Founded to fight injustice, Hodge Jones & Allen is now under new leadership following the appointment of Vidisha Joshi as managing partner. But, as John van der Luit-Drummond discovers, the firm’s values remain the same
When newly qualified Vidisha Joshi was turned down for a vacancy at Hodge Jones & Allen she could hardly have imagined that some 15 years later she would be appointed managing partner of the firm, making her one of the youngest lawyers in the country to run a major legal services business. If there is a downside to her meteoric rise to the top of the Camden-based firm, it is that her elevation comes at a time of significant uncertainty in the legal marketplace. Not that Joshi is too worried about her firm’s future, however.
The story began in 2002, when HJA advertised for a one-to-two years’ PQE clinical negligence solicitor. Joshi, who is the daughter of Kenyan immigrants, had graduated from Leicester University in 1999 before completing her legal training at West End firm Portner and Jaskel. Seeing a vacancy at a firm she had a burning desire to work at, the young personal injury lawyer took a chance and put in her application. ‘I thought I could charm my way in,’ she recalls. ‘I wasn’t offered the job due to my experience. I had only nine months of clin neg training. But I have always loved this firm. It’s a firm you aspire to work at.’
The opportunity to join HJA arose again in October 2011 after Joshi was contacted by its senior and managing partner, Patrick Allen, to look into revamping the firm’s IT system. Joshi had spent the previous seven years at the now defunct City outfit Prolegal, running a PI team and developing a case management system. Having heard of her success in modernising Prolegal’s systems, Allen was keen for Joshi to implement a new CMS across all of HJA’s practice areas, which she delivered in just six months, a year ahead of schedule.
Joining the firm in January 2012, she recalls ‘living in the basement’ for six months. ‘I didn’t see daylight,’ she laughs. ‘The case management company told us the rollout for a firm of our size would take 18 months. We looked at the calendar and aimed for the three days off over the Jubilee weekend. We had six months to migrate all the data, documents, and create a system that would allow fee earners to get working straightaway with minimal downtime.’ It was a sizeable task and one the likes of which Joshi had never undertaken before, but with the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 on the horizon, the needs of the business demanded the project be a success.
‘People are quite fearful of technology and innovation,’ remarks Joshi. ‘We are one of those sectors that tends to lag behind and lawyers aren’t the quickest to change how they work, but we have a good team here – a lot of our juniors are IT savvy and used to working in fast-paced environments. Changing how we worked wasn’t a huge challenge; everybody knew we had to change the old model. Changes to systems and working practices were in place well in advance of LASPO coming in.’
For the next three months, Joshi and her team met regularly to iron out glitches in the CMS. She was soon promoted to associate and began a year-long stint back at the coalface of legal practice, running a caseload of 40 claims, before then becoming instrumental in HJA’s continuous innovation programme, which has ensured the firm continues to deliver on its founding values of ‘doing things differently’ and ‘fighting injustice’.
The programme was introduced in the face of significant legislative change, including the Jackson reforms, severe cuts to legal aid, and the introduction of fixed costs. It involved Joshi looking closely at the firm’s management, type of work undertaken, fee recovery processes, and resource requirements. She explains her role became ‘less about the CMS and more about working practices’ and ‘looking at where we were as a business, where we could make savings and make more use out of our current resources’. She continues: ‘It’s an ongoing project, it should never be something you think is okay; it’s constantly changing, especially when the needs of the business are changing.’
Climbing the ladder
In 2014 Joshi began analysing the PI team’s finances and the impact LASPO had had thus far on the firm. A year later she became the head of the PI department, an equity partner, and then board member, where she gained even greater insight into the business of law. It was at this point she began thinking about taking on a more active management role. ‘I always aspired to become a partner, but to become one so quickly was amazing. I remember it so clearly because it was my birthday. I thought anything beyond this would be a real bonus. Then the opportunity to invest in the business came along and I thought maybe there is a bit more to this.’
Still, Joshi could never have predicted managing the entire firm only five years after joining it, even after Allen approached her one evening with the throwaway line: ‘So, you think you can run this place?’ ‘I used to have one of the tiniest desks in the building – although it was a step up from the basement. The desk actually wobbled,’ she recalls, laughing. ‘I’d only just taken over the PI team, so I said: “Give me a week or two to settle in and then, sure, why not?” And now, here we are.’ Conversations took place between Allen and the firm’s partnership over the following months, resulting in a unanimous vote from the nine shareholding partners – at 38 years old, Joshi was to become HJA’s new managing partner.
