Challenging norms in the law industry
Challenger law firm Gunnercooke differs from the norm. With upfront fees, hybrid working practices and revenue sharing, it promises greater work-life balance with no compromise on legal expertise. FD Naseer Patel CA explains why the model works – and how, via the Gunnercooke Foundation, it’s enabling the firm to give back
Naseer Patel CA’s career path has been no accident. From a young age, he knew he wanted to work in business, in the city, at a senior executive level. What he didn’t know was how to get there. “But I started doing my research,” he says, “and, knowing I was naturally suited to a more mathematical role, it became clear I should do accounting, and specifically the CA qualification.”
Look to those in C-suite roles in FTSE 100 businesses today, says Naseer, and if they have an accounting background, the likelihood is they have a CA qualification. “It’s one of the most, if not the most highly regarded professional accounting qualifications,” he says. “I was aware of the weight it carries in the wider business world, so felt it would open up career paths for me, nationally and internationally.”
So, in 2008, Naseer trained with BDO (then PKF) in Manchester. On qualifying in 2011, he was made Business Restructuring Executive for the firm. “We were in the midst of a recession. I felt this move would expose me to elements of business and accounting I hadn’t seen in audit,” he says. From here, he joined Abbey Protection Group, which made him Head of Finance at its subsidiary, LHS Solicitors, a post he held for two years, until Gunnercooke came calling.
Naseer was happy in his role, but listened to what they had to say with an open mind: “And what they presented me with was a very ambitious plan.” A “challenger” law firm with a difference, Gunnercooke offered a radical business model, in which revenue was shared, clients were told fees upfront, and it guaranteed its lawyers would each have a minimum of 10,000 practising hours under their belt, making them expert in their field.
At this point the organisation was relatively new – just four years old with a turnover of £4m. “But I saw an opportunity for the company – and therefore for me – to grow,” says Naseer. “If I proved myself as an FC, I’d be able to step up to an FD and then a CFO role.”
Leaving the security of LHS Solicitors to join what was not just a company in its infancy, but a “disruptive firm, which was a new concept in the industry”, was not without risk for Naseer, who was newly married with a child on the way. “But I bought into the vision, the ideas and the culture,” he says, about his decision to join in 2015. “Looking back, I’m happy to say it was the right decision.”
In 2018, Naseer was promoted to Finance Director, which in terms of his day-to-day responsibilities can be split broadly into two parts: “My overarching role is to ensure the financial environment is secure,” he says. “That the controls, processes and systems are tight and robust, that any threats are minimised from a financial standpoint, and that everything’s just moving as it should be.” Gunnercooke is experiencing “relatively fast, organic growth”, he adds, having increased turnover by 25% in 2022, and 50% in 2021. Including Manchester, where Naseer is based, it has six UK offices, including London, Glasgow and Edinburgh, several in Germany and one in New York. So a primary responsibility now is to ensure that the financial infrastructure is in place to support that growth, and that the company is not overtrading.
The second part of his role is strategising, for which he falls back on his ICAS training – specifically, the ability to think both critically and ethically. “When you’re talking about an accountancy qualification, ethics may not be at the forefront of most people’s minds,” he says. “But considering things such as the directors’ responsibility to the company was a really big part of the training, and the CA qualification has been absolutely critical in getting Gunnercooke to this stage of success.”
Gunnercooke managed to peel back the surface of the legal industry and identify what those inside it really value. For clients, that’s cost-efficiency, transparency and expertise. For lawyers, says Naseer, it’s flexibility and freedom. “Our lawyers can practise as much or as little as they want, without having the scrutiny you’d have in the traditional law firms,” he says.
There’s no pressure to work in-house, no timesheets, no revenue targets and “the lawyers get to focus on their client delivery”, says Naseer. The fee-share revenue model means lawyers keep the revenue they generate from their own clients, minus a fee to cover administrative, financing and marketing costs. But these overheads are purposely kept down; the offices, for instance, do not have the capacity for all 400 people in the organisation to work in. But in a post-lockdown, hybrid-working world, neither is there the necessity. “This way of working is now becoming more prevalent among law firms,” says Naseer. “People have seen what’s happening and understand it gives lawyers both good earning potential and good work-life balance, while still offering clients a top-tier service.”
Eschewing the status quo extends to the firm’s social responsibility model, says Naseer, with the Gunnercooke Foundation helping charities “do good, faster”, by offering time and expertise over money. “A lot of companies will hold a corporate day that raises a lot of money for a charity,” says Naseer. “But what happens to that charity on the other 364 days of the year, when they still need help?” Gunnercooke identified that what large charities often have that smaller counterparts don’t was the money to pay for professional expertise – one reason why just 1% of the UK’s 165,000 charities account for 71% of the sector’s income. It set out to level the playing field by helping small and medium-size charities accelerate growth, reach more people and thrive in the long term.
Through the foundation’s key initiative, the Inspire programme, a selection of charities in need of support are brought together to form a hub, and assigned a Gunnercooke partner or staff member as their leader. These hubs then organise regular meetings to network, offer one another peer support, and tap into Gunnercooke’s business expertise via coaching and mentoring sessions. The first hub involved seven charities, all in Manchester – now it assists 80 across the UK and, during 2021 alone, 39 partners and staff gave 173 hours of their time, more than £70,000 of charitable benefit.
Before joining the firm, Naseer was already offering his time to a homeless charity. So when he learnt about the Gunnercooke Foundation’s work he instantly saw the value in joining a firm whose core values aligned with his own. “It felt like a cultural fit,” he says, “because for me, it’s not about giving money and walking away. It’s about giving something that makes a long-term sustainable difference.” Which is why, when approached by a colleague about being a trustee of the foundation’s new initiative – the House of Books and Friends – he jumped at the chance.
With lockdown highlighting the devastating impact of isolation – 45% of people in England alone feel lonely, according to the Campaign to End Loneliness – figuring out how to combat this silent killer became the priority, says Naseer. The answer was to create a bookshop, cafe and events space on Manchester’s King Street, which opened its doors in December. With a mission to help rebuild communities, the venue offers an inclusive space with an events programme that appeals across the demographics – book clubs, networking sessions, creative writing and more – while funnelling proceeds into not-for-profit partners and charities that work to reduce social isolation.
“It’s been a huge success,” says Naseer. “The revenue generated has been a lot more than we were anticipating at this stage, mainly through bookshop and coffee sales, but the event space is now starting to fly too,” he says, adding that they already have a wedding booking. As trustee, Patel’s role is to support its financial viability, maximise revenue potential and “make sure it can stand on its own two feet”.
It’s a responsibility he doesn’t take lightly. “We employ four or five people [there],” he says. “The last thing you want is for it to fail, and for them to lose their livelihood.” But if Gunnercooke can apply any of the success it has enjoyed as a law firm to its social enterprise, the future of House of Books and Friends is bright.
For Naseer, the priority now is to keep Gunnercooke as a whole “on the same trajectory”: one of rapid progress by means of innovation and disruption. As for the next steps in his own career path? Whatever happens, it certainly won’t be by chance.
Visit Gunnercooke's website for more information
Learn more about volunteering opportunities through ICAS