Representing the ne’erdowells of the North-East, sponsoring roundabouts on Teesside and not opening a New York office, senior partner at Dickinson Dees law firm Robin Bloom talks to Graeme King.
WORKING in the legal profession today is a very different challenge to what it was 25 years ago. From an era when firms could only have a limited number of partners and were not allowed to seek out new clients through anything as gauche as marketing, the profession in the 21st century has never been so business focused – or so expansionist.
Robin Bloom has witnessed that journey in the North-East from a front row seat, and seems to be very much at home with the changes which have turned the profession on its head.
But despite having been integral to delivering some rapid growth at the region’s biggest firm, Bloom also has stories to tell of his early days in the profession and clearly looks back on that period with some fondness.
Having attended Rugby School, and then Durham University, Bloom qualified at Chester College of Law, before doing his articles at his father’s form Cohen Jackson on Teesside and at Addleshaws in Manchester.
While the large firms today are made up of teams of specialists, things were different a couple of decades ago. When Bloom started out at Cohen Jackson, he was required to turn his hand to all sorts of issues.
He says: “I have always been interested in the law, and in how law firms work. There was never a time when I did not think I would a lawyer.
“When I was starting out at Cohen Jackson, the partner who ran the criminal department had a serious illness so I was thrown in at the deep end. I went round the magistrates courts of the North-East, representing the criminal fraternity, though I was doing some conveyancing and commercial stuff as well.”
Bloom says this was great experience for the career which lay ahead of him. “The one thing about that sort of work is that your advocacy skills improve, and you learn about clients. The first question you must ask is ‘What do you want to achieve?’
“Some clients would actively want to go to prison, if Christmas was coming. While some would want you to keep them out of prison for a certain length of time – for instance, if their wife was having a baby. It was quite an important lesson in understanding clients. There were moments of great humour and also moments which were deeply unpleasant. It’s certainly very different to what a lot of people qualifying into firms like Dickinson Dees experience now.”
One particular client seems to have provided a few chastening moments.
“He was a target criminal. That meant that if there was any large scale criminal activity, he was likely to be arrested,” he says.
“He stayed out of prison for a long time, notwithstanding being accused of a lot of things. From our point of view, the fact that people like that stayed out of prison was good, as if they were inside, they were not giving us any work.
“When this individual did go to prison, it was a very nasty assault in which he broke somebody’s legs, and his defence was that it was a case of mistaken identity. But unsurprisingly, it didn’t wash.
“There’s no doubt he was a deeply unsavoury character, though he was the bread and butter of that side of the practice.”
Bloom says he did not really enjoy representing such criminals though and he eventually changed direction.
”There was not a lot of job satisfaction. You could be a very good criminal lawyer, but the people you were helping, they were not people where you got a sense of professional pride. It was not what I enjoyed.
“But moving into employment law was not about being idealistic. I wanted to make sure I was working with people whose company I enjoyed, and where I had interesting legal issues to deal with – and that coincided with the growth in employment tribunal work.
“Companies were quite exposed to claims in that area and it was a nice, interesting area of law. It was not academically difficult but new law was developing as you went along, which was quite interesting.
“There could be an engineering business, then a farm, then a bakery. It was interesting as, to do the job properly, you needed to know the law but you also had to know about the industry, shift patterns, terms and conditions, union relations, etc. There was interesting stuff around the edges of the law which made the relationships interesting.
“I went from something which did not leave a pleasant taste in your mouth – in criminal law, to something very interesting and stimulating.”
Bloom had quite a long career at Cohen Jackson – later Jacksons – and rose to the rank of partner.
It was not until 1999 that an opportunity arose to spread his wings in a new direction when Dickinson Dees came calling, when they were looking to open a new office in the south of the region.
Bloom says: “I joined the firm on January 1, 2000. It was really exciting. The idea was to be one of two partners opening the Tees Valley office, along with Nigel Williams. He was indigenous to the area too.
“It was a really big move for me, because I was a partner in a successful firm down there and there was a decision as to whether to move outside my comfort zone and take risks with that, or stay where I was and then look back later and consider whether it was something I regretted not doing.”
But he did make the leap and was quickly thrust into quite a challenging role.
He says: “It was an area not noted for having a vibrant legal market and we had really good fun setting up the office. Dickinson Dees had never done it before, so it was seat of the pants stuff to some extent.
“There was just Nigel, myself, and a kettle to start with, and one of us would have to put the mail in a postbox each evening.
