Landmark anniversary for law firm

February 4, 2019

Tyneside law firm David Gray Solicitors LLP turns 40 this month. Simon Rushworth spends time with managing partner Elspeth Thomson and partner Mike Bishop ahead of the big day

It was the year Coventry City defeated Tottenham Hotspur in one of the most thrilling finals in FA Cup history, the year Rick Astley revealed he was Never Gonna Give You Up and the year Beverly Hills Cop II dominated the box office. Significantly, 1987 was also the year a globetrotting Mike Bishop decided to put down some roots in Newcastle and take the advice of a friend who knew a thing or two about innovative law firms.

“I’d been told by a civil liberties lawyer in the Midlands that the only firm to work for in Newcastle was David Gray Solicitors,” explains Mike. “I got back from Australia and applied straight away. The firm met me and offered me articles on the same night. I came back to the city I wanted to live in and I was offered a job with the firm I wanted to work for. That’s why I’m still here 32 years later!”

Managing partner, Elspeth Thompson – who joined David Gray Solicitors in 1998 – reflects how the law firm she now heads has developed over the years.

“David Gray grew from a legal aid background but from 2013 the Government started to take that away from many different areas. It’s been a massive change and we’ve done well to adapt to that change.

“We’ve looked at how we can provide services to people who now have to pay for legal advice themselves and at the same time developed our property department and private client work.”

While Elspeth, Mike – who is a partner and head of mental health – and the wider team is preparing to celebrate its landmark anniversary on Valentine’s Day 2019, they are also mindful the firm is heading into an uncertain future.

“There are challenges ahead,” Mike admits. “I think the government, when it gets short of money, will attack legal aid again. That will happen. Law can be very expensive and particularly care law.

“Then in my own area of law, mental health, there’s a huge difference in the way hospitals are run – so many wards are closing and so many beds are going. It’s shocking.

I’d also like to see the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) do more to safeguard the profession – it’s important that they place a greater emphasis on the vocational and professional aspect of law.

“But when I look around David Gray, I see a firm that still stays true to its core values and still tries to be different.  That fills me with confidence for the future.”

If Mike and Elspeth share a common frustration when discussing the diminishing legal aid system then a shared pride in their firm shines through. Both have witnessed David Gray’s necessary evolution from politicised firm of the people to the more commercially minded business of today.

If the pace of change has quickened then the core values have remained consistent and Mike recognises that the more things change, the more things stay the same.

“The ethos of the firm will always be the same,” he adds. “When I joined there was this idea of ‘radical lawyers’ and we were seen as the People’s Republic of David Gray! We had compulsory staff meetings where all employees were invited to discuss every aspect of the firm and everyone was invited – very strongly – to join the union. Everyone, from solicitors to administration staff and even the youngest clerks had a say in what we did.

“We specialised in what used to be called civil liberties law, which I guess would be more to do with human rights these days. No other firms really concentrated on that. We always had lots of fantastic connections with the voluntary sector and political groups. We were a very political firm and some of the other firms in the North East were slightly suspicious of us in the early days. Once they realised that we were attracting really high calibre lawyers we began to be accepted.”

David Gray also earned a reputation for hiring talented women at a time when the profession was dominated by men. Currently five of the firm’s eight partners are female.

Elspeth reflects: “Over 80 per cent of our employees are female, which is not particularly atypical of the profession, particularly for the sort of work we do. But where we are a bit different is the number of women we have running the place.

“At a time when the head of state is the Queen, the prime minister is female and there’s a female chief of police that shouldn’t really raise any eyebrows! But as a rule, women are in a minority when it comes to actually running and owning law firms. At David Gray the opposite is true. We buck the trend and we’re proud to do so.”

Mike concurs. “I’ve always been amazed at how many women we have in the firm,” he adds. “It’s only when you stand back and see other firms that you realise the difference. And it’s a positive difference.”

Perhaps it’s that female influence that has helped to cement David Gray’s reputation as a caring and trusted firm in tune with its community. Peruse the plethora of positive comments posted by satisfied customers on Google and Yell and it’s apparent that the majority of clients benefit from exceptional service.

“Technology has advanced rapidly in my 20 years with the firm,” adds Elspeth, “and it’s allowed us to move with the times and become more efficient and customer focused. We’ve developed a
clean and clear website and within that there’s the opportunity for honest and transparent feedback. Reviews are important but what we really rate is the fact that we get recommended personally. If the majority of your reviews are four or five stars then of course it says something good about you but nothing beats a personal recommendation and that’s where we source so much or our work.

