BLACKADDERS, the Dundee-based law firm, is poised to shake up its corporate image as it strives to attract the next generation of lawyers and demonstrate that it is a place where long term careers can be built for all of its staff.

The plans are being overseen by Emma Gray and Ryan McKay, who became the first joint managing partners to lead the firm when they succeeded Johnston Clark on August 1 last year, following their election on an initial three-year term. Mr Clark had been in the role for 23 years.

Speaking to The Herald in Blackadders’ Glasgow office – it also has bases in Aberdeen and Edinburgh as well as its home city of Dundee – Ms Gray said there is “real excitement” and “anticipation” over what comes next.

In recent months “intensive” work has gone into a “rebrand of the firm as a whole”, with the assistance of a brand agency, over a protracted period. The process has involved interviews with staff, clients, and others in the market to assess how Blackadders is perceived and how it should be changed to reflect its ambitions.

Staff were given a hint of the direction of travel when the firm recently held its first annual summer conference, with the full details of the new identity to be revealed later this autumn.

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The conference also saw the joint managing partners share with staff their strategy for the remaining two years of their three-year term.

Asked what the firm would like its new brand to convey, Ms Gray said: “It is really smashing old perceptions of what it is to be a lawyer and to work in a law firm. And while the firm can trace its roots back 250 years, we are really shaping ourselves up for the future as a real home for talent – not just lawyers and paralegals but other professionals within the legal industry.”

Ms Gray said she had not been surprised by some of the feedback received from the staff interviews. Some observed that the firm was “old fashioned” and the view was also expressed that the industry as a whole was “male, pale and stale”.

“Not our firm in particular. I was on the board prior to becoming managing partner, but there is a perception of male, pale, and stale,” Ms Gray said. “That is changing across the market. There are managing partners now who are female but that has not always been the case.”

The new strategy aims to end the invisible barrier that has traditionally seemed to separate lawyers from other staff within law firms and convey the message that Blackadders operates as a single, collective team.

Mr McKay said the perception of this division continues within the legal sector, and stated: “There is a part of them and us… but this is where we want to go. This is the journey but you have go and play your part. We want to be transparent about what that means. 

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“It is just being open and honest that, for a law firm to succeed, everybody has to play their part, and actually setting out what that looks like for everyone. In the past, I don’t think there has always been that level of transparency. People did their role but did not understand where it fit within the larger aspirations of the firm.”

Asked if this new approach would help the firm recruit talent, Ms Gray said: “Absolutely. Showing people and demonstrating where we are going [is vital]. The talent is already within the business – we are a bunch of really talented people. But I don’t think as a firm we have realised that we can stand shoulder to shoulder with the top five law firms. We are really messaging that to our colleagues across the business and showing that everybody plays a part in how we get us there.”

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Just over a year into their roles as joint managing partners, the two lawyers say their combination is working well, despite their “completely different” legal backgrounds.

The two have both been with the firm for about 10 years. Ms Gray joined after 13 years with Burness Paull, returning to Dundee with Blackadders after commuting to Edinburgh in her previous role. She leads Blackadders' commercial property division and is heavily focused on “culture, strategy, brand”.

Mr McKay, who is based in Aberdeen, heads the dispute resolution team, with strong involvement in financial and regulatory matters.

Ms Gray said the combination was a “natural fit”, and Mr McKay stated: “We both have very different skill sets. [When] we were speaking about taking on this role we sat down and thought this could work for us.”

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Equally, they are satisfied with the financial performance of the firm, which has 23 partners and an overall headcount of 224 across the group, which includes a wealth management arm. Mr McKay said the current year has been “encouraging”, with indications the next set of accounts will show growth compared with the previous time.

“Looking at the last financial year, we were only in office from August through to April, but we made good improvements on the year prior to that," he said. "Also, we set ourselves an ambitious budget for this year and targets and we are performing well.”

