Performance Leader Podcast: S3 Ep 3: David Patient, Reflections on Leading a Law Firm

Ray D'Cruz
Performance Leader

Welcome to series 3, episode 3 of the Performance Leader podcast series.

In this episode, my guest is David Patient. David reflects on his time as Managing Partner, building a talented leadership team, the firm’s strategic goals and change agenda, and leading a high-performance firm. We touch on DEI, legacy, managing partner peer support, the unique Travers Smith office set up, and more. We hope you enjoy the episode.

About our guest

David Patient from Travers Smith is our guest on the Performance Leaders’ podcast.

David trained at Travers Smith and became a partner in 1999, specialising in UK and international M&A. He established the firm’s Paris office in the same year. 

David was elected to the Travers Smith Partnership Board in 2010 and became the firm’s Managing Partner in 2015 until stepping down in 2021.

David is one of the most respected leaders in the UK legal profession. In 2021 he was awarded the Managing Partner of the Year Award at the Legal Business Awards.

Today, David serves as a member of The Law Society Council representing  the UK's major corporate firms, the Committee of The City of London Law Society, as well as of the IBA Law Firm Management Committee Advisory Board.

Interview Transcript

Ray: [1:50] David, thanks for being a guest on the Performance Leader's podcast.

David: [1:55] Ray, well, thank you very much for having me. It's very good to have this opportunity to speak with you.

Ray: [2:00] David, what are you doing now that you're no longer managing partner?

David: [2:05] Well, I stood down as the firm's managing partner at the end of June 2021, after just under seven years in the role and having not practiced full time during that period, in fact, the emphasis in this firm whilst managing partner is not to do a huge amount of client work, I didn't feel that it was either in my best interests or the firm's best interests to suddenly try and return to 100 miles an hour of client practice. So whilst I do some, I'm also focused on what I would think of as more of an ambassadorial role for the firm, with clients, on the international stage where, as you know, as an independent law firm, we rely very heavily on the relationships that we have with high quality like-minded firms around the world, and that relies on relationships as well, which is something that I've been closely involved in for the firm for over 20 years. One thing that I did when I stepped down as managing partner was actually put myself forward for election to the Council of our Law Society representing what are called the major corporate firms, essentially the City law firms. And I was elected to that post in the autumn of last year. So, I have quite a close involvement with the Law Society, representing the profession, representing the city, also the City of London Law Society. And another area which I was keen to be remain closely connected with, having pushed that as part of the agenda when I was managing partner, is just the whole relationship with our alumni community who I think are an extremely important part of the Travers Smith family. And you know, one of the reasons for wanting to get involved with some of the professional bodies here was I felt that with my experience as managing partner, coming out of the COVID period, I thought there was really a once in a lifetime opportunity to help influence the conversation around the profession, how we were going to work going forward. Because as we all know, a lot of things changed over that period. So yeah, that's really what I'm up to at the moment.

Ray: [4:30] There seems to be a bit of a push from some to just go back to what it was before the pandemic, and there's a push from some to perhaps use it as an opportunity for change. Are you seeing that divide in the profession?

David: [4:44] I think here in the UK we have firmly embraced on the whole the changes that the period has brought, in particular in relation to flexible working. You will have seen probably walking the streets of London over the last few days that it's not quite as busy as it used to be. Whether that will change in the months and years to come, I'm not sure. But clearly a lot of people enjoyed the flexibility of home working and for them it was important that they continue to have that right to be able to work from home when it is appropriate to do so. There is obviously a fine balance here between the service that we need to provide to clients, the way in which teams work, and I strongly believe that on most occasions, actually working together collaboratively, in the same space and places is really important. And also just for the culture of a business, we are office based businesses really.  A lot of people are being very flexible about allowing people to continue to have that flexibility that they want in their lives and their working lives. A lot of things changed during the period, you know, for the good as well. Our ability to communicate in different ways using technology, a huge jump forward in that sort of way of working and also I guess in just how we communicate with clients and firms around the world. You know, I wasn't able to jump on a plane or a train for months and months, but it didn't stop me talking to people, you know, through a zoom call, through a teams call, in a way which I would probably not really have envisaged prior to COVID. So I think some positive advances, advancements that we need to seize.