“Most of the time legal services aren’t exactly a joyful or happy purchase. I think that’s when the trust issue comes in. People are buying into us and into this concept of what their new normal is. We assure them that things can be normal again and that there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

Elspeth sits on the national committee for Resolution, the family justice organisation, while Mike is a member of both the Law Society’s Mental Health Tribunal panel and the Mental Health Lawyers Association.

David Gray may be a firm founded on strong principles and a proud tradition but Elspeth and Mike are proof that experience and expertise underpin an admirable ethos.

“I like where we’re at right now,” adds Elspeth. “As a firm we’re good at what we do, we’ve been here a long time and our reputation has been built on that. We’re not the flashiest of firms but we know our law, we know our clients and we know the community around both our Newcastle and South Shields offices. And we’re still the innovative and unique firm David founded 40 years ago. You could even describe us as cutting edge – we even have a ping pong table in the office!”

Mike, sporting a trademark suit with open collar as he chats to North East Times, still harks back to the days when jeans and trainers were the workwear of choice but serious thought went into a seemingly daring dress code. “Again, it fitted perfectly with who we are and who we wanted to be,” he adds. “We dressed like our clients would dress. We’ve always endeavoured to connect with our customers and make them feel at ease. That was just one of the ways we felt we could do that.”

Forty years down the line and the myriad ways in which David Gray resonates with its client base ensures the firm is set fair for the future. “It’s an exciting future,” concludes Elspeth. “There are plenty of good people coming through the ranks. It’s people who make the difference and David Gray has got some great new people joining a fantastic team.”

David Gray is home to more than 70 employees – including the next generation of legal talent. North East Times met the new breed making its mark on Tyneside…

Mention Centre Parcs in the company of Amy Lamb, Irim Ali and Nicola Fisher and the memories come flooding back. Three of David Gray’s rising stars swap knowing glances, laugh about the all-staff trip to Cumbria and concur that, as welcome weekends go, it will be tough to top.

“I started working for the firm last March and in the April we went to Centre Parcs,” explains Irim. “It gave me a really good opportunity to meet everybody – from fellow new starters to the partners. It wasn’t a team building weekend at all. Nothing that serious. It was completely chilled out.”

Nicola agrees. “Like Irim, I’d only been with the firm for a few weeks when all of us went to Centre Parcs. I couldn’t believe my luck! It was a lovely idea and allowed me to find my feet quickly and with confidence.”

Amy nods in approval. “Everyone loves how inclusive the firm is,” she adds. “I’d been a here a week when one of the partners retired. I was invited to the Biscuit Factory for a big meal and it was a lovely way to be introduced to the firm. It reinforced everything I’d been told about David Gray.”

As a long-established staple of the North East legal landscape, tales of David Gray the firm – much like those stories relating to David Gray the man – are the stuff of legend. But what Amy and her colleagues were told about the firm rings true as far as the latest recruits are concerned: its relaxed workplace ethos, trusted position at the heart of the local community and determination to do things differently continues to attract high calibre trainees keen to build on a famous legacy.

“The way that law firms are often portrayed when you watch legal dramas is that you start at 6am and you’re still there at midnight,” adds Irim. “That perception does exist and even though I’d always wanted to be a lawyer that always put me off.

“I had a young family and so I waited and waited until the kids were older before I made the transition into full-time work. Having joined David Gray, I’ve realised it’s the complete opposite – there’s plenty of flexibility and, most importantly, I’ve never been here until midnight!

“The firm works so hard to help its employees find that ideal work-life balance. The more comfortable and stable you are outside work the more likely you are to be happy in your work.”

Amy echoes her colleague’s view. “The support that we get at David Gray is absolutely phenomenal – of course we all have busy workloads but everyone is on hand to support you. Help is always there.”

Nicola is keen to underline the point. “I’m encouraged to find out more and senior colleagues can’t do enough to steer me in the right direction,” she explains. “I’m fairly new to conveyancing and I want to develop my knowledge in as many areas as possible. I’m always asking questions but the environment at David Gray means I’m encouraged to ask those questions and I can always expect a useful answer and relevant advice.”

Irim, Nicola and Amy share a common ambition – to become valued members of the David Gray family for years to come and continue to benefit from an environment geared towards professional and personal development.

“David Gray has always had a unique ethos and reputation and it was always on my bucket list in terms of where I wanted to end up,” insists Amy, who sees her long-term future in family or criminal law. Irim, passionate about immigration and facing the unique challenge of Brexit head on, adds: “I’ve already told the partners that I’m never going to leave! My ambition is to stay with David Gray and I hope I get that opportunity. I love it here.”

As for Nicola? “Everyone seems very proud to work for the firm,” she explains. “There’s a strong sense of personal investment and a real family feel.”

David Gray Solicitors LLP
David Gray specialise in family, criminal, mental health, immigration and property law.
0191 232 9547