“Make clients want to have a beer with you”

Ray Berg has been managing partner at Osborne Clarke since January 2015. His team comprises 113 UK partners. Interview by BDLN founder John Maffioli…

Please give us a brief outline of your background and career…

I was born and raised in London and went to an inner-city state school. Dad was a cab driver, and Mum worked in a factory. I studied at Oxford University before joining Allen & Overy. During my first 18 months at A&O I was seconded to North America to work for one of their major entrepreneurial clients. That gave me real insight into what clients want from their lawyers.

After spending 10 years at A&O I joined Osborne Clarke in 2001 as a partner in the corporate team. The firm and I have been on a real journey ever since.

You led Osborne Clarke’s Business Transactions Group between 2013 and 2015. In that time, your group’s revenues grew by more than 30%. How did you do that?

It was a combination of things. The economy stated to become more confident and positive – I’d be the first to admit. But also enthusiasm and dynamism – I wear my heart on my sleeve.

Luck helps but it’s never just luck.

No, you’re right. You need passion to succeed. It’s critical. However good a firm you are, you’ve got to really want it.

We held a partners’ conference three years ago and invited a panel of clients along. One of the most memorable comments was made slightly in jest but contained a real message. A client was asked why he kept using Osborne Clarke. He replied: “To be brutally honest, I like going for a beer with Ray.” Now that sounds a little trite but it’s important to note that a lot of clients don’t like their lawyers. They see them as a necessary evil. They’re expensive. Dealing with them often means there’s a negative issue to sort out. I’d say most of our clients like us. And I want all of our clients to like us.

Building up the strength of the client relationship is fundamental. Actually liking your clients, understanding what makes them tick, getting on with them, matching the right teams with the right clients… that’s crucial. Some people want a stiff shirt and a suit, others want a more relaxed approach. It boils down to listening, understanding, and getting to the heart of your client’s needs rather than having a master-servant relationship. You’re equals and partners.

Ray Berg on the cover of The Lawyer

Ray Berg celebrating winning law firm of the year

You come across as being approachable and down to earth. Does your background have anything to do with that?

It boils down to being sensitive to your surroundings and who you’re dealing with. Being authentic and honest is key. Clients don’t want you to sit on the fence and just list their options. They want advising. You’ve got to put your neck on the line because that’s what they want.

Osborne Clarke won Law Firm of the Year in both the Legal Business Awards and Lawyer Awards   2015. What is driving your success?

Fundamentally, having a very clear strategy that we have stuck to and delivered against. That’s different to planning to earn X amount of money. It’s about deciding how to approach the market and how to sell yourself as being different. We’ve chosen to adopt a focused sector approach in digital business, energy and utilities, transport and automotive, financial services and real estate infrastructure. They account for more than 90% of our revenue.

So it’s about knowing your strengths?

Yes, and knowing there are certain clients within those sectors that we’re best placed to partner. And everyone in the firm knows our strategy, understands it and has bought into it.

Many professional services firms struggle with cross-selling – lots think it’s a nasty word – but we are salesmen. We’ve got to sell our services. Our sector focus gives us something to hang our hat on and allows us to work collaboratively across a range of practice groups. It encourages clients to think: “Yes, they’re the people we want to be with. They understand us.”

Our experience of some lawyers is that they claim to cross-service sell but in fact don’t – they work in silos. You have created a strong sector focus underpinned by a desire to sell each other’s services. Can you expand on how you’ve done that?

You need a strategy that people can understand, hang their hat on and buy into. Our sector focus provides that clarity. Then it’s a case of the whole team recognising and exploiting the synergies within that sector focus.

I see that you – and many other Osborne Clarke lawyers – are big users of social media…

We’ve got to think digitally, not least because digital business is a key sector for us. Some of our partners have more than 1,000 Twitter followers – they blog about the industries they are advising.

We’ve moved some of our TKL [technical and know-how] lawyers into our sales and marketing teams. That helps us to quickly publish insights that are digestible and easy to read. That’s what our clients want and need.

The law is often considered to be archaic but it’s not. It’s fluid and changes daily. Law firms need to be dynamic, too.

How do you keep your team hungry?

We’ve put a clear career framework in place. We call it ‘The Deal’. It’s a two-way agreement: if you do this then you’ll progress, if you do that, you’ll progress further. It provides clarity and transparency.

On the business development side, everyone knows we’ve got to hustle for work. We make sure our fee-earners take juniors to pitches. But the juniors have got to speak – if they sit there like dummies, that’s not good.

Diversity is a massive issue for me, too. Gender is an important topic for all law firms – more than 50% of newly qualified lawyers are female but just 20% become partners. That’s got to change.

It’s also about social mobility and making sure people aren’t put off joining a law firm because they think the law is only for a certain type of person. Removing that barrier allows you to get the hungriest people on board.

If I could leave a mark it would be because I pushed the diversity agenda. If we get that right we’d attract the hungriest, best people because we’d create the best environment to work in. That’s what our clients want too. Our clients are diverse and have a diverse make up. They want that to be reflected in their legal advisers.

Is that why you claim Osborne Clarke is the least stuffy law firm in the world?

It’s a bold statement! But we are different and should be proud of being different. Just because we are friendly and approachable doesn’t make us any less of a law firm. Advice on the law is just one bit of it. It’s what you do around that advice that really makes the difference.

What’s your leadership style?

Managing partner is a misnomer – you’re a leader, not a manager – you’ve got to set the strategy, direction and tone.

It’s also about listening. Leaders listen – they hear what people say. You’re not going to please everyone, but you’ve got to make the whole team feel that they’ve had their voices heard.

It’s important to be involved and engaged with colleagues who have a different opinion to your own. You need to robustly explain why you’re taking this path rather than the other, and understand that you might make mistakes along the way. You’ve got to take decisions, keep moving and take responsibility.

You’ve also got to have a great team around you and trust them to execute against your strategy.