Mark practised in London’s West End for 10 years as a successful Corporate Lawyer, before joining Keystone Law in 2012 and assuming their Director of Growth and Development role, taking responsibility for the firm’s recruitment of lawyers. 🤝
Mark talks about the rise of dispersed law firms and all the benefits this type of model brings to the modern day lawyer!
COVID-19 has shaken up so many industries and the legal sector is no exception! A once perfectly inflexible sector, this crisis has highlighted even more so that many law firms still need to review their flexible and remote working practices. This is pivotal to get right in the coming months not only to ensure the most efficient set ups to deliver for clients but also crucial for retaining key legal talent.
Law firms that embrace no changes whatsoever may find themselves lagging behind…
[0:00:00.5] Rob Hanna: Welcome to the Legally Speaking Podcast powered by Kissoon Carr. I’m your host, Rob Hanna. This week, I’m delighted to be joined by Mark Machray. Mark practiced in the West End for ten years as a successful corporate lawyer. In 2012, he joined Keystone law, assuming their Director of growth and development role, taking responsibility for the firm’s recruitment of lawyers. He also continues to provide legal services to Keystone clients, with a particular focus on early stage and start-up businesses. So, a very big welcome, Mark.
[0:00:33.9] Mark Machray: Good morning, Rob. Nice to be here.
[0:00:36.2] Rob Hanna: Indeed, I’m looking forward to our chat today. But before we go through your career and what you’re up to at the moment, we do have a customary question on the podcast, which you may or may not know is around Suits. So, it’s a scale of one to ten, ten being very real. How real would you rate the TV series Suits?
[0:00:59.7] Mark Machray: Well Rob, I hope your questions get a bit easier than this because I actually, I never watched that series. So, very difficult for me to say, but I guess on the assumption on the basis, rather that it’s a hit television series and the premise is following a bunch of lawyers working out a conventional law firm. I’m going to say pretty unreal, but perhaps I should watch it first and then I can make a proper comparison.
[0:01:25.0] Rob Hanna: No, I think that’s a fair comment. We’ve had lots of people come on the show that haven’t watched it either. And yeah, I’ve given it a pretty resounding zero. So I think, listen, we know you’re obviously at Keystone at the moment and we’ll definitely talk about that, but let’s start at the beginning and tell us a bit about you, your family background and your upbringing.
[0:01:45.9] Mark Machray: Pretty conventional I suppose. I went to Newcastle University, I didn’t study law. I studied physiology of all things. I come from a medical family and it seemed a natural fit, but it wasn’t really for me and not knowing quite what to do next. I thought I ought to go and probably get a profession or become a professional. So, I looked at the various options, plumped for law, did the usual conversion calls in LPC and then found myself a training contract in a small firm in the West End. So, not terribly strategic, I’m not one of these people that wanted to be a lawyer from the age of 10, far from it. I sort of fell into it really, thinking that one day after a good grounding in the law, I might go off and become a, a hugely successful entrepreneur, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. And I carried on practicing in the West End, actually very happily for 10 years or so.
[0:02:42.6] Rob Hanna: Tell us more about your experiences there.
[0:02:45.1] Mark Machray: Well, it was a small firm. There were about I think, there were four partners and it had a very clear focus on commercial property. It’s actually a very, very successful firm and I was involved in the corporate side of things, but increasingly as I became a little bit more experienced, I focused on the sort of corporate structuring around property acquisitions. And it was very successful, I was very happy there, unfortunately 2008-9 rolled along and of course commercial property wasn’t necessarily the right area to be in. And things became a little bit more difficult for the firm and myself and one of the partners there, moved on and joined another firm briefly before coming across Keystone.
[0:03:33.6] Rob Hanna: Okay. And we have a lot of junior listeners who are looking to aspire to get into the law and those going through their careers, you know, in terms of sort of, you know, the type of work you’re involved in at a West End firm, say versus a Magic and Silver Circle firm, could you may be shed a bit of light on that for our listeners in terms of what some of the differences and perhaps similarities would be when people are considering firms to apply to?
[0:03:56.5] Mark Machray: Sure, obviously having not experienced the magic circle myself, it’s hard to make comparisons and contrast, but I certainly felt when I was in a smaller firm, I felt much closer to the clients. I felt much closer to the transactions and the deals, I felt I was given responsibility very early on in my career. And I always got a sense that wasn’t necessarily the case in the Magic Circle. You are a small cog in a very, very large machine.
