One to watch 

July 16, 2018

Law firm Watson Woodhouse has become known for its quality and client service over three decades, but most recently is being talked about for its fast-paced growth. Finance director Richard Prust tells North East Times about his ambitions for the firm

Over the past 30 years, Watson Woodhouse has built a reputation in its local area – and, in some areas of its work, nationally – for its expertise and client service, but more recently has become known for its ambitious and ongoing expansion strategy.

Through organic growth, a major recruitment drive and notably the acquisition of fellow Teesside-based Macks – which has created a business with a team of more than 150 people – the firm has become regarded as ‘one to watch’ as its presence and profile continue to develop.

But the law firm, which has its head office in Middlesbrough with multiple offices across the Tees Valley, Durham and North Yorkshire, is determined that its growth will be strategic, meticulously planned, and most importantly, not at the expense of the client-centric ethos which is at the heart of its operation.

While it is a major national player in the field of complex fraud, financial crime and regulatory prosecution work, it is equally a trusted and respected regional name on Teesside and the surrounding area, with a loyal and long-standing local client base.

In Richard Prust, the firm has both the driving force and the measured approach behind its ongoing expansion. As finance director of Watson Woodhouse, Richard has overseen major change during his two years with the business, and his blue-chip background has clearly been of significant benefit to the firm during such a fast-moving period.

Beginning his career with Deloitte in Cambridge, Richard went on to work in many different sectors, but most prominently in retail, holding a number of senior finance roles with Morrisons in their Bradford head office. While he had never worked in law, he found his background would be highly relevant in helping to equip a traditional law firm to embrace a new way of working.

“I knew nothing about the legal sector at all, this was totally new, but when the financial director opportunity came up, the more I learnt about the sector and about Watson Woodhouse, the more I could see how I could help the move the business on,” says Richard.

“By its very nature, the retail sector moves at a phenomenal pace, it really is 24/7, there is no let up. While the legal sector is not as unrelenting in its pace, there is actually a good deal of crossover, in that you need to constantly identify new ways to provide excellent quality and customer service at a reasonable price, to instil loyalty among your client base. That is what I am trying to do here, find new ways of doing that, ways to help us continue to grow, but while making sure our clients are always the most important part of our operation.”

And as well as Richard’s retail experience proving hugely important to Watson Woodhouse, his broad financial skills are also playing a key role for client service excellence.

“In cases which involve complex financial issues, for example splitting assets in a divorce, the lawyers are able to call on my expertise when appropriate and I can give a financial perspective to their case. I can be on-hand to give my perspective to clients, which only increases the services we provide. That can be of benefit to our clients as well as our lawyers, and is something quite different for a law firm,” says Richard.

Despite being the man charged with planning the strategic growth of Watson Woodhouse, which will inevitably involve improving the financial position, Richard – who has recently been shortlisted for a practice management award at the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year Awards, in recognition of his work – is definite in his opinion that client service must always come above being a slave to targets.

“There are firms out there who go for the short-term win, constantly squeezing clients to meet short term financial targets, but in the long run that is not going to pay off. We are not one of those predatory firms who seek to milk clients at every opportunity. We pride ourselves on offering a reasonably priced but high quality service. We see ourselves as a community based firm, catering for people from all walks of life but offering the same excellent quality service whatever their background. We want to build on our reputation of being absolutely committed to clients by continuing to put them first,” he says.

“Of course we do have our financial growth aspirations but what we are creating is a strategic plan for the firm which is not dominated by financial targets but one which is client outcome focused e.g. how many clients have we helped, how many cases have we closed, how many new lawyers have we trained, how many areas of law can we offer –  are all every bit as important to our plan.”

Clearly Watson Woodhouse’s approach is working. On an impressive path of growth, the firm is looking to continue its recent recruitment drive, which has seen new additions in its offices in Middlesbrough, Darlington, Northallerton, Stockton, and has also led to the opening of a new office in Harrogate. An office opening in London is also imminent – such is the strength of its reputation for fraud complex crime and regulatory prosecution work.   – with Richard saying it will “definitely be a project for 2018”.

The addition of Macks Solicitors to the business was a significant move within the North East legal sector, with two of Teesside’s best-known law firms coming under the same umbrella. While acquisitions can often lead to mergers and efficiencies, quite the opposite is true in this instance. The businesses remain entirely separate in their brand and approach, in what Richard believes is the correct course of action.

“The two firms are different but also very similar in many ways. Watson Woodhouse is a local firm nationally noted for its work in complex crime, regulatory prosecutions, complex fraud cases. Macks too is a local firm with national reach, with its specialisms being in divorces, wills and probate and personal injury work. They are both very strong brands in their own right which are established and trusted by their clients. Each are unique, so the best thing for us to do was to run two successful firms side by side, rather than there be any attempt at bringing them together,” he says.

“It was not about making efficiencies like so many other mergers and acquisitions are. It was more about creating a bigger pool of excellent lawyers and support staff so we can look after our clients even better. The best way to deliver excellent service to our clients is to recruit and retain the best lawyers in the area. The enlarged group makes it easier to do this. It’s a really exciting time and there are many opportunities out there for us – for example, a few years back, Macks stopped doing employment law, but we have re-introduced that on the basis that people will always need advice on employment law and knowing their rights, and will want good lawyers to advise them. That is working well and we will continue to identify and take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves.”

Looking to the future, the continued expansion for Watson Woodhouse will be propelled by its people, and the addition of new key people to the team. That is something Richard is keen to push.

“We have had a massive recruitment drive recently and that will continue. We want to replicate the success of Middlesbrough across all of our offices and to do that, you need excellent lawyers to advise clients on whatever they need in their own localities,” he says.

“We have spent a lot of time and effort investing in our offices and are committed to their development. We want to find the best possible people across the Tees Valley, Durham, North Yorkshire and beyond to join us on our journey, which is very exciting to be part of.”
Watson Woodhouse

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