Interview: Andrew Walker of law firm Morton Fraser on helping businesses prosper
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Speaking at its swish offices in Edinburgh's Quartermile, he gives an insight into his remit as a partner in its corporate team and head of the corporate growth sector, advising firms ranging from small operations to behemoths regarding corporate transactions and commercial contracts.
Names to have featured on the legal heavyweight’s roster include Diageo, Royal Mail Group, Tesco, Bam Properties, Persimmon, and Schuh, as well as public sector appointments such as the Scottish and UK governments, all in all helping the firm in the 12 months to April 2022 see turnover jump 16 per cent year on year to £23.9 million, and net profit increase by more than 40 per cent, while its corporate team grew by in excess of a third.
One key priority for Mr Walker is scenario planning, coming after firms have faced many headwinds in recent years, and helping them address those that could crop up to boost better their chances of longevity. Recently published data from Novuna Business Finance showed that the proportion of smaller Scottish firms anticipating contraction this quarter hit its lowest level in almost four years, at 12 per cent, but it also said some issues that have “plagued” such organisations, including high fixed costs and economic uncertainty, remain.
The Morton Fraser partner believes scenario planning is “quite an important part of the lawyer's role”, and they can table potential hurdles that the client hasn’t considered, and ways to then tackle these, for example suggesting introducing clauses controlling the extent to which prices can be increased amid cost pressures, for example, into a contract. “I think that's when you can really add value.”
He adds that he always aims to try and support businesses above and beyond providing pure legal advice, for example ensuring that they are pulling on all levers that can really catalyse their growth as effectively as possible.
That includes checking that firms are aware of, say, grants for ambitious firms or HMRC research and development tax credits, “things that wouldn't ordinarily be something that you would expect a lawyer to immediately raise in a meeting, because fundamentally we’re there to provide legal advice and draft [and/or] advise on contracts, I just think it's incumbent upon us, as advisers, to think of the bigger picture”.
In terms of the sectors he covers, this includes technology, retail, and food and drink, with the latter a £15 billion industry in Scotland, and a major focus of his, not just professionally, but also personally, citing dining out, craft beer, and gin as key interests. “Scotland has got a great reputation for food and drink… we can hold our head high, I think, around the world.”
He signposts the “myriad” issues facing the sector, but he also says he was surprised to learn that it is the largest element of UK manufacturing by turnover – it has in fact been valued at £104.4bn, and is larger than the automotive and aerospace industries combined, according to the country’s Department for Business & Trade. “It will have its challenges like all sectors, but the demand for food in the world is going upwards significantly, so that can only be a good thing.”
Mr Walker also touches on the issues arising from Brexit, which has exacerbated the skills shortage, but he also notes the observation that it means domestic producers are decreasingly having to compete with European imports, “which I think is quite interesting”. He is seeing various businesses investing in new product development, in their brands, and in automation to drive efficiencies and manufacturing, as part of his discussions with businesses – a role that can also encompass signposting them to funding sources such as angel investors, private equity, or banks, “and helping them execute the legals on that”.
His professional jurisdiction also includes intellectual property work, advising on things like trademarking, while he is also an accredited coach, and has mentored various firms, while he is also currently a non-executive director of a company called Fizz Benefits that specialises in discount, reward and benefit offerings for employees.
As for his own career, he studied French and law, saying he always had an interest in languages, while he found he had an enthusiasm for the commercial sections of his legal studies. He trained with Bird Semple, then went abroad, working in Brussels for the European Commission, for example, followed by stints at Dickson Minto, HBJ Gately which then merged with Addleshaw Goddard in 2017, before joining Morton Fraser, which has a base in Glasgow (having made a large investment in a new hub in the city) as well as in Edinburgh, in 2021.
Morton Fraser, which now has a team of more than 260, has inked several of its own mergers over the years, including that of Edinburgh firm Skene Edwards in 2007 and Macdonalds in 2013, while its history dates back to 1614 in Glasgow, while its Edinburgh practice originated in 1829 when it was founded by Charles Morton who along with James Greig set up Greig & Morton WS.
Back to the present day, Mr Walker’s priority is about understanding what company chiefs want to achieve. “You really are raising, thoroughly, a menu of issues and agenda items that clients should think about, and they can then react and you can guide them,” he says. “A lot of the issues that I see recur, but personalities are always different… there's a lot of variety in the job. Really, I just enjoy the challenge and the opportunity to use legal contracts in ways that can assist businesses and entrepreneurs.”