“The whole marketing side was fascinating – having to establish the brand in a new marketplace.
“Apart from just pressing the flesh, we were doing things Dickinson Dees had never done – like advertising, and even sponsoring a roundabout!”
The expansion of the firm has since gone on apace, with Tees Valley established as a second home for Dickinson Dees in the North-East, a second Newcastle office taken on, and now the firm has homes in York and London too.
Bloom says: “For as long as I have been with the firm, we have been acting for clients outside the area. There are two different drivers for our London and York offices. London is very much driven by the fact that we have significant clients doing a lot of business down there, so we have people there for long periods of time.
“To the people we are acting for, it’s given us a level of credibility which we did not previously have.
“There are now opportunities to pitch for work which we would not have had before.
“The merger with Philip Ashworth was a different type of opportunity to what a lot of firms have looked at – particularly in Leeds. It reflected our view that we are a bit different to a lot of firms.
“When we analysed the totality of the client base, not many wanted us in Leeds, and there is a lot of Yorkshire that doesn’t want to answer to Leeds all the time. Being based in York gives us access to the market east of the A1, and the opportunity to pick up business out of the Leeds market as well.
“There’s been a lot of warm comment saying we’ve identified a gap in the market. There is an opportunity to attack a market that is currently not ‘over lawyered’ but has some very good quality clients. York in itself would not have been a market – Yorkshire is a market. There is so much to go for.”
Dickinson Dees said when it announced its merger with Philip Ashworth that it would aim to relocate the practice to larger premises when required.
And now it is close to making a move – to the old home of part of York’s once booming confectionery industry.
Bloom said: “Our preferred location is the former Terry’s chocolate factory, which is in the course of being redeveloped. We hope to occupy the old office HQ there until the new development is available.”
However the firm is still committed to remaining a North-East firm – and does not yet plan to expand anywhere else, despite the assumptions of a former partner.
“When we announced the merger with Philip Ashworth, one former partner popped into the office. He was very excited, saying ‘what’s this I hear about a New York office?’ We had to tell him that there was no capital ‘n’ involved.”
Regardless of Chinese whispers though, Bloom says Dickinson Dees is very happy to remain based in its home town.
“We remain Newcastle headquartered and are proud of it. Whatever happens, that will remain the model for the foreseeable future.
“There is no appetite for a different type of model.
“There are no plans for any further offices at the moment, but when you have got a dynamic business like ours, you are constantly reviewing that. You don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
“Different firms have different designs. There are firms who are headquartered in Yorkshire who see themselves as truly international. And even Yorkshire firms who see themselves as multinational.
“But the stage we are at in our business planning is that we see ourselves as being a leading regional law firm with national practice.”
The number of partners and staff at Dickinson Dees is likely to keep growing, however, from the current level of 925.
““It’s no secret we are looking at putting our volume business (private client), with a couple of hundred people, in a different location to the main business.
“The likelihood is that in 2008, they will move into their own premises. It will give us space to grow the core business for the next two to three years.
“With growth in the business, you tend to get periods of consolidation and then step changes. We’ve got a number of vacancies at the moment, and with staff to support them, that would take us past 950,” says Bloom.
“We will continue to grow and continue to create jobs where we are growing.We certainly don’t have a cap on how big we could be in three years’ time.”
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What car do you drive?
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Sardis in Darlington.
Who or what makes you laugh?
What’s your favourite book?
The most lasting impression undoubtedly was from 1984 by George Orwell.
What was the last album you bought?
It’s too long ago to remember.
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
‘You get out of life what you put into it.’
What’s your greatest fear?
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
‘You are only as good as the team around you.’
And the worst?
‘Equitable Life is the pension provider of choice.’
What’s your poison?
A glass of Rioja.
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
The Times and the Evening Gazette (in Middlesbrough).
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
£10 per week as a farm labourer.
How do you keep fit?
It does not keep me fit, but I try to run two or three times a week.
What’s your most irritating habit?
Not listening properly.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
A fortnightly visit to the barbers.
Which historical or fictional character do you most admire?
Martin Luther King for the enduring impact he made on civil rights.
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Nelson Mandela; Martin Johnson – captain of the England World Cup winning rugby team; Neil Armstrong (did they really land on the moon?); and David Jason, the actor (hopefully he would provide the lighter moments).
How would you like to be remembered?
I am not concerned with whether people remember me but would hope that whilst they know me they find me fully committed and fair.