PROFESSOR Lorne Crerar, 52, wears many hats and has discarded a few, but one of his regrets is never having won a cap. His slightly sombre manner suggests the mantle which suits him best is that of secular priest.

He is not only an eminent banking lawyer, author and academic, but also Scotland's media-styled "standards czar", responsible for monitoring the efficacy of public sector regulation. His CV shows that he was born to cajole, counsel and occasionally censure.

A former Scotland under-21 rugby international, who was forced to stop playing at 20 through injury, Crerar went on to chair the Scottish Rugby Union's disciplinary board, a position he still holds. For many years he was a club-level match referee, before the same injury forced him to retire before he could graduate to officiating in Five Nations games.

As chairman of the Scottish Executive's Housing Improvement Task Force, Crerar is widely credited - "or perhaps discredited", he says - for pioneering the controversial Single Survey, a concept which obviates the need to replace the antiquated arrangements that can leave would-be buyers shelling out on a whole succession of reports.

"This is an enormous improvement on the current house buying and selling system, " he insists. Many disagree, not least his own professional body, the Law Society of Scotland.

Crerar speaks with a quiet authority natural in one who achieved much while young. The best private law graduate in his year at Glasgow University, Crerar made partner within a year of joining the Glasgow firm now known as Mitchells Roberton. Yet he stunned his peers by quitting while still in his early thirties to establish his own commercial law firm, Harper Macleod, from scratch in 1988. His peers said it simply could not be done. Where would he find clients?

In those difficult, early, days Crerar worked cheek by jowl with co-founder Rod McKenzie in a converted sandwich shop in St Vincent Street. Their entrepreneurialism (not a word frequently associated with lawyers) paid off, as evidenced by the fact that Harper Macleod carried off three top legal awards this year alone, include The Herald-sponsored Law Firm of the Year 2006.

"It was unheard of for a partner to leave a legal firm at that time, " Crerar recalls. "Partnership - like marriage - was for life, but it has since become the norm. We moved to the Ca' d'Oro building but could only occupy half the floor we took. I cancelled the milk and papers because things were very tough, even if only for a short while."

In the last five years Harper Macleod has quintupled annual revenues to a forecast GBP12m in 2006-07. The practice celebrated a 30per cent rise in turnover in the year to March 31, to GBP10.4m, and saw profit per equity partner jump 36per cent to GBP240,000.

When asked to explain the firm's success, Crerar mentions Harvard University, which he has visited, and its case study of New York law firm Wachtell Lipton, which he regards as an object lesson in how to run a law firm. Wachtell Lipton is renowned for its "flat" management structure and inclusive employment philosophy.

"Everyone who comes to this firm has been interviewed to death, " Crerar explains. "It's not simply a question of establishing candidates' legal skills, but how well they will 'balance'with others in the firm. We have a policy of not growing through lateral hires (poaching partners from other firms).

"Growth is key, but not to make money as such but to create more opportunities for our staff. The average age of a lawyer here is 32 and that of a partner 38. This - very positive - demographic gives lots of room for advancement. Yes we have made lateral hires, but these were to fill specific talent gaps. No-one in the firm felt that these had in any way eclipsed their own prospects, which lateral hires of teams from other firms will do."

More prosaically, Harper Macleod pays well: "In the top quartile at all levels for the biggest four or five firms in Scotland", according to Crerar. Shrewdly, no fewer than 11 lawyers at the firm teach at university, thereby demonstrating that the fastgrowing business remains "at the leading edge" of legal practice.

"We believe we have the highest retention rate of any law firm in Scotland, " he adds. "We do not need to protect our client relationships by having senior partners at every meeting, because we know our lawyers are going to stay with us. We can entrust clients to our best-qualified lawyer without fearing that person is going to leave and take the client with them."

He adds: "Of our top 30 clients on December 31, 2003, all are still with us and generate significantly more fee income than they did then. So when I go and pitch for work against mainstream competitors, my advantage is that they have no experience of a former client of Harper Macleod, because if there are any of those they are very, very few in number. But we have grown so significantly that we will have experience of how services are delivered by our competitors."

Harper Macleod's breakneck growth has left Crerar juggling his priorities at a time when he is chairing the eponymous "Crerar review", shorthand for the "Independent Review of Regulation, Audit, Inspection and Complaints Handling of public services in Scotland". This followed a threeyear tenure as convener of the Standards Commission for Scotland, where he was responsible, among other things, for tracking down "rogue councillors".

Crerar has been examining the 50 regulatory bodies and ombudsmen which patrol the public sector and handle the public's complaints. His report is expected in summer 2007. "It was generally felt when the group was set up that the public sector may well be over regulated, " he says. "It's an enormous remit and a very tight timescale, but it's been fascinating and challenging. I have been given no steer at all, it's very much an independent review."

Back in the day job, he has established a new senior management structure at Harper Macleod which he believes will enable the firm to continue to prosper. Crerar himself has become chairman, taking on strategic management of the client-facing arm and ensuring a consistent approach across all practice areas. Former finance director Martin Darroch is the new chief executive, overseeing the administration and development of all management functions like human resources, IT and finance.

For all its success, Harper Macleod remains a middling-sized firm in a small market. Moreover, most commercial law firms are piling on the cash in the current, benevolent marketplace. What are Crerar's ambitions for the firm?

"We have a rolling three-year strategy which is presently under review, " he says. "We are in pack of large mid-sized firms but want to be 'tucked in' behind the top four or five, while completely differentiating ourselves from them in the way we do business."