Nick Finlayson-Brown on Mills & Reeve's growth and Cambridge's economy
Head of office says law firm wants to help sell the city
Looking out of Mills & Reeve’s panoramic windows on the sixth floor – undoubtedly one of the best office views in Cambridge – the skyline is dotted with signs of the city’s growth.
“If you look around, you’ll see plenty of cranes. We are involved in pretty much every development where you see a crane, so it’s really exciting,” says Nick Finlayson-Brown, who recently took over the reins as head of office from Ian Mather.
With 350 employees in Cambridge, and 1,000 nationwide across its six offices, Mills & Reeve is a top 50 law firm that can count the University of Cambridge, Arm, Aveva, HSBC, Adnams and Olympus among its clients. For an incredible 15 years running, it has been named in the top 100 Best Companies to Work For in the Sunday Times survey.
And that’s not just for the view from Botanic House in Hills Road.
“We’re very lucky to be in this office,” Nick acknowledges. “As you sit up here, the city itself looks quite small and it has quite a small population – 130,000, with 25,000 fewer when the students are not here. But we punch heavily above our weight. Cambridge is one of the fastest-growing economies in the UK, if not the fastest.
“I see Cambridge at the centre of a hub of business, academic and social excellence. If you go south, you go past Addenbrooke’s, AstraZeneca, the MRC LMB, Abingdon, Babraham, the Wellcome Genome Campus. You’ve got the real powerhouse corridor out to Milton Keynes and Birmingham. The Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford corridor is incredibly exciting.
“If you go north you’ve got the science parks and all that’s happening there.
“If you go just out from our office, you’ve got Microsoft and Apple with their AI work. The potential is absolutely fantastic – not just from a national level, but international as well. There is a lot of international investment in Cambridge.”
That’s an area Nick is well versed in, having headed up the China desk at Mills & Reeve for a good spell of his 17 years at the firