nod to the next 12 months and beyond, Stephen is taking a typically resourceful view, leaning on digital entrepreneurs to glean a greater understanding of their ever-changing business needs and how Muckle might better shape their offering for them.
Muckle’s market insights programme is also high on his agenda, as is a tangible drive to reach out to businesses across the region’s seven local authorities in an effort to better understand the varying challenges and opportunities they face.
“I’m spending more and more time outside the office talking to people,” adds Stephen.
“Leading initiatives like our ‘State of the Region’ series hopefully gives businesses a chance to see that we are much more than a law firm – we are a business, too. We can learn an awful lot from our clients and contacts. We’re trained as lawyers to deliver a service, but the people that we work with know a lot more about business than we do. Why wouldn’t we try and learn from them?”