Ray: [6:54] Your pathway into the managing partner role David, what was your prior leadership experience or interest that led you towards that position?

David: [7:04] Well, it's a very good question because I don't think that I had given a huge amount of thought to becoming managing partner of the firm when I became a partner or certainly prior to that, of course, as well. But I was given a fantastic opportunity back in 1999, which was the year that I became a partner at Travers Smith, to go and open a new office for the firm. Actually, the firm's only office outside of London, happens to be in Paris. I was a fluent French speaker. I had spent some time on a secondment with a Parisian law firm, and that was a period when a lot of our competitors were really starting to plant flags around continental Europe. And we felt that it was appropriate for us to have a hedge, if you like, against that internationalisation. I had a really fantastic experience in developing a business there, and I think it allowed me to become quite independent in the way in which I sort of thought about my own practice.

Ray: [8:17] And was it just you initially?

David: [8:20] It was just me initially, yeah. The office grew to about seven or eight people over a period of time. But we operate differently from most of our competitors in the sense that we only practice English law. So we're not trying to compete with the local firms in the market. As a result, there is a limit to how many people you really need and in terms of boots on the ground. But it was a it was a great experience. And it allowed me to step into an important role internationally for the firm, building the relationships that we have around the world. I think that profile helped me to get elected to our board in 2010, which was my first real experience, I guess, of management within the wider firm. And then I was asked a year or two later to join our remuneration committee, which I agreed to do. And so over a period of five years prior to becoming managing partner in 2015, I guess I'd built up a trusted profile which allowed me, when I did decide to put my hat in the ring in 2014 to get that post.

Ray: [9:41] And by then, having been on the board, having been on the Rem Com, you probably had some clear strategic priorities that had emerged for you That you were looking at the managing partner role, saying, well, if I do that role, I can do these things. What were some of those priorities?

David: [10:00]  When I when I was elected, we already had a direction of travel, which I was clearly supportive of. My goal was simply to, you know, to try and ensure that those ambitions were fulfilled. I think I had a number of sort of key strategic priorities for the firm, which included, most importantly for me, the professionalisation of of our business. By which I mean, I think that as a law firm, we had done extremely well in running ourselves, ourselves. In other words, lawyers performing too many of the of the important functions in the business. And I felt that the most successful law firms of the future at that time were going to be the ones who could leverage off highly qualified professionals who were not lawyers. So I set about professionalizing all of those areas of our business, which were essentially not the legal functions. I felt that we needed to have a proper sense of the vision and purpose of this firm. So we set that out and we very much lived the decision making of the firm through the core strategic principles that we felt were appropriate to adhere to. So that was a key thing. I also wanted to ensure, that as lawyers, we were not only extremely well practiced in the black letter law, but we also had the requisite core skills which are important for lawyers in terms of delivering the service to the client. So we introduced a number of development programmes for our junior lawyers, something which we called the Milestone Development Programme. And, as you went through your career, you went on different programmes, some of them held internally, some of them held externally at places like Judge and Moeller. And then we also decided to ensure that our partners were properly equipped for their roles. And we introduced partner development programmes for all of our partners, both at Judge and then subsequently at Said Business School in Oxford. D&I was very important for me as well. I felt that we were going in the right direction, but in particular I was worried that some of our female lawyers were self selecting themselves out of partnership opportunities. And when I looked at the level of females in our partnership, when I became managing partner, it was only something like 13%. And so I'm very proud that today we have just under 30% women who are partners. And obviously we have a much bigger partnership.

Ray: [13:18]  That's a really significant achievement over seven years.

David: [13:21] Yeah, absolutely. We had we had so many very good people out there. But as I said, I think that a number of them were deciding, for whatever reason, that it wasn't appropriate. And so we made a number of changes to the policies, to the way in which we had transparent discussions with people that I think meant that, over time, those candidates who might not or previously have been there did come through. And once you get a bit of momentum, you know, things change quite quickly.