And I think that training and qualifying in a smaller firm gave me a slightly more entrepreneurial sense of being a lawyer and the importance really of developing client relationships and seeing law, not just as a profession, but also as a business and the real importance of going out there and meeting people and developing networks and building a practice on your own or of your own, because I think, you know, as your career develops and you go through the profession, what really makes you stand out amongst your peers is that book of business, that relationship, which you have with clients, which makes you unique, you know, lots of people can practice law well, but what makes you unique, and what makes you interesting to a prospective employer is your ability to engage with clients so those clients see you as a trusted advisor, to follow you wherever you may go, because they rely on you and, want to work with you, that that makes you a unique proposition to an employer.
And I would always encourage any young lawyer starting out in the profession to really take that on board. Don’t wait for work to just come and be given to you. Go out there, meet people, even at a very early age. You can still do that because the people you meet today in the years to come will be in positions to give you instructions, and you will build your practice on the back of that. And I think working in a small firm, in the West End really gave me a clear sense of that – I don’t know how that compares to people who did their training contracts in Magic Circle. But I suspect that wasn’t really the case and certainly it’s held me in good stead later on in my career.
[0:06:10.4] Rob Hanna: Yeah. And this is some really good sort of nuggets of wisdom in there. So thanks for sharing that Mark. Today, we’re going to be talking about the law being set free and the rise of dispersed law firms. So, speaking more generally before we sort of dive into the current, but for those less familiar with dispersed law firms, what are they?
[0:06:30.7] Mark Machray: Gosh it’s a big question and I’ll try to be brief, the way we structure Keystone law, our business model is all about engaging self-employed lawyers and having, or being self-employed gives those lawyers great autonomy and great freedom to build and develop and carry on practicing law as they wish. The premise that they have that autonomy and the Keystone law that the organization, the firm provides the support, and the infrastructure and resources for each of those individuals to be able to practice. I guess we described it as dispersed law firm because the lawyers work remotely. We have about 350 consultants now, and they all work from their own offices.
Obviously, a lot of those offices are from home or a lot of those offices are close to home. We have our offices in Chancery Lane where our lawyers come in to meet their clients. But as a dispersed model, that’s what we describe it, because they are working remotely and we have the hashtag law set free because the model gives individuals great freedom and great autonomy to carry on practicing as they like without interference from management, which is a bone of contention for a lot of lawyers.
[0:07:48.3] Rob Hanna: Yeah. No, well put, because you said it is a broad term and we’re going to dive more into Keystone shortly, but in terms of let’s again, start at the beginning. Why did you decide to join Keystone law?
[0:08:00.0] Mark Machray: Well, I sort of touched upon it a bit earlier, I guess. I suppose I had a sort of entrepreneurial mindset, right from the beginning, the idea of becoming a lawyer was really a means to an end back at the outset of my career, thinking I would go into business. That didn’t happen initially because I was very happy in the West End firm which I practiced, really enjoyed that. When we moved on, this colleague and I from that firm, we had experienced partnership, we had been equity partners of that practice. So, we had that independence, we have that autonomy. And I mentioned that we briefly went to another firm in the West End where actually we were employees for, I suppose, 18 months or so, maybe a bit less. And it didn’t really feel terribly comfortable having enjoyed the business ownership as we had previously.
And we were thinking about what our next step might be when my colleague stumbled across Keystone. And he came to me and said that I found this proposition, what do you think? And it kind of ticked all our boxes cause we had contemplated setting up on our end, the two of us. But a lot, obviously a lot of things put us off about doing that, not least the headache and hassle of incorporating and setting up one’s own law firm. And Keystone really provided us with this platform, this wonderful platform whereby we didn’t have to set up our own firm, we had all the support we needed to operate effectively yet we could in essence be our own partnership. And we found that proposition incredibly compelling because we had developed our own book of business. We had our own clients, we knew those clients would follow us wherever we went and what we really needed was a platform from which to be able to operate effectively.
