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'Lawyers deserve a battering' says Outset Group boss, who believes the profession is too slow and expensive

By Chris Price

It was in his first job as a wine waiter at a hotel in Birmingham that Jonathan Gauton first saw how to run a business poorly.

“I found it really useful,” said the chief executive of Outset Group, a 15-year-old legal practice in Maidstone.

“I learned a lot about how people are treated when they are not regarded as significant. I watched how not to manage people and how to stifle creativity.

Outset Group chief executive Jonathan Gauton

Outset Group chief executive Jonathan Gauton

“I also learned about how to give a customer what they want.”

Father-of-five Mr Gauton founded Outset after a decade working in private practice, where he had developed a hatred of the hierarchical system he thinks is a blight on most traditional large practices.

Since then it has grown from five staff to 52 and completed its second acquisition in three years in September when it bought Somerset firm Nicholas Moore Specialist Employment Lawyers out of liquidation.

He said his company’s next acquisition opportunity is in the pipeline.

Mr Gauton reluctantly calls himself a lawyer because “if any profession deserves a battering, legal does because it hasn’t innovated fast enough”.

Outset Group chief executive Jonathan Gauton, right, shakes hands on the takeover with Nicholas Moore

Outset Group chief executive Jonathan Gauton, right, shakes hands on the takeover with Nicholas Moore

Outset’s legal division has completed more than 60 deals worth more than £200m since the start of the year, made possible by growing use of technology.

Mr Gauton said: “Traditional larger practices are not good at reacting to real business needs.

“They are too slow, too expensive and always cost more than they produce. They don’t tend to innovate because they charge by the hour. No one has an incentive to be more efficient.

“I have built a tech-driven, relationship-led professional services group. I wanted to build services around the needs of client businesses rather than the needs of the profession.”

The firm has been able to win business by offering consulting and HR services as well as health and safety advice alongside its legal services.

Mr Gauton said: “If we buy a property for a client they may need to address asbestos and then fire safety. We will package the whole lot together.

“It is always about long-term fixed pricing. This shares the risk and encourages us to innovate.

“Law firms have got to break the on-the-clock culture. Clients are fearful of taking advice. It’s better they are taking the right advice and sharing the risk with us. We can fix prices in a way others can’t.”

Why do you hate hierarchy?

“We try to have a challenging environment where people’s voices matter. If there’s one thing I hate it’s hierarchy. I hate it with a passion. It’s self-serving and larger professional organisations are dominated by it. People want to become a partner who is important and then they push people around. No-one benefits. No client benefits. They don’t improve services or make it cheaper.”

How has technology improved your business?

“We never touch physical paper documents when doing due diligence which makes the process faster and means we can do it anywhere in the country. We can do deals very cost-effectively and within a few weeks.”

What’s your style of leadership?

“I want people to have an exciting experience. I want it to be a place that’s challenging, engaging and welcoming. That makes me feel fantastic.”

Why did you buy Nicholas Moore Specialist Employment Lawyers out of liquidation?

“Cashflow kills most businesses but that does not mean there isn’t an underlying quality. They had cashflow challenges meaning they were unable to invest. We bought them out of liquidation because it was an underlying fantastic business.”

CV

Born: 29/10/1965 in Birmingham

School: King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Boys, Birmingham

Live: Canterbury

Family: Married to Rachel with five children

First job: Wine waiter

First wage: “We used to have to queue to get it in brown envelopes but I can’t remember what it was.”

Salary now: “It varies because in the early years I put more capital into the business. Now it is pretty successful.”

Car: Chrysler Grand Voyager

Favourite book: What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancey

Film: Shawshank Redemption

Music: “My son Josh Gauton is a professional musician. I’m also a fan of Bear’s Den.”

Gadget: iPhone

Last holiday: Crete

Charity: Dandelion Time and TimeOut

Typical day

Jonathan Gauton usually gets up at about 7am and lets the dog out before getting to work.

He often works from home in the early part of the morning to avoid the rush hour and splits his week between Outset’s Maidstone office three days a week and London and home a day a week each.

“If I’m in Maidstone I do increasingly less legal work. I’ll work with a client on the structure of the work we do for them, review our performance with them and give reports on that.”

He also works on business strategy with the heads of the company’s divisions and may look at acquisition opportunities.

He tends to leave the office at about 8pm and often has evening engagements.

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