Neil May

CEO at 42 Bedford Row

42 Bedford Row is a leading common law set of chambers with over 100 barristers who focus on specialist practice areas within civil and family law

You’ve had an impressive career working at three of the world’s leading professional service firms, most recently for nine years with Hogan Lovells’ Global CEO. To what do you credit your success?

I suspect there are common elements of success for all of us. Curiosity is a good starting point. It makes you open to ideas and to others. Only if you take a holistic view can you identify the best path out of the woods. You need to be disciplined, to work and think hard, but curiosity will keep it all stimulating. It is at the heart of strategy, of creating a vision for where you want to go, and of motivating and energising people.

Respect for others also matters. There are people who achieve things without it, but why work with them? If people are more effective they will be more successful and the business will be stronger – that requires them actively to choose to engage with what you are trying to do. Being even handed and doing what is right, rather than what is easy, builds trust.

Have the courage of your convictions. If something needs doing, but people are not yet ready, then I’d play it back in due course in a slightly different guise: people need time to assimilate ideas and then often come up with an acceptable version of the idea themselves. I’ve always been interested in change management, and success involves being able to flow round all the boulders in the way. I think a continuous commitment to learning is crucial, whether that’s management, people or technical skills. None of us can rest on our past skills, and anyway it’s intellectually stimulating.

Many who have come to the Bar as a chambers’ first CEO have gone within a year or two, invariably without making much impact. How important is it in your role to understand the nuances of the legal sector?

The Bar has its own idiosyncrasies and I think it helps to bring both consulting and legal understanding into the role. Just as I attended junior tax lawyer training at Clifford Chance, so I have joined junior training within chambers to improve my understanding and allow better conversations internally and with clients. I’ve spent much of my career working with lawyers – as clients, appointing them as suppliers and negotiating fees, working with in-house teams. It is sector I like.

Of course, there are others who’ve succeeded without this knowledge. Perhaps the key is really how willing chambers is itself to evolve. Psychometric tests show lawyers rate highly for autonomy and scepticism. They seek certainty and to avoid mistakes and may respond to something by intellectualising it. If members insist on maintaining every element of personal control then it’s probably a waste of time for anyone to take the role with that set, whatever their background. Perhaps it’s harder as a first CEO because members have not yet thought about where boundaries and permissions lie.

How key are competitive tendering, client surveys, financial management and agreeing on what it is that holds a set together to the future of a modern chambers?

They are essential. In particular, making explicit the glue that holds us together is at the heart of our business plan. While I’m always keen to talk to potential tenants, a good fit with this glue and our culture is fundamental.

I’ve undertaken a large scale client feedback exercise that also tested specific wording in relation to our differentiation, culture and market positioning. Most elements scored over 90% (which was reassuring) although areas were identified where we have work to do.

Tendering is sometimes seen as an administrative task – it is not, it’s a skill. So far we have been very successful in spite of being ambitious. But the world is a much tougher place than it was before 2008: that affects every sector and it is never going to revert.

We’re a broad set covering a range of practice areas, so it’s important to appreciate the different financial cycles within each group. I have been focusing particularly on better systems configuration and reducing longer aged debt and, with client wins, receipts are up.

You have been sought after for your executive coaching and leadership development skills for over a decade. How are your members benefiting from this skill set?

I coach some members directly. More widely, my underlying philosophy is we can all be more effective, and that permeates the way I approach everything. Coaching creates a space where you can contemplate which choices you want to make and how to break past boundaries. I have brought in some changes with our practice managers. This year, I have focused mainly on our team leaders, guiding them into how I think about situations, and bringing them into aspects of work and management they had not previously encountered.

What is the best advice you’ve been given in your career?

Moving from Ernst & Young’s consulting practice to Clifford Chance, I was advised to run three times as many projects concurrently as normal, because key people will suddenly vanish for two months due to work; and to ‘learn to develop patience beyond my wildest imaginings’. These have been invaluable pieces of guidance and hold true at the Bar.

How do you relax away from chambers?

I’ve played the flute since school and like the challenge and the buzz of concerts. I need to get outdoors to recharge, so a walk at the weekend is important. It may sound twee, but I enjoy spending time with my family. The kids have meant I’ve encountered totally new areas, such as geology and particle physics – though I must confess I sometimes only understand half of what lecturers are saying.

Neil May was interviewed by Guy Hewetson and Mathew Kesbey of Hewetson Shah LLP

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