Ahead of ‘Why the legal profession needs people who see the world differently’, Fletchers chief Ed Fletcher recalls how a spinal cord injury gave him a clarity that would change the course of his career
It’s normal for students who come into the legal profession to lack focus. Many are incredibly bright, but because they are young and still haven’t decided which areas of law they like, that edge is missing a little bit. On top of that they are going through this massive personal stage of development as young adults, so there is a lot to be wrestling with there. And quite understandably, it takes them a while to settle into their professional lives. I was the same.
Before starting my training contract at Fletchers, which then was a high street firm, I studied law at Aberystwyth, where I was a stalwart of the first XV rugby team. I then did my Legal Practice Course (LPC) in Chester. Like most new lawyers fresh out of their training, I was probably slightly pompous, a little bit in love with all the wig and gown symbolism of the legal profession, and just generally coasting.
Then, when I was one year qualified as a solicitor, I severed my spinal cord in a motorbike accident and my life changed. For a time I obviously had to deal with the initial trauma of the accident and spending six months in a rehabilitation centre. But when that subsided, this fire lit under me. For the first time I had a clarity about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
I had actually already been doing serious injury work, tentatively developing a specialism representing people who had been in motorbike accidents like the one I was to be in. But I suppose I hadn’t fully committed to it yet. Now, though, I had this new layer of empathy for my clients alongside an extra level of determination that remains with me to this day.
Meanwhile, the industry was changing. It was 1999 and Lord Woolf had just been commissioned to write his Access to Justice reports. Civil litigation was, as the Law Society Gazette would later put it, “too slow, too expensive, too uncertain and too adversarial”. We were on the cusp of a whole new era in which law firms’ costs and style of serving their clients would come under massive scrutiny — first under the Woolf Reforms and then subsequently the Jackson Reforms and the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LAPSO).
For me personally, with my drive to give the best possible representation to seriously injured clients, this was a huge opportunity. Out went any lawyerly pretensions and in came a determination to help my clients — or, better still, customers, because that is what they really are — get from A to B. For Fletchers, the possibilities were also massive to shape itself as an organisation that understood its role as an enabler rather than some kind of self-important end point.
And we seized the chance — early and with both hands. Within 15 years we went from being a high street firm in Southport to the biggest medical negligence law firm in the country.
As an ambitious lawyer in my late 20s and early 30s doing work that I felt huge passion for, this was exactly where I wanted to be. By embracing conditional fee arrangements, policies of ensuring that the right level of fee-earner deals with the right part of the process, and innovations in IT, we not only grew rapidly, but, most importantly, we gave our customers a better level of service. All the time, it has kept coming back to this battle to meld technical legal brilliance with sophisticated processes.
Along the way, aside from the stuff about following your passion and not being caught up in the lawyer bubble, perhaps the most important lesson I have learned is to not be afraid to make big decisions. That’s something I’d like to tell my younger self: as long as no one is going to die, go for it! And normally if something feels right in your gut, it’s going to be OK. That has been the case with our decision in 2007 to become a limited company, and with our move five years ago to take control of our own advertising and marketing.
Now, having stepped back from fee-earning work six years ago to focus on running the business full-time as chief executive, one of the key parts of my job is conveying that willingness to be bold to our young staff. Too often in life people feel shackled by the choices they think they are expected to make. But without pushing boundaries there is no innovation. My main challenge now is to set those boundaries at a level that allows people not to be scared to take the calculated risks that continue to drive the business forward.
Ed Fletcher is the chief executive of Fletchers, the UK’s largest medical negligence law firm. He will be speaking next week at ‘Why the legal profession needs people who see the world differently — Legal Cheek live, with Lord Neuberger’. Apply for a free ticket to attend here.
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