I mean, I think the other thing is I was a corporate lawyer focused on corporate commercial to a lesser extent. My colleague was corporate commercial and employment, obviously neither of us did any property law, neither did any litigation and other areas where, you know, these days, if you want to offer a full-service law firms to your clients, you need colleagues around you that have that expertise. So, that was another great limiting factor when we consider setting up on our own. And again, Keystone answered that particular problem because it had colleagues there that had that expertise. So, when we found out about Keystone and what it offered, it was a no brainer as far as we were concerned.
[0:10:39.9] Rob Hanna: Yeah. And just in terms of, you’ve touched on it a little bit anyway, in terms of the structure, is that different in terms of sort of partners, associates and trainees compared to traditional law firms and, you know, are you able to secure training contracts with the firm as well?
[0:10:54.7] Mark Machray: Yes, we do have an opportunity for lawyers to get training contracts with Keystone. Although they do need to do a period of being a paralegal beforehand. So, there is a process, Keystone is really targeted in terms of attracting lawyers, targeted more at the senior end of the market and that’s because of the business model we operate. Our lawyers, as I said earlier, engage with us as self-employed lawyers and we don’t pay them salary rather we share the fees that they generate and they generate those fees from the clients that they bring with them to the firm. So, it’s self-regulating in a sense because it takes a period of time to build up that book of business, such that the proposition is attractive. So, we don’t tend to engage lawyers who are recently qualified as self-employed consultants, because they don’t really have the book of business to sustain themselves.
There are one or two exceptions, you know, have conversations with lawyers who are five, six years PQE, but generally speaking, it’s eight, nine years plus who wants to join us as consultants and work in this way. That said, because of the numbers of senior consultants now that we work with and because we’re attracting lawyers with very large books of business, in some cases, multimillion pounds worth of business, there is an increasing need for more junior lawyers to support those consultants. And as I said, we employ a number ourselves, there are paralegals that go on to become trainees that go on to qualify and they are employed by Keystone and they support the consultants as needed. And they obviously build up relationships with those consultants in the same way that junior lawyers in conventional firms build up relationships with partners and develop their careers accordingly.
But increasingly our lawyers are actually beginning to employ their own junior lawyers to support their practices. So, having described the business model as one where our lawyers engage with us as self-employed consultants. Increasingly now, what we’re finding is rather than just an individual engaging with Keystone, we’re beginning to engage teams of lawyers and those teams obviously come in all different shapes and sizes, but it essentially comprises a principal – either one or more than one who own the service company with which they contract with Keystone – and that those principals between them employ junior lawyers. So, there is a increasing trend towards employing junior lawyers or our lawyers, our consultants, employing junior lawyers, as I’m talking, begin to sound, that sounds rather confusing. I’m not sure necessarily terribly clear there, but it’s an evolution of the business models such that there are increasingly opportunities for junior lawyers at Keystone.
[0:14:00.3] Rob Hanna: Yeah. In terms of skill sets and traits, perhaps those more and more junior lawyers would – you know, it’s pretty clear if you’re a partner and you’re looking to take, move your book of business to a more entrepreneurial platform. And, you know, you can get had more mortgages, lots of upsides to that, which you’ve touched on, but again, that’s sort of junior lawyers, you know, maybe looking at skills, traits, you know, entrepreneurial flair, well, what are some of the things maybe they need to be working on? What would make them the right sorts of fit for a dispersed law firm would you say?
[0:14:27.8] Mark Machray: Well, I suppose a junior lawyer looking for employment it’s much of the same sort of we’re looking for much of the same skill sets as a conventional law firm would be because in a sense we’re engaging them through employment in exactly the same way. However, I suppose one might ask the question, what would a more junior lawyer see in being employed by Keystone or by one of our consultants, why would they pursue that career path as opposed to the more sort of conventional career path at a traditional law firm? And to that, I suppose I would say that a lawyer that was more entrepreneurially minded might find the Keystone environment more exciting because one is surrounded by entrepreneurially minded lawyers. Also, I think that there’s a very close relationship between the consultant that employs that junior than there is between a partner at a conventional firm who has an employee within their team.