Ray: [13:56]  David, you mentioned strategy a little bit earlier. Why was strategy so important to you? What did you think it offered the firm.

David: [14:08] I recall having a meeting with a recruiter that we used regularly in my very early days as managing partner, and I decided to ask him what he thought of Travers Smith. And he said, fantastic law firm, great people, but no strategy. I thought to myself, well, we do have a strategy, we're just not articulating it as well as we should do. And so we set about trying to ensure that we did articulate what it was that we were trying to to be, who we were, and how we were going to get there. And I recall in 2016, I think it was, a year after I became managing partner, we presented our first firm wide business plan to the firm, which was built from the bottom up. It wasn't sort of superimposed. But it had a nice little catchphrase to it, which, which really, I think felt encapsulated who we were and what we wanted to be. We wanted to be high quality, high touch and hi tech, and we certainly weren't the latter at that particular time. But over the course of the next few years, I think we transformed the way in which we were able to perform our services using technology. You can be the best lawyers in the world, but if your technology does not allow you to work with your clients, your clients won't work with you. And so we put a huge amount of effort and investment into ensuring that we were a firm who could work with anybody at any time.

Ray: [15:55] It's really interesting you say that one of the managing partners who I used to work for long time ago said that the strategy and vision piece was a critical enabler for him to be able to recruit talent into the firm, whether that be C-suite or lateral partner hires or other people. It became the hook the firms that didn't have it lacked that hook.

David: [16:20] I think that's absolutely right. I mean, again, you can be as convincing as you like in terms of your personality and how nice you are. And I'd like to work with these people, but unless you persuade people of the vision, what you're trying to achieve, how you're going to do it, then high quality individuals will not want to join the firm because they won't see the pathway forward.

Ray: [16:50] You did have a really significant change agenda. I think I spoke to a number of years ago and at the time he said there were 40 or 45 change projects, big and small, on the go at that time. How did you manage so many projects?

David: [17:08] Well, those were probably the ones on the go. We had a long list of ones which were still to come online. Look, it was a challenge. Of those programmes, some would have been much more significant than others, of course. Some would have been really, really quite small. But all important things. I think that the way in which we looked at it was to become much more disciplined about what we were trying to achieve. We devised this program, which we called the Working Smarter program, and the reason that I could have told you then that there were 40 or 45 change programs on the go was because we had, you know, a very detailed document which described them and where we were going with them and the time scale and how we were doing against that time scale. We recruited a very small team of people to help us with that change management who came from outside of the legal profession and introduced new disciplines for us, which I don't think that we as lawyers had probably really thought about in the past. So for every change program, we would create what we call a tile. That tile would set out what the objective of the program was, who was sponsoring it, who the key stakeholders were. And, most importantly, at the end of any program, you need to look at the results and decide whether you've achieved what you want to to achieve. Regular meetings, I think, again, it goes back to your your point about recruiting high quality people who buy into your vision. But I felt extremely blessed as managing partner that over the course of two or three years as a managing partner, I had managed to develop, recruit in some cases, an amazing group of senior directors who I very much felt were my - what I call my guiding coalition. I recognised that whilst I could be the leader of the firm and, and push the direction of the firm, at the end of the day, I wasn't going to be able to personally implement the changes that I wanted to bring about. I was very reliant on these very high quality individuals who acted as a coordinated team. That's also extremely important in terms of delivering, I think.

Ray: [19:44] One thing I noticed about your senior team was the level of trust and engagement you all had with each other and also the way in which you treated them very much as equals. It was noticeable for an outsider coming in and we often reflect on what is a marker of success when we as external consultants come into a firm. Because we tend to work in the people side, it's that relationship between the HR director and the managing partner. If we see a relationship that's strong and trusting and highly communicative, we've got a good insight that our work will be successful.

