Cynics take note. It pays – literally – to be nice 

A culture of respect and recognition boosts staff retention and profits, as the story of Stephens Scown proves…

Six years ago, Devon law firm Stephens Scown got hammered in a staff survey. In essence, the survey criticised the partners for unknowingly giving off an air of “us and them” that alienated their colleagues.

Fast forward to 2016 and the same firm has been ranked higher than any other UK professional services firm in the Sunday Times ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ medium sized list, coming 12th overall – a jump from 39th in 2015. So how have they done it?

Hard-nosed cynics may require a dose of salts at this point, because Stephens Scown says it has achieved this success by being “nice”. That’s the word managing partner Robert Camp uses when describing his firm’s transformation.

Robert says: “The staff survey six years ago killed us on partner behaviour. So we spent 18 months working with the partnership as a whole, looking at partner behaviour and at what was expected. We also tried to define our core ethos and came up with the word ‘nice’. It didn’t seem right at the time – ‘we’re a nice firm of lawyers’ isn’t the hardest-hitting strapline – but we’re comfortable with it now. Initially we recoiled and spent two hours trying to wordsmith ‘nice’ into a long lawyer paragraph. But then we accepted it.”

People don’t realise how hard it is to change a culture. Many firms try but don’t give it enough time or resources

What’s the big deal? It’s easy to be nice, isn’t it? A quick “Hi Dave – nice holiday?”; a swift “How are the kids?” Not true, says Robert. Living the core value – rather than paying lip service to it – has been a long, tough road.

Robert explains: “People don’t realise how hard it is to change a culture. Many firms try but don’t give it enough time or resources. The staff survey made it clear we were saying the right things but not treating our staff with the respect they deserved. A successful firm can’t be about just partners, especially with today’s fast pace of change, it has to focus on the whole team.”

There followed a variety of projects to make the atmosphere more positive through recognition, praise and encouragement. Robert says: “Lawyers are critical by nature because we’re always trying to find fault in opposing arguments. We needed to change the culture so people actually thanked each other and said ‘well done’.”

Risking an uprising from eye-rolling cynics, Stephens Scown introduced ‘Positive Postcards’, displaying messages like “proper job”, “nice work” and “superstar”. If anyone at any level saw someone doing something they thought was great, from dealing with a testing phone call to sealing a deal, they were encouraged to send a card.

A successful firm can’t be about just partners…it has to focus on the whole team

152“Positive Postcards had a huge impact,” says Robert. “But it took 18 months for some partners to accept the benefits. Once over that hump, the cards helped change the culture from one where people kept their heads down, to one where they looked up, thanked colleagues, encouraged them and were generally positive.”

The cards were a catalyst, but only part of the transformation.

Inspired by the idea of ‘servant leadership’ (made famous by business philosopher Robert Greenleaf), Robert personally strove to introduce a culture of empowerment at all levels. “Again, it took time,” he says. “You can empower people but they won’t use that empowerment if they think they’re going to get into trouble when they get it wrong. So we encouraged a ‘learn from mistakes’ approach, too.”

Next Stephens Scown really put its money where its mouth is – again, behaviour rather than words – by launching a John Lewis-style ownership structure. A profit target is set annually and for each pound that comes in above that target, 50p goes into a staff bonus pot, with 50p going back to the firm. “It’s a small amount of ownership,” says Robert, “but the buzz since announcing the scheme has been brilliant. Staff love being a real part of the business.” And in keeping with the ‘nice’ ethos, the bonus is divided equally between all rather than loaded in favour of managers.

The staff ownership plan is a major factor behind Stephen Scown’s lofty position in the Sunday Times top 100, but another reason is more intangible: giving staff freedom to explore creative ideas. Nothing demonstrates this better than the firm’s mascot – a vintage VW camper van. Robert says: “Around 18 months ago my marketing director came up to me and said: ‘I’ve been waiting to catch you in a good mood. I want to buy a vintage VW camper van.’ And we did. It’s been a fantastic purchase. We allow charities to raffle if off for weekend use, we have a monthly draw for staff use, we show it off at events and even lend it to clients.”

Within six years, Stephens Scown is on course to have doubled turnover

Within six years, Stephens Scown is on course to have doubled turnover. Alongside that, recruitment is, not surprisingly, going superbly. It’s fascinating that the first step on the road to this burgeoning success was a staff survey in 2010 in which the firm was heavily criticised. Its rise to 12th in the Sunday Times ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ list – the top rank for any professional services firm – shows just what can be achieved by listening to and acting upon constructive criticism. It also demonstrates that being nice – in other words empowering staff and treating them with respect through deeds as well as words – leads to not just staff satisfaction but tangible growth.


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Robert Camp is managing partner at Stephens Scown. Robert won the ‘Managing Partner of the Year’ award at the 360 Legal Group’s 2015 annual awards. He has also seen the firm rise to number 12 in the Sunday Times ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ medium sized list. 


Written and edited by the BDLN