The consultant at Keystone has a much more – well, has complete control over the career progression of that more junior lawyer, whereas in a conventional firm that junior lawyer, their career progression is determined by the management of that law firm rather than the individual partner to whom he or she works. And I think there’s that that close relationship helps in terms of, I suppose, going back to what I was saying earlier in a small firm in the West End, one has given far more I suppose, responsibility; much more engagement and opportunity to build relationships with clients; much closer to the coalface and at Keystone lawyers who are working or employed by our consultants will have very much more of that sort of experience than they would working in the large traditional law firm, because whilst Keystone is a big firm now, and we have as I said earlier, it’s 350 odd consultants, the consultants themselves and the teams operate very closely and autonomously. And so, one as a junior lawyer would get very much more the same sort of experience that I was describing earlier that you’d have in a small West End where people are close. People are much closer to the transaction getting much more responsibility and perhaps learning that much faster as a result than they might being a small cog in a very large law firm.
[0:17:04.5] Rob Hanna: And then in terms of broad, the senior end just to sort of offer a flavour on that, you know, what’s been some of the feedback you’ve had from maybe partners who might be frustrated in their previous firms who have joined Keystone. And, you know, as you mentioned, probably more of the sort of, you know, seven, eight, nine PQE level joining, you know, what’s been some of their feedback. What have been some of the success stories around that, that they found refreshing shall we say?
[0:17:27.7] Mark Machray: Well, I mean the contrast is stark between the way lawyers experienced their legal careers at Keystone and in a conventional firm. And really whether people are seven, eight, nine PQE, or 20, 25, 30 PQE and consultants at Keystone range right across the board there, everybody really cites the two main push factors that caused them to come and talk to Keystone in the first place. And they are management responsibility, which increases as one gets more senior within a law firm. And for some people, it becomes a huge burden and a great frustration that they’re taken further and further away from their clients and from practicing law, which is what they love and why they came into the profession in the first place. And they’re finding themselves more and more having to deal with appraisals and sit in partner meetings and who knows what else?
So, that’s the big, one of the big push factors and the other push back to the day, everybody cites is politics, which is rife, it seems, amongst all conventional law firms and it’s corrosive and it’s stressful and Keystone removes politics because effectively every one’s remunerated in the same way. Politics seems to really be born out of a sense of unfairness. And that unfairness is around remuneration and in conventional firms there is one part, and if someone has a larger slice of the pie than somebody has a smaller slice, and that creates resentment and I suppose, feeds politics, whereas in our model everyone’s remunerated in exactly the same way. It’s fair, it’s transparent, that removes politics. So, the big push factors are politics and management, and both of those things are absent at Keystone. And therefore lawyers have a lot more time in their day because they don’t spend time on appraisals and so on.
And they take all the stress of those politics out of their working life. And therefore they are very much happier. The draw factors to Keystone, I suppose the other side of the coin to those equations, but also as I’ve touched on before the autonomy, the freedom that lawyers within Keystone have because they are self employed, they get to choose when they work, where they work, how much work they do, who they work for, it’s their business and that freedom and autonomy and control that individual lawyers have when they join Keystone, gives them a wonderful sense of wellbeing. And, you know, it’s not a one size fits all this business model. It allows people to get different things from their practice. And for some people it’s building a team, as I was talking about earlier, employing juniors and making significant amounts of money, but absolutely on their own terms.
And for other people, it’s about wanting a better work-life balance carrying on practicing law but being able to do things outside of the law, whether they be professional or personal. But whatever it is, lawyers are getting from their legal careers, what they’re looking for when they join Keystone and that makes them happy. And I think, you know, above all, Keystone is a very happy law firm, full of happy lawyers getting from their careers, what they’re after. And I think that is the great difference between the Keystone way of working and the conventional law firm way of working. I dare say there are happy lawyers in conventional firms too, but there are nothing but happy lawyers at Keystone, which is obviously makes it a joy to work here. And I guess gives me great satisfaction in terms of what I do, which is trying to persuade lawyers to move across from that conventional environment into Keystone, because as we catch up within six months into their Keystone story, the feedback is always the same. It’s always, I’m so much happier. I wish I’d done this sooner and, you know, that’s very rewarding.
[0:21:34.6] Rob Hanna: Okay. And thanks for sharing that. And I think definitely culture, wellbeing and being happy, it’s going to be a very, very important play. You know, particularly, even more so as a result of COVID-19. So, you know, we can’t avoid a question related to the current pandemic. So how has COVID-19 affected your law firm if at all?
