Johnny Nichols discusses his career and legal life


Chief Operating Officer, Johnny Nichols, discusses his career and legal life in The Law Society Gazette, 26 July, which can be found here.

I enjoyed the practical challenges offered by engineering and management. Yet it was an engineering management work placement which gave me my first taste of litigation. I was instantly hooked. During a summer work experience scheme with ICI, I was asked to deal with a complex issue relating to trade unions and a prospective dispute that was in the offing. I came at the top of the group. I enjoyed understanding the overlap between legal analysis and the human dynamics of dispute resolution.

I had previously dismissed law as a career. Having seen the domestic conveyancing work my father undertook in his high street practice, I knew that was not for me. However, this experience gave me pause to reconsider whether there was anything I could do to avoid the profession for which both my father and grandfather had trained. I took a serious look at the possibility of a career in law. The next summer saw me spend time working at Allen & Overy. This left me in no doubt that law could provide a fascinating and challenging career that would be a great fit for my skills, which I felt were more verbal and conceptual rather than mathematical. I managed to get on to the conversion course (as it was then) and I have not looked back.

I moved from the coal face of private practice to in-house, and then into the operational side of the legal business. This was motivated by a desire to get closer to the decision-making heart of the business and to therefore avoid litigation becoming necessary. Having worked for a short period outside of a law firm, I also appreciated the intellectual challenge that working with lawyers entails. Putting the two together brings me to involvement in law firm operations. The quality of legal advice and client service is contingent on there being excellent support, training and systems in place for the lawyers on the frontline.

What makes firms successful has always fascinated me. It can involve questions of how to unite brilliant people in the firm’s mission and how to provide a stimulating work environment. Another challenge is how to tailor a law firm’s business model to meet the challenges presented by our era of rapid technological, social and economic change.

I had the privilege of being at Lloyd’s during its Reconstruction and Renewal programme in the 1990s. It was a time of rapid change in an industry that was then reluctantly dragging itself from the 19th to the 21st century. The litigation was exciting and high-profile, and it involved an eclectic mix of people across both the claimant and defendant sides. However, I found employment work the most interesting. The group’s staff numbers were being reduced to a third of their original size. This meant that lots of TUPE transfers and executive changes were taking place. I was closely involved in that work, which let me see major organisational change happen first-hand. This led to me moving into a human resources role. I was lucky to work with brilliant people both within the legal team and across the management team at Lloyd’s. I was also fortunate to see the positive impact of the leadership of Sir David Rowland and Ron Sandler.

One of the joys of my role as chief operating officer at Keller Lenkner is that no day is quite like another. I try to keep myself away from the fee-earning side of the business since we have so many talented lawyers who have the specialist expertise required to help our clients navigate through the technical aspects of the cases we’re progressing. Having a litigation background is undoubtedly very helpful. I am close enough to the business to question why things are being done in a particular way, yet I’m able to understand why a particular approach is needed in the context of our business.

Given the absorbing nature of legal work, it is understandable that lawyers sometimes overlook the importance of the operational side of a law firm. There is a lot of talent there. Legal services are becoming more competitive than ever, and their delivery is being fundamentally changed by technologies such as AI. Business innovation and efficiency are now essential for survival.

Lawyers should never underestimate how adaptable and talented the non-lawyer professionals are in their firms, nor how keen they are to try new ways of doing things. As the business of law is fundamentally transformed by technology, I believe we will see an increasingly close integration between the legal and operational sides of law firms.

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