Despite her new responsibility, Joshi continues to lead the PI team, acting for clients in relation to accidents in public places. Yet heading up a department is vastly different from managing an entire firm that employs over 230 people and has an annual turnover of £16m, as Joshi realised upon taking over the day-to-day management on 3 January. She has, however, hit the ground running. ‘You have to look at what the scope of the undertaking is and you have to be honest with yourself. It’s a monumental task to run a firm this size. You have to ask yourself if you have what it takes for the role. It’s very attractive and the title is all well and good but you have to put in the leg work. You have to really want to do this job to do it well.’
It is clear to see Joshi’s can-do attitude was an attractive option for HJA’s equity partnership. But she knows running a modern legal practice is a team effort. Besides which, she has the benefit of a mentor to guide her. Allen, having run the firm since its creation 40 years ago, has retained his role as senior partner and chair of the management board, and, as Joshi explains, is going nowhere. He remains a larger-than-life figure at the firm, able to pass on his wealth of experience to Joshi as she assumes her new role.
But, does that mean the new boss will be the same as the old boss? Asked if, as managing partner, she would be putting her own stamp on the firm, Joshi replies: ‘This is a successful business. I’m not sure I want to change it. Patrick is mentoring me, not just in the business but also in how to represent the firm. He’s a great man to learn from. But I’m also my own person. Our styles of management and leadership are different, yet we have been successfully working together for some time. The way the firm is moving forward, with both of us in our respective positions, works well. The founding principles are the same as they were 40 years ago. They are the reason why we all come to work here.’
One of those founding principles is undoubtedly the firm’s belief in equality and opportunity for its entire staff. In addition to being one of the youngest managing partners in the country, Joshi is also one of the few women in a major leadership role at a UK law firm. A survey conducted by the Managing Partners’ Forum in March 2016 showed women held only 16 per cent of chief executive posts, 27 per cent of business unit leader roles, and 46 per cent of functional management leadership roles at professional services firms. Two-thirds of the respondents were law firms. While the proportion of women partners has risen from 15 per cent in 1995 to 29 per cent in 2015, according to the Law Society’s diversity statistics of the profession, an analysis of online partner profiles by recruiter Laurence Simons found the situation less rosy at leading UK firms, where just 21 per cent of Magic Circle partners and 19 per cent of Silver Circle partners were women.
I ask Joshi if she ever feared her career might be held up because of the profession’s diversity failures. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever had to consider the impact being a woman would have on my career,’ she replies. ‘I work at HJA, where 67 per cent of our staff are female. At board level we are split 50/50. Twenty-five out of 37 partners are women. The firm has always recognised talent and that is not gender specific. Whoever has the skills and wants to progress will progress. We invest in people.’ Joshi is a prime example of just what can happen when a firm identifies talent, invests in its people, and gives them the chance to lead. It is clearly an opportunity she relishes and has grasped firmly with both hands. HJA’s confidence in her abilities will soon be tested, however.
Since its creation in 1977, HJA has been at the forefront of some of the UK’s most renowned PI and medical negligence cases. But now, with the government’s proposed reforms to soft-tissue injury claims and the possibility of fixed costs in clinical negligence cases, the firm, along with the entire PI sector, is bracing for substantial changes to the marketplace.
Like any sensible business which finds itself in turbulent times, HJA is preparing for change, even though it doesn’t yet know what the extent of any change will be. And Joshi is leading that preparation. ‘You need somebody who is going to take decisions and stand by them. That is the kind of person I am,’ she says. ‘We have to be sensible. There is a plan A, a plan B, a plan C, and whatever the outcome is we will reengineer the business and keep going. We’ve done it successfully in the past and I see no reason why this time should be any different.’
While the proposed reforms are a concern to many in the sector, they may also provide an opportunity for forward-thinking firms to grow, whether by moving into new areas of practice or expanding existing operations. Though not ready to reveal specifics, Joshi and Allen seem to have expansion of some form in mind. ‘There are various exciting initiatives Patrick and I are looking into. So yes, we have reforms on the horizon in certain sectors but that doesn’t rule out every other area of law for our firm. We are fortunate enough that we are so diverse in the services we provide. If something is happening in one area there is scope to expand in another.’
The message from Joshi is clear: We are not going anywhere. We have a plan. Watch this space. Considering her success in preparing HJA for LASPO, few would bet against her successfully navigating her firm through the troubled waters ahead.
This article first appeared in Solicitors Journal and is reproduced with kind permission.