[0:21:54.4] Mark Machray: Well, it really hasn’t affected us really. As I said earlier, the lawyers work remotely. That’s part of it, that’s why we call it a dispersed law firm. So for them, absolutely nothing has changed. Of course, we have a back-office team that are based in our office in Chancery Lane which number about 45 or so. They used to work in our offices there, but now are themselves working remotely, but that doesn’t seem to have made any difference at all in terms of how the lawyers are supported, because all the systems and all the infrastructure of being completely designed to be able to support lawyers remotely. And so, really it’s been absolutely business as usual. What’s been very interesting of course is that, you know, every other lawyer in the legal world is, is now beginning to get a bit of a taste of what life is like as a Keystone lawyer.
And lots of them, I dare say are rather enjoying it. They’re finding themselves to be more efficient and they’re enjoying the fact that they can work effectively from home. So, it hasn’t really affected us, I mean, I say us as a business the way we support lawyers and so on, I dare say our lawyers are facing the same challenges as every lawyer is in terms of their clients are having difficulties. And therefore there is less legal work, or there will be certainly less legal work than there was because of the economic fallout from all of this. But then that said, they know the Keystone lawyers are very well placed to win whatever work is still out there because we, as an organization, don’t dictate to our lawyers how they should work and how they should engage with their clients.
So, the lawyers therefore have great flexibility, agility to be able to offer great value to their clients. Whereas conventional firms I think will struggle because they still have those large overheads to pay for. So, therefore they can’t necessarily offer the same sort of value as Keystone lawyers can. So, as a business, I’d say nothing’s really changed at all; for our lawyers, no, they face the same challenges as all lawyers will face going forward, but I think we’re in a good position to adapt and evolve and to me, that challenge.
[0:24:19.3] Rob Hanna: Yeah, just to sort of wrap up on that, then you sort of touched on it there about the future, you know, what do you think the future holds for, you know, dispersed law firms generally?
[0:24:28.9] Mark Machray: Well, I think I read somewhere that COVID-19 is the sort of thing that accelerates trends. I think that before COVID-19 came about there was already very much a trend towards dispersed law firm model. You know, more and more people who heard about Keystone and the way we work looked at it and thought, well, actually that could work well for me. And so more and more people, the more they understood the better they understood how the model works, not just in terms of providing the infrastructure of a law firm, but how lawyers within Keystone work with one another and build teams within the firm and work collaboratively and collectively, once people understood that, then obviously, we have been growing very, very fast as a result of the better understanding.
And I think that COVID-19 will accelerate that trend because as I said, everybody’s getting a taste of what it’s like to work remotely and a lot of people are realizing that it can be done very effectively. And of course the businesses that are already ahead of the curve in a sense, and being able to support their lawyers, working remotely with great technology as we have, are ahead of the game in that sense. So, I think the future post COVID for Keystone and dispersed law firms generally is very exciting because of the fact that the model and the way we work will be better under certain people have had some experience of working in this way and realise that’s a really, really good, good way to work.
[0:26:01.0] Rob Hanna: Yeah, no, absolutely. And that’s a great way to sort of, you know, draw a bit to the conclusions from our conversations, but if people, you know, like what they’ve heard Mark, I want to follow or get in touch or know more about sort of Keystone and what’s the best way and platform for people to do that.
[0:26:15.8] Mark Machray: Yeah, well, we have a great recruitment site called lawsetfree.com and I would encourage people to go onto that site. We explain how the model works. There are lots of good videos of lawyers who’ve made the move and explain their experiences. And we have something on there – called the lifestyle calculator, which lots of people find very compelling, and it’s a very, slightly crude, but quite amusing way of comparing, contrasting one’s life as a lawyer at a conventional firm by plugging in the number of hours one spends commuting and recording, working and so on. And then contrast is what, what life would be like at Keystone in terms of the number of hours. One needs to work to earn the same amount of money or how much money one could be working one work, the same number of hours. And that tends to sort of light people’s eyes up a bit. So yes, I encourage people to get onto our website lawsetfree.com
[0:27:13.1] Rob Hanna: Great stuff. Well, thanks a million for coming on Mark. It’s been a real pleasure having you on today. I hope our other listeners found that really interesting and insightful and informative as much as I did. So, thanks once again and no doubt we’ll see your feature again soon.
[0:27:26.7] Mark Machray: Thanks, Rob.