David: [20:27] Yeah, I mean, I think at the end of the day we are, as I said, a people business. And I think having strong HR leadership is vital for the success of any people business. I was very fortunate that I guess one of my first significant recruits in my first year as managing partner was Moira Slape, who joined as our new HR director in November 2015. And yes, we had a very strong working relationship throughout my time as managing partner, but that whilst that was critical, her relationship with the finance director, with the chief technology officer, with the head of business development and marketing, all those things and other key stakeholders, was absolutely vital. I'm delighted that you could see from the outside that the strong relationship and team there was evident. Because I do think that that was one of the key reasons for the achievements that we had over the over the years.

Ray: [21:41] David, just moving on to this idea of high performing firms, what does that mean to you? What are the hallmarks of a high performing firm?

David: [21:52]  You need to have strong collaboration. I go back to the the, the way in which our senior directors work together. Support for each other. You mentioned that that was something that you could observe for from outside. You have to like the people that you work with. Sounds strange, but is actually extremely important. And I do think that one of the characteristics of Travers Smith is that people enjoy coming to work, they enjoy working with their colleagues. Here we have, as you as you know, we have this fairly unique way of working here in our legal teams where people share offices. So in each in each office, you will have somewhere between four and six people, a partner, a couple of associates, a trainee, typically. That allows us to have quite a flat hierarchy. It allows us to develop very strong relationships with the people we work with. It allows for risk management. It allows for teamwork and also personal development. Observing how people work around you is really key.

Ray: [23:21]  That office set up is a bit unique and I'm just wondering whether in this as we move into a post-pandemic world and we're trying to get people back into the office, whether that idea of coming into an office where there are other people to work with and not just sitting in a cubicle becomes a real pull.

David: [23:45] Yeah, I mean, possibly, unless you're nervous about getting COVID, of course. No, I think so. I mean, I think look, if you're sitting at home in your own cubicle and you're comparing that with the ability to come in and sit in another cubicle, having travelled, you know, 30 minutes, 60 minutes, 90 minutes to get to work, the idea maybe, maybe less appealing. I've always thought that to really attract people to back to the office, you've got to make it feel like a better experience for them than working at home, notwithstanding the commute. And part of that is obviously going to be the sociability, the fact of spending time with people. I mean, I'm sure you saw this yourself, but I will never forget when we were able to reopen the office in 2020, just seeing people's emotions getting together again, you know, it was such a great thing to see. And I still think that, you know, two and a half years on, almost, you know, there are there are some people you haven't seen much of. And it's such a pleasure when you do get to see them again. So I think you're right. I think it could be one of the one of the distinguishing factors.

Ray: [25:06]  What's your reflection on being on Rem Com and the challenge of improving partner performance

David: [25:15]  Rem Coms in firms will operate in different ways. Ours is relatively straightforward in the sense that we operate a what I call a core lockstep system. So there's very little to debate. And it's also really the responsibility of the managing partner and the board to deal with questions of partner performance. Partner performance is one of those things where I personally feel, when you have a core lockstep, you don't need to be to be heavy handed, but you do have to manage a lockstep if you're going to defend it. One of the areas that we made great progress with over the last seven or eight years was ensuring that our partners understood better what was expected of them. I'm not talking about tons of different financial KPIs. I'm talking about partner expectations, around financial discipline, around business development, around development of their own teams leadership, all those sort of key qualities. And so, whilst clearly, financial performance is important, it is a team effort.  You have to measure people differently depending upon, you know, the different contributions that they are making, whether that's because of where they are in the partnership or the kind of department that they're working in.

Ray: [25:06]  David, part of being a managing partner is having difficult conversations, including with peers. What advice do you have for other managing partners having to deal with that particular issue?

David: [25:15] That's a very good question. I think clearly some people are better at having difficult conversations than others. I think you need to learn - which I think you do over time as partner -  to understand what's in the best interests of the people that you're talking to and ultimately what's in the best interests of the business as a whole. Clearly ahead of any difficult conversation, you need to be well prepared, maybe even scripted, depending upon what kind of difficult conversation it is you're going to have. But ultimately, it goes back to the way that this firm works around its core lockstep remuneration systems. You need to be honest with people. You also need to give them plenty of notice if you think that there are performance issues. But you can't let things fester. Openness, transparency, and also as a leader, you know that it's your responsibility ultimately to have those difficult conversations. And I do recall that one of the best bits of advice I got prior to becoming managing partner was from the former managing partner of a Swedish firm who I liked very much, who said to me, "David, just don't take it personally". And I very much tried to live by that. It wasn't me having this difficult conversation with the person in question. It was me in my capacity as managing partner, and that was my responsibility. So, you know, whilst these things are never easy, I tried not to take it personally.

