Kingsley Napley’s ‘non-posh’ managing partner doesn’t rate people by rank. Perhaps that’s why it’s judged a great place to work.
EDUCATION: Hassenbrook Comprehensive School and Palmers Sixth Form College, Essex; English and American Literature, University of Warwick; College of Law
ROLES: PR at Thurrock Borough Council and Perry Publications, 1983-86; trainee, criminal law solicitor, partner and managing partner, Kingley Napley (1990-present)
KNOWN FOR: prize-winning tenure as managing partner, Kingsley Napley – doubling headcount and turnover since 2007
Kingsley Napley’s managing partner utters the word ‘Christmas’ and snow starts to fall outside – thick flakes blown by a hard wind. If the coincidence makes it seem Linda Woolley has a gift for making things happen, that impression has basis in harder evidence than the weather. The firm’s turnover is on track to clear £40m this year, a 130% increase on 2007, the year she became sole managing partner. Headcount has more than doubled in that time, to 378, and profits are up 77%. Half the partners are women and the firm is marking several years in The Sunday Times’ coveted top-100 places to work list (reaching 15th in 2017).
But let us rewind to Christmas. Every festive season Woolley exchanges cards with the sister of the late Trevor Wickens, whose bid to have his murder conviction quashed was taken up pro bono by Woolley and the barrister Tim Barnes QC. It is, she says, the one case from her time in practice that stands out most.
Woolley and Barnes had worked together on a criminal case in 1997, in which their client was acquitted. ‘A couple of months later, he phoned me to say that a chap who was painting his house told him his stepdad was in prison for murder, and they didn’t think he did it,’ she recalls. ‘Tim was interested. Would I help him?’
Wickens had been convicted and jailed in 1991 for the murder of an elderly woman in Kent. ‘We were both worried [that] he’d exhausted all his rights of appeal,’ Woolley says, and getting the case reopened was challenging. After a failed attempt to launch an appeal, she and Barnes submitted his case to the newly formed Criminal Cases Review Commission, which initially refused it but relented following the threat of a judicial review. Eventually, following a three-day hearing at the Court of Appeal, including pathologist’s evidence that ‘completely shifted’ the case, Wickens’ conviction was quashed.
‘But for me and Tim, I think he would have died in prison,’ Woolley says. She went on to secure £750,000 in compensation for her client, and until his death Wickens also signed his sister’s cards.
The interview begins with more self-effacing recollections. Law is Woolley’s second career. She ignored careers advice suggesting she was suited to becoming a solicitor, and on graduating in English and American Literature from Warwick in 1983, worked in public relations, first at Thurrock Borough Council and then for a magazine publisher. She ‘hated it’, even failing the PR paper of a diploma she sat. She then studied for an A-level in law to test her commitment to the subject and went on to articles at Kingsley Napley, which she began in 1990.
The firm Woolley arrived at was ‘quite old-fashioned, quite cosy’. Both Sidney Kingsley and David Napley were still alive, and Napley was still doing some work (he died in 1994). There was one female equity partner, Pam Collis. ‘I suppose it used to be a bit of a gentleman’s club, in that the then equity partners didn’t seem to be all that worried about making money,’ she says. She noted the partners’ decision to buy their own property outright had removed the upward pressure on rents experienced by many firms at the time.
The firm was different in other ways too. Starting with her as a trainee was the son of a client whose academic credentials were far inferior to her own; a sign of more ‘deferential’ times, with the expectation that more work would follow his appointment. Yet, she says: ‘To be fair, they recruited me and I had absolutely no contacts at all with anyone who might bring work to KN.’ The firm also had a culture of openness and respect that she hopes it still lives by. ‘Personally, it’s always been a very nice place to work, where you’ve always felt able to speak up… I never felt worried about saying something awkward.’
Woolley joined the partnership in 1997, and in 2004 was made joint managing partner with family lawyer Jane Keir and real estate colleague Keith Laws. Appointed sole managing partner in 2007, she stopped fee-earning work in 2012.
Making crime pay
Founded in 1937, Kingsley Napley does, of course, have a storied past.
