Meet Gateley at the Legal Cheek UK Virtual Law Fair on 4 November 2021
Gateley was created in 2006 from the merger between Birmingham-based Gateley Wareing and Edinburgh-based Henderson Boyd Jackson (HBJ). The firm converted into an alternative business structure (ABS) in 2013 and was the first UK full-service firm to list on the stock market in 2015. HBJ was not part of the flotation and was bought by Addleshaw Goddard in 2017.
Gateley’s directors acknowledged that the traditional partnership path was not appealing to everyone, and hoped that listing would attract and retain talent. This has indeed been the case so far, with almost 40 partners joining the company since the IPO, compared to a small number per year as an LLP. Gateley recorded a headcount rise with legal and support staff now counting 706 and 341 respectively. There are around 170 partners at the firm, with the majority of staff now thought to have some form of equity stake.
The firm floated primarily to enhance its profile and fund its expansion strategy. Since the IPO, it has opened an office in Reading and made a string of acquisitions. These include purchasing GCL Solicitors in March 2018, which was partly financed through the issue of new shares. It has diversified its business by acquiring tax, property and consultancy businesses. In March 2020, it expanded into the Irish market and snapped up media law firm Paul Tweed and as the pandemic cools off, Gateley is believed to be eyeing further acquisitions in the future.
A zoomed-out perspective on the business’s share price makes for positive reading. Gateley’s acquisitive strategy and Covid uncertainty has meant that the firm’s upward trajectory hasn’t always been smooth. But the London listed firm was trading at 217 pence per share at the time of writing, up from its initial offer price of 95 pence per share, enjoying a strong recovery in 2021 to pre-Covid prices.
Mike Ward stood down as CEO in April 2020 after almost 20 years at the helm. Rod Waldie was announced as his successor in July 2019.
Since there are no partners, there is no profit per equity partner.
More bullish trading news came when the business revealed that revenue for the 2020/21 financial year was “materially ahead” of previous expectations of £111.7 million and that profits had significantly outpaced the expected total of £14.7 million. During the pandemic many of the group’s counter-cyclical practice areas, including restructuring and dispute resolution were busy, whilst the pandemic recovery has apparently yielded positive results for the group’s well-balanced business model.
Gateley is a mid-market, national firm in the traditional sense, with offices across the UK, with the exception of the business’s one office in Dubai.
Trainees are recruited exclusively from the two week-long vacation scheme that is run in June and July at the Birmingham, Guildford, Leicester, Leeds, London, Manchester, Nottingham and Reading offices. Vacation scheme participants spend their time in a single department. Seat options for trainees include banking, employment, commercial dispute resolution, construction, private client, commercial, tax, restructuring, residential development, regulatory and pensions.
Trainees tout the quality of the training, explaining there is a good balance between being “given challenging live work” where rookies are “free to get on with it and learn by doing” and yet at the same time enjoy the support of supervisors and Professional Support Lawyers who “are available and happy to give advice, and will invariably always review and give feedback”. One newbie noted that in the London office “you’re often the sole trainee in a small team so you’re expected to do NQ level work” which can mean the training contract “is at times challenging”.
The quality of work varies from “the drudge work that a trainee is expected to do” to the highly “stimulating to the point where the amount of responsibility is quite daunting”. Trainees report that “there seems to be a genuine attempt to make it [the work] interesting”, but this does vary between departments. One rookie told Legal Cheek: “The tax department gives very stimulating and challenging work, whereas in the corporate department, there might be more admin such as preparing bibles”.
Whilst there are no international secondments, Gateley is one for the football fans. Trainees report doing six-month client secondments at the likes of Manchester City and Everton football clubs.
In normal times the social life at Gateley is “quite good for a law firm” with “lots of events and always a good turnout”. The firm organises karaoke nights, curry and cocktail nights, and, pre-pandemic, a “bi-annual party where all 1,000 staff get together for a great night”. A trainee admitted they “can’t complain. It could be better, and it could be worse”.
One junior summarises the perks: “We have an annual staff party for the whole firm (approx. 1,000) to reward our hard work. The share scheme allows us to purchase shares in the company and is very attractive. Other perks include dining cards, cycle to work scheme, private healthcare and critical illness cover and free counselling services for mental health concerns.”
Gateley prides itself on its culture, and all employees are said to share a “Gateley Team Spirit” which binds them together and sets them apart. Do trainees agree? One was thankful that they had “yet to encounter a full-fledged Trunchbull type” partner, describing seniors as “generally supportive and willing to help”. Another adds: “The firm is quite modern in that traditional top-down dynamics are uncommon; partners are down to earth and approachable.”
The work/life balance is generally good, with the exceptions of busy periods. “Corporate, banking and tax seats tend to have longer hours during busy spells”, but otherwise trainees told Legal Cheek that they are “rarely working beyond 6/6:30, most often finishing at half 5 as office hours”. One gleeful trainee even confessed that they have “never worked a weekend and never pulled an all-nighter”.
Gateley is one of many firms to move to open plan offices, which “means an open-door policy” and that partners “even speak” to trainees! However, this can admittedly “differ on a day-to-day basis” and is “largely department specific — some can be very bad”.
On the tech front, the firm could be doing better. Although the firm is “investing in improving” its tech systems, Gateley’s “erratic” IT clearly needs upgrading — trainees reported “frequent IT issues” and “Outlook crashing five times per day”. The system runs on “an army of support staff shovelling coal into the engine,” quips one rookie.
Yet, the firm adapted well to remote-working in the wake of Covid-19, with one trainee telling us: “Initially the reaction felt quite slow and it took a while to get the technology together but it has since done well.”
There was consensus that the offices are “functional rather than flashy” (except for the Manchester office’s client toilets which one trainee claims have “the sparkliest floor I have ever seen”). However, we’re told that the offices are “based in good locations” and some but not all have canteens. The firm has also made progress towards becoming more eco-friendly, going paperless and providing trainees with coffee cups and water bottles to avoid single use cups piling up.