As tumbleweed blows through solicitors’ offices across the land, one firm keeps opening more of them. Launching a new branch ‘feels like a good news story’, says Ison Harrison

Wherever you are reading this, chances are it won’t be at your desk in the office.

As staff once again contemplate working from home, it is easy to read the last rites for the office building – particularly those on high streets where so many other shops seem to be closing.

But Yorkshire firm Ison Harrison seems determined to buck the trend, having opened its 15th and 16th offices respectively during the pandemic and spread across the county at a time when so much of the legal sector is looking to consolidate.

The model is about being a constant and recurring presence in local communities, offering services like wills and conveyancing that require face-to-face contact in the branches; and passing on employment, commercial or criminal work to its Leeds hub.

In turn, the Leeds office provides all the IT, accounts, marketing and HR functions that the branches need. The effect is not dissimilar to the raft of consultancy firms where lawyers work remotely supported by a central base – except here the emphasis is on being visible to the public.

‘The model gives a feeling of success, confidence, purpose and identity to everyone at the firm. Opening a new branch feels like a good news story – and it is,’ says managing director Jonathan Wearing, who splits his working week between Leeds and a branch office.

‘I often question why so few others seem to be adopting the same model. Yes it can be hard work, the margins can be relatively modest and opening offices from scratch obviously involves some up-front investment, but it works for us.

‘It has proved to deliver real and positive growth in turnover, profit and profile for the business, opportunities for career progression at the firm for aspiring branch managers and a real sense of purpose and identity.’

The firm started out more than 40 years ago as a one-man band and now employs more than 200 staff following a series of mergers and expansions. Last year, branches were opened in Bingley and Harrogate – with 10 new sites added in total in the last decade.

'We spend very little on our online profiling and yet we probably have more reviews on Google than any other traditional firm in the country'

Jonathan Wearing, Ison Harrison

The model of opening so many branches seems counterintuitive, giving the prevailing attitude that firms must have a strong online presence to win business. Wearing does not dispute the importance of being visible in search engines but explains that the multi-office strategy is actually a benefit in this regard.

‘Obviously most people will have searched online before deciding who to approach. But when they come across a firm of our size and breadth [that] happens to be located on their high street and part of their community, then they can take some real reassurance, he says. ‘In this way each of our branches is a secret weapon in helping generate online enquiries.

‘We spend very little on our online profiling and yet we probably have more reviews on Google than any other traditional firm in the country. We now have over 500 reviews, principally because clients feel a relationship with the firm and the solicitor who has dealt with them.’

There will be some who balk at the potential overheads and rental charges of taking space on seemingly every high street in Yorkshire, but the bottom line is strong. The firm’s annual accounts for calendar 2020 show that profit before tax jumped 38% to £2.64m, as turnover rose slightly to £13m.

Wearing says that staff – many of who are able to walk to work rather than embark on long commutes into city centres – appreciate working with a small group of colleagues where there is a sense of belonging. During the pandemic, when offices could be safely reopened, most sought to return and the firm felt a ‘bounce and positivity’ as a result.

‘The shared experience of getting through tough times together has made the sense of belonging at each of our branches even stronger. Those who work there are even more committed to each other, their clients and the communities in which they work.’

Wearing hopes the sense of belonging will increase this month when Ison Harrison joins the growing list of law firms embracing employee ownership. A trust which staff can opt into will own 100% of the business, with five new directors welcomed to the existing board as part of a beefed-up management structure.

‘It will allow us to involve and reward everyone, attract talent in the region and demonstrate a genuine point of difference in a competitive market,’ explains Wearing. Given the current rate of expansion, any potential recruits should have little problem finding their local branch.


Pictured above: Jonathan Wearing (on the step) and staff outside the new Harrogate office which opened last year