In Jerry McGuire, that splendid film about capitalism with a Renee Zellweger heart and a Tom Cruise smile, McGuire muses lyrical about transforming the soulless, high pressure, squeeze-the-last-dime-out-of-your-grandmother sports agency he works at. His proposal: service fewer clients, earn less money but enjoy work more and 'start our lives.' He types up his utopian vision and sends it to every employee in the firm without consulting anyone. The result: he's publicly applauded for his soft-hearted idealism and privately fired for his block-headed business sense.
Indeed, the received wisdom is that, in the 'real world', talent is attracted to wealth like bees to nectar and that if you offer less nectar, the talent will buzz off elsewhere.
Then I heard about Anthony Collins Solicitors. I discovered that the legal community in Birmingham had voted them Law Firm of the Year twice in a row. And then I heard this preposterous rumour that they had actually capped partner hours at 45 per week. And that wasn't even billable hours, that's total hours worked. That's a lot less than their competition and an awful lot less than any comparable London law firm.
It also happens to be less than the current UK maximum of 48 which employees can choose to waive. In fact, it's in line with the European Work-Time Directive that representatives of all three major parties seem remarkably consistent in rejecting, perhaps on the basis, as one journalist seriously proposed, that if Beethoven had only worked 45 hours a week we would all have missed out on Symphonies 5 through 9.
Of course, the work-time directive may not be the way forward but nor again is the situation we now have in the UK with people working longer, and, as the research indicates, popping more pills, getting stressed, getting depressed and burning out younger. But is there a sustainable alternative? After all, you may like Anthony Collins be able to persuade current staff to work less and earn less but surely that won't work with people who haven't imbibed your culture. You won't be able to attract new people. Indeed, when I met one of the Anthony Collins partners I confidently said: "People can't possibly earn as much so you must have trouble recruiting talented people." He answered: "No. We're the only major firm in Birmingham that has no trouble recruiting at all."
People are actually queuing up to work for less.
Apparently, in the real world it is possible to work less, earn less, attract outstanding clients and outstanding talent, and be lauded by your competitors.
Anthony Collins is the firm's founder and came latish to the law, but qualified in England and then in Canada. Then he returned to his father's Birmingham law practice and rather less glamorous fare. It bored him. Today he sees that lack of fulfilment as God's way of moving him on. He decided to start his own firm, with the clear aim of serving Christians. "It was opportunist to some extent. I could see that people needed to have lawyers to pray for them. And I wanted to build a firm to the glory of God. And that remains the essential objective of the partnership to this day."
He funded the start-up from £3,000 his mother had left him in her will. It was enough to get an office but not enough to hire a full-time secretary. So he arranged to see clients in the morning when she was in. Slowly the firm expanded as he recruited some "terrific people". Today, Anthony Collins Solicitors has a significant presence in the public and charity sectors involved in the regeneration of social housing. They also remain active in private client work and commercial services such as property, licensing, litigation, employment, corporate law.
His admiration for his colleagues is almost tangible and he is quite clear that many of them are far better lawyers than he is. His talent, as he sees it, was to have an eye for talent. He also had a strong belief that: "People do their best work when they are doing what they really want to do." This may sound obvious but few companies know how to manage talent in that way. Indeed, the direction of the company's expansion has primarily been driven by the partners' passions for particular areas of law, rather than a top-down decision to go into an area simply because it might prove lucrative.
The firm is a national leader in charity law as well as urban regeneration and community transformation. Here you can see the strong service ethic that characterises the DNA of the firm. Just as Anthony wanted to serve Christians to the glory of God, so all the firm's work, whether in the commercial sector, the public service sector, the charity sector or legal aid, is characterised by a service motive. And you can see that in Anthony's attitude to money:
"I was not really in it for the money. And we could have made a lot more money if we had dropped legal aid."
But they didn't drop legal aid. And they make enough money. Enough - a counter-cultural concept in itself.
Anthony attributes the company's growth to two factors: the power of God and the power of prayer. And pray he does. And so do the partners - corporately as well as individually. In fact, they have always prayed before every partners' meeting. This is, however, much more than a traditional ritual:
"If one is doing something, you've got to get people behind it in prayer. It's essential."
And that's what Anthony does - calls people up and asks them to pray and then calls them back later to tell them what happened. For him that feedback to others is also essential. For years he kept a 'thanksgiving book' of answered prayer and he testifies to countless occasions when God answered prayer, actually "almost every day". From the small things to the big things - lost files, phone calls, bad relationships, court applications, mistakes, and so on. However small, however big, it could be taken to God in prayer. In this he was supported by his wife Fiona, also a Christian, and by his long-time secretary, Barbara Hatton, who has been both a model of professional competence and a persistent, consistent person of prayer. Anthony is obviously a fine business leader but you get absolutely no sense that he feels that he would have succeeded without God or without the support of others.
Indeed, there is in Anthony a tremendous confidence in God's power. As he put it:
"Our God is an Almighty God and we often lose that sense of how awesome he is."
Anthony is, however, quite matter of fact about the intervention of the infinite, omnipotent God in the dealings of a mid-sized law firm in a mid-sized city in a small country on a small planet in a small solar system in one galaxy among billions. One of his favourite passages of Scripture is Jesus' encounter with the Centurion in Luke 7. "The Centurion understands who Jesus is, so there's no point in making him walk all the way to his house to heal the servant. Just pray and move on. I love that. That's business-like."
As a firm with a strong Christian ethos - though not self-dubbed a 'Christian firm' - Anthony has never advertised under a Christian banner: "People do tend to notice that there is something different about this place. We don't promote our faith. We just get on with loving people. We work extremely hard and try to ensure that our clients really are getting the very best advice." What is also clear is that the corporate ethos is both strong and attractive and that if they lost that ethos, they would lose people.
When Anthony started the firm it was with the desire to serve Christians in the recognition that people didn't just need a good lawyer, they needed a good lawyer who would pray for them. That desire to ensure workers have an opportunity to be prayed for has also found expression in the development of Chaplaincy Plus which he and a small number of other Birmingham business people launched last year as a resource to Birmingham professionals.
Anthony and the trustees identified the need for a City Centre ministry to the workers and went looking for people with business experience and pastoral skills to staff it. They found Chris and Clare Dinsdale who had been the full-time team in London's Midweek in Mayfair for several years. Chris is a former property professional and Clare is a trained counsellor. They provide prayer, Bible Study and counselling, as well as initiating events to support workers and the pastors who want to support them: serving people and praying for people. Not a bad way to run a business, as Anthony has demonstrated. Or a church for that matter.