“We tell our staff what our senior partners earn” – How openness turned Kingsley Napley into London’s ‘best law firm to work for’

“We have an open and transparent culture and…. blah, blah, blah.” Cue instant mental switch-off; call the cliché police; grab a fistful of salt. As claims go, it’s up there with “exceptional partner-led service” and “we always go the extra mile for our clients”. Right?

Well, hang on just a second. There’s no doubt this industry is full of clichéd exaggeration, but let’s not fall into the trap of jaundiced cynicism. Don’t some firms – a precious, impressive few – make the “transparency” claim with authority? Don’t some organisations ‘walk the talk?’

Here’s a good test. Ask yourself this: does your firm hide what its partners earn from the rest of the team, or does it share the figures – bonuses, warts, envy and all? If remuneration is a giant woolly-mammoth-in-the-room, chances are that openness and transparency are not embedded. But if the numbers are shared, openness really could be part of the furniture.

One firm that passes the transparency test with flying colours is Kingsley Napley, the highest ranked London law firm in The Sunday Times 100 Best Companies To Work For list 2017. Regular BDLN readers will know we’re on a mission to speak to as many firms in this list as possible to find out what they’re doing right. The Sunday Times creates its Best 100 from detailed anonymous staff surveys. It is a good indicator as to who’s winning the war for talent.

We met Kingsley Napley’s senior partner, Jane Keir, at her office in Clerkenwell. She told us: “At our AGM we talk about how the firm is doing – the good, the bad, and the ugly. We discuss figures – turnover, profit – and we then explain how we’ve calculated the bonus pool. We talk about profits per equity partner and tell staff what the most senior of the partners is earning. I must admit we were a bit nervous when we decided to share that information but we think we’ve made the right call.

“There have been no negative comments but many positives. It generates loyalty. People like it and feel reassured by it. They think, ‘If they are open with me, I can be open with them’. It binds people in.”

Visiting Kingsley Napley – home to 348 staff – is a warm and relaxed experience. In the offices, one picks up that people love working here, and the Sunday Times Best 100 list reinforces that intuition. The question is: how has the firm created that environment and where does the burning desire to build a happy ship come from?

Jane believes a “culture of encouragement” is key. “I’ve been here for 28 years,” she said. “I’ve always been treated with fairness and given encouragement and support when needed. I have a real thing about supporting newly qualified solicitors. When you start out, the world thinks you know it all, and clients can put you under pressure. It takes a while to get your confidence. I remember coming up through the ranks and all the help I got back then. Partners would ask, ‘Are you OK? Do you need a bit of help?’ My predecessor, Christopher Murray, would quietly say to me, ‘You can do that job’. Looking back has made me realise that a little bit of encouragement from senior people goes such a long way.”

A strong team ethos at Kingsley Napley goes hand in hand with this cultural desire to build confidence. Outside work the firm is involved in an impressive array of extra-curricular activities, including a choir, yoga sessions, walking groups, and language and music lessons. And at work, the firm very deliberately sets team rather than individual targets.

“Team-based targets make everyone feel that the balance and flexibility is there,” said Jane. “If fees aren’t coming in for you for whatever reason – maybe the work isn’t there or you’ve been off sick – you feel vulnerable. But as long as your team is hitting the targets, it’s OK. If as a firm you focus entirely on individuals’ chargeable hours, you tend to generate a higher staff turnover. That means higher costs. Individual targets also encourage partners to keep clients close to their chests. They won’t share. That does not generate a free-flowing positivism in the workplace.”

And of course, creating a strong team culture also means stamping out maverick behaviour that can disrupt the ecosystem. “This might be a very nice place to work, but we know how to deal with the emergence of that negative type of character or influence,” said Jane. “We won’t stand for ‘me-me-me’ behaviour, even from a fabulous biller.”

The ‘looking out for each other’ team culture has another benefit: a better work-life balance for all. This is partly the reason behind Kingsley Napley’s gender-balanced leadership team, suggested Jane. Senior partner Jane works with managing partner Linda Woolley, and just under 50% of the partners are women.

Jane said: “If a mum comes back from maternity leave saying she’d like to work four days a week, but take two afternoons off rather than a single day, you have to be able to organise your teams so clients cannot detect any difference. The team must be willing to support that whole approach. If the team is not motivated to fill in the gaps, then it’s not going to work. The person who wants to work flexibly, usually a woman because of family responsibilities, will then say, ‘This isn’t working for me’. But if you make the team supportive and highly organised, so the person needing flexibility doesn’t feel like they’re dumping on others, it can work really well.”

A supportive culture like this breeds more loyalty than blunt cash incentives, believes Jane: “When the headhunters call and dangle the carrot, people who get that sort of support don’t leave.”

With opennenss and teamwork at the forefront of Kingsley Napley’s culture, it’s not surprising that it is the highest ranked London law firm in The Sunday Times ‘Best 100’ list. Where so many other firms just talk about transparency and a culture of teamwork, Kingsley Napley walks the talk. How refreshing it is to have one’s cynicism so robustly challenged!