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An Interview with Sarah Goulbourne, Co-Founder of gunnercooke

Posted by Tamara Salem

Sarah Goulbourne is an award-winning entrepreneur and co-founder and board member of the gunnercooke Group. gunnercooke is a challenger law firm. It challenges the way that legal services are delivered to clients. It challenges the way that lawyers balance their lives. It challenges the way our communities are served by those of us more fortunate. Sarah speaks with Tamara Salem, Managing Consultant at Pro-Legal about life at gunnercooke, the difference between gunnercooke and the traditional law firm and how she sees the legal market changing over the next few years.

Tell me about yourself, how your career started and what you do at gunnercooke?

I qualified as a solicitor and developed my career as an in-house lawyer becoming a General Counsel and Company Secretary of a FTSE 250. After completing an MBA I wanted a new challenge so I teamed up with Darryl Cooke to set up gunnercooke. I’m now on the board of gunnercooke supporting our strategy and promoting the firm. My particular interest is around recruiting new lawyers to join the firm and coaching our lawyers to develop their practices.

What are the benefits and differences between gunnercooke and a traditional law firm?

gunnercooke throws out the restrictive elements of a traditional law firm such as timesheets and targets, giving lawyers time to focus their attention on their clients. We offer partners the freedom and flexibility to run their own practice, set their own hours and choose who they work with. Partners retain most of the fees they earn, working as independent consultants with the support of our infrastructure and brand. We are also client centric in our approach to pricing; offering price certainty as much as possible. This approach ensures that our objectives are fully aligned with our clients, with no hidden costs or running clocks.

How have you adapted to working through lockdown and through the changing landscape following COVID?

Lockdown has been a challenging curveball for all of us. At gunnercooke we have always been set up to allow lawyers to work remotely, which has meant the transition has been relatively smooth compared to other businesses. However, home working can be lonely, so our focus has been on ensuring our communications are as strong as possible, that partners still feel supported and part of a team. We run a diverse programme of virtual sessions, which ranges from social ‘drinks’ and networking, to training on how to re-evaluate your business plan and even to wellbeing, such as how to remain resilient in challenging times.

What kind of person does well at gunnercooke and what do you look for in potential joiners?

At gunnercooke partners are given the autonomy to run their own practice so it’s essential they have ambition and a passion for what they do.  A typical gunnercooke partner is someone who has deep expertise in their field, and truly acts as a trusted advisor to their clients. At recruitment stage, we take time to understand the lawyer’s business plan – they must have a solid client following. We have an extensive range of services which support our lawyers, but essentially you must be a self-starter – you have to have the confidence to build your own practice, without the relative ‘comfort blanket’ of a salaried role. Alongside this, I think the people who get the best from our model are those who are very collaborative. It’s a misconception that this is model for siloed working; we operate a vibrant internal referral market and there is a huge opportunity to work with other lawyers on providing a brilliant service to their clients.

How does gunnercooke differentiate themselves in the market compared to other alternative structures?

Many law firms with an alternative business structure pride themselves on being a virtual law firm. But there is nothing virtual about the way we run our firm. Our role is to facilitate as many opportunities as possible for lawyers to collaborate, and we feel that the emphasis we place on this is unlike any other ‘fee share’ model. Culturally, we treat all of our lawyers as businesspeople, as such our training reflects helping them to adopt an entrepreneurial ‘growth mindset’. We set up a sister company Operating Partners, to provide high quality business growth advice to our clients and again this is a key differentiator. Whilst the pandemic has thrown us a challenge, our culture encourages flexible working, not just from home but also in our three offices and though networking events. Other firms can adopt the same fee share model, but it’s our culture that can’t be copied, we have an incredibly strong internal focus on vision and values. Feedback from our partners is that gunnercooke is unlike any firm they have ever been at before. We are very personal in our approach and look at the little things that create a big culture; personal cards, thoughtful gifts, ways to show we care about our people.

How does the referral network within gunnercooke benefit the Partners in the wider business?

Whilst our partners run their own practice, they are not working in siloes. As mentioned, the people who do best are those who collaborate. We encourage a culture of referrals through regular internal networking events, which give partners the opportunity to learn more about each other’s specialities. We have a fantastic rewards programme and partners receive a minimum of 10% of the fees generated through a referral. Last year over £5m of fees were cross referred between our lawyers and this is growing.

How do you think the role of Partner has changed over the years?

In the traditional model, the ‘Partner’ typically has a myriad of roles; management of the firm, developing people, committee member of all sorts of groups. The higher you climb, the less time you spend practising the law, and many of the lawyers I interview say that this is something they miss. A model like gunnercooke allows partners to get back to doing what they do best: offering quality legal advice to their clients. Our aim is to develop people that consider themselves businesspeople and not just lawyers. The modern partner is much more than management; they are businesspeople in their own right, and are flourishing in their field of expertise.

How do you see the legal market changing in the coming years?

The legal market has changed drastically since we launched gunnercooke ten years ago, and the next decade is set to be just as fast paced, not only due to the impact of Covid-19. I expect we will see more advancements in technology including virtual collaboration tools and AI. We are also seeing other types of professionals becoming part of the legal team, including technology or data experts, and consulting or finance. Finally, it’s likely there will be more mergers and fewer large firms as new market entrants drive innovation and challenge the traditional structure.

What challenges, personally or professionally, do you think the next generation of legal face?

Many sectors are facing years of recovery from the impact of Covid-19. Lawyers are having to adapt to the challenge of home working, whilst continuing to offer a quality service to clients who are in a period of crisis. For lawyers starting out in their career, it’s going to be more difficult to learn and develop virtually, without having access to senior colleagues. It’s important that firms invest time to make sure the next generation are getting the support they need, whether that be face-to-face or through virtual webinars and training.  

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Be open to new opportunities that come your way. Different experiences will add to your growth. Don’t be afraid to take some risks to get to where you want to be.

Any final words of advice for people looking to progress their legal career?

Work out which area of the legal sector you think you will enjoy the most and aim to move into that area as soon as you can.

For more information on this article or to take part in our exclusive Interview series, contact Tamara Salem on 020 7269 6368 or tamara.salem@pro-legal.co.uk.

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