With the sensational trial of Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe for conspiracy to murder, David Napley began to work regularly with George Carman QC – Thorpe’s acquittal at his 1979 trial making the firm and the silk a ‘go-to’ team. Other high-profile clients have included ex-Conservative MP Harvey Proctor, Labour’s Greville Janner, Princess Michael of Kent and the family of ‘God’s banker’ Roberto Calvi, who was found hanged under Blackfriars Bridge.
Woolley herself references other clients’ cases – Damian Green MP, Rebekah Brooks for her 2014 phone-hacking trial, a Libor manipulation trial, a clinical negligence death in childbirth case, Tesco for its SFO investigation, and the Mayfair casino unsuccessfully sued for not paying out £7.7m for a baccarat game. There is ongoing advice to the Catholic Church in a child sex abuse inquiry.
Other departments and teams include regulatory, civil disputes, corporate and commercial, employment and family.
A move away from legal aid cases – now around 1% of the firm’s income (it was 50% when Woolley joined) – has protected the business from savage public funding cuts. But the firm has had to rethink its approach to some practice areas as clients face a budget squeeze. And the Jackson reforms also altered the economics.
‘In the regulatory sphere,’ she continues, referencing fees, ‘it could be argued that there’s a race to the bottom, which we don’t want to be part of, but we do have to be a lot more efficient, while hopefully not compromising on the quality.’
Kingsley Napley’s regulatory team was shortlisted at the 2015 Law Society Excellence awards for the way it remodelled its work for the Health and Care Professions Council. It created case management and reporting tools, and adopted ‘Lean Six Sigma’ methodology to improve efficiency and effectiveness. Clinical negligence case management has also been rethought.
It was as joint managing partner that Woolley’s management style developed, she reflects. She hopes she is direct and down to earth, and that this has translated from her ‘non-posh’ background.
‘My mum and dad both had office jobs, but my grandparents were a bus driver and a factory worker and busker – that kind of thing. Lots of members of my family are cleaners, shop workers… I treat my family as my peers. I therefore treat people who work in our office services team exactly the same way as I would treat Jane Keir. I don’t value people by their rank in the organisation, as I don’t in life generally.’
Keeping the firm competitive involves difficult conversations that she does not shirk, though. One year, when many staff did not receive a bonus, she tackled the topic head on at the firm’s AGM: ‘I said to the firm that we wouldn’t be paying a firm-wide bonus that year, other than two departments which had been exceptionally high-performing, because we had to keep the PEP up. That’s actually quite a difficult message.’ Yet, her delivery of that message seemed to be respected by staff, as this was also the year that the firm secured its first ‘100 best places to work’ ranking.
A recognition of the importance of work-life balance goes some way to building staff commitment. Leading by example, Woolley has caring responsibilities for her parents, meaning many days she arrives at the office mid-morning. Key people who worked on the all-consuming Rebekah Brooks trial had extra time off at its conclusion, and there has been latitude for staff with family emergencies.
How, though, does she think the firm measures up to the now-prominent issue of sexual harassment in the legal profession? Kingsley Napley faced one test in this regard, when one of its lawyers appeared on the guest list of the Presidents Club dinner, the subject of the celebrated Financial Times investigation.
‘We had a consultant at the Presidents Club dinner. He’s now an ex-consultant. I’d never heard of the Presidents Club… I didn’t know what it was… once I did, we did something about it.’
Work, she says, recalling a line from the Gazette feature ‘Sexual harassment: you too?’ (17 November 2017), ‘is still a good place to meet your life partner’. But the issue of harassment is wider than consent, she says. She cites Monica Lewinsky’s subsequent reflections on President Clinton – that when he was the most powerful man in the world, consent, on reflection, was not straightforward. ‘I would hope that our culture here, where we relate to each other as people before rank, helps us in managing those issues.’
What next for Kingsley Napley? There are no practice diversification plans. Woolley judges that the current mix is right, though some developing areas of law, including domestic abuse and ‘coercive control’ will shape colleagues’ work.
And over 80 years from its foundation, the firm, now split between three buildings, is planning the third move in its history. ‘We’ve just grown so much,’ Woolley concludes. ‘We want to have a building of which we’re the sole occupants.’ Few would dispute that Kingsley Napley deserves its own front door.