Mr McKay added that the firm was not in the business of chasing turnover, stating the strategy is one of pursuing “the right growth”. He said: “We don’t want to fall into the trap of just chasing turnover, just so you can say “our turnover is X”. It has got to be linked to be acting for the right clients and the right type of work.

“It is competitive, getting the next generation of lawyers in, so we have got to be clear that the work they are going to be doing is the right work, it is not some high-volume, low-margin work. It is quite the opposite, the direction we want to go in.”

Ms Gray highlighted strong interest from lawyers who are keen to work for the firm. In recent months, it has made a number of lateral hires and expects to announce more in the coming months. Blackadders is especially keen to grow its presence in Glasgow – where it sees strong growth potential - and Edinburgh. But Ms Gray said the firm was “completely committed to organic growth in terms of nurturing, training, and progression for trainees and other staff”.

In recent years, Blackadders has boosted its presence in the west of Scotland through its acquisitions of Morisons’ Glasgow business in 2019 and Boyle Shaughnessy in 2016.

Asked if the firm was interested in pursuing further acquisitions, Mr McKay said it “remains an option”, noting that “there is only so far you can go in terms of productivity and cross-referring”.

He added: “We are in a period of consolidation in the Scottish legal market, so we are always open to discussions with like-minded firms.”

The most recent publicly available accounts for Blackadders show that it made a profit before members’ remuneration and profit shares of £3.27 million on turnover of £13.2m in the year ended March 31, 2022. It employed an average of 208 people over that period.


What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

Ryan: I don’t have any one favourite country, rather I just like to travel with my family and see as much of the world as we can, particularly while our kids are still happy to spend time with their mum and dad.

Emma Austria for family ski trips. We visit my brother-in-law in Hinterglemm every year and all enjoy the mountains, the snow and the food. We love visiting France in the summer and love the sunshine, scenery and fantastic food. And there’s nothing like a long weekend in Ibiza with friends. I love London for business. It has a real buzz.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal? 

Ryan: A professional basketball player. I loved the game (still do) and, at that time, couldn’t have imagined doing anything else. Before you ask, it never happened.

Emma: I always wanted to be a writer and would still love to write a book. I can get lost in a book and am in awe of authors who can create vivid characters and intricate stories.

What was your biggest break in business? 

Ryan: I qualified as a solicitor into the dispute desolution team of a large firm around the time of the 2007 financial crisis, and while this was not a good time for transactional work, recessions do lead to disputes, and I was able to gain significant litigation experience at an early stage, which led to early career progression.

Emma: Joining Blackadders ten years ago. At the time I had three young children and was commuting to Edinburgh from Dundee every day. I made the decision to drop the commute and the timing was perfect as Blackadders were looking for someone to head up the commercial property team. Since then I’ve enjoyed building the team and watched it grow across Scotland and am now privileged to be leading the firm along with Ryan.

What was your worst moment in business? 

Ryan:  As part of a wider strategic review, we made the decision to close some of our smaller, regional branches and, while that was the right decision for the firm, implementing that decision was not easy.

Emma: I found it really difficult during the pandemic when we had to put team members on furlough. Nobody knew how long it would be for and I was worried how being on furlough would impact my colleagues. It was important to stress that being put on furlough was no reflection of their value to the team and firm.

Who do you most admire and why?

Ryan: I’m not really the type of person who admires people I’ve never met, largely because you don’t always know their full story. I admire many people, mostly friends whom I’ve known for a long time.

Emma: My Mum. She was widowed at 40 and has spent her life caring for and supporting all generations of our family. She’s selfless and has always supported us in any way she can and encouraged us to do our best.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?

Ryan: I’m reading Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek. I’m listening to Appetite for Destruction by Guns ‘N’ Roses, which I can never go too long without listening to (or playing along to on my guitar).  

Emma: I’ve always got a couple of books on the go – now it’s High Performance by Jake Humphrey and Prof Damien Hughes and Still Life by Sarah Winman. Two very different books.  My playlist is filled with Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift at the moment.