Ray: [29:19] Earlier you mentioned DEI as a key element of your strategy. What is the managing partner's role in championing diversity, equity and inclusion?

David: [29:31] I think like in any organization, leadership has a really important part to play in setting the tone from the from the top. And I think that in our firm, we have been incredibly fortunate over the last, best part of a decade now, to have had two senior partners, Chris Hale and now Kathleen Russ, who have been real champions of that agenda. One of the first significant hires we made when I became managing partner was to appoint a D&I officer who came from outside the legal community. And he and the team that he have developed has been instrumental ensuring that at all times we are taking into account those considerations in everything that we do. I think as a leader, you need to ensure that you are not just talking the talk, but you're also, you know, walking the walk and demonstrating that in everything you do, you actually do believe in what you're trying to do. As someone once said, don't tell me you're funny, make me laugh.

Ray: [31:00]  David, you've previously mentioned to me that the peer support you received from other managing partners was really helpful. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

David: [31:07]  People said to me, when you come into this role, it can be a lonely job. And I never really found it to be that lonely in Travers Smith. I always felt very well supported by my partners, and I had a fantastic team of high quality professionals working around me. But, I wanted to reach out to my peers across the market and, you know, share with them what we were doing, what they were doing. And I think that I made some very good friends, some very good acquaintances through that. And I felt that it helped me in my own decision making to be able to bounce off things with them and for them to do the same with me. And it's interesting when you when you start in your role, you have zero experience and you go to people who have loads of experience. And by the time I stepped down as managing partner, I was being asked the questions by people who were coming into those roles and being sought out. So I've always really enjoyed that part of the job.

Ray: [32:18] And this is partly why you're getting involved with these city law committees at the moment.

David: [32:22] Yeah, absolutely. It's again, it's sharing the experiences and continuing to develop myself and hear other people's experiences. And I can bring them back to the firm as well.

Ray: [32:37] David, my final question relates to legacy. Whenever I ask a managing partner about their personal legacy, they become very deferential and modest. And I understand that because you see yourself as a first amongst equals and because you're so heavily reliant on your management team. But were you were you conscious of, of legacy whilst you were managing partner? And now that you've stepped away from the role, what do you think that legacy might be?

David: [33:07] Yeah. I mean, I think you're always conscious of legacy. You always want to do the best that you can. You want to ensure that when you've finished a job, you feel that you've done it to the best of your ability. So for me, most importantly, I wanted to finish my term in office with as few regrets as possible, shall we say. But I also wanted to feel proud of what we'd achieved collectively. And I think that looking back on what I set out to do when I was elected in the summer of 2014, and where we ended up, I think that we delivered on so many of our objectives, in particular around, I think, the transformational change that we brought about delivering improved productivity, innovative client solutions, and obviously significantly increased revenues and profitability which were extremely important. I think the other thing is that you realise when you when you're trying to do a job like the one of managing partner, is that it's not a popularity contest. But at the same time you would like to think that when you step away from the role, okay, maybe you're not as popular as you were, but you're still respected. And also that when you stop, it's not at a point in time when people are necessarily completely tired of your voice. I think there's a danger that you can go on to too long in a job. Ultimately, as a partner in a law firm and obviously as a managing partner in a law firm, you're a custodian of the business. That's it. And you want to feel and I do feel that when you step away from that, you know, you've handed over something which is in good shape to those who follow on from you.

Ray: [35:21] David, it's been a privilege and pleasure having you as a guest on the Performance Leaders Podcast. Thank you.

David: [35:28] Thank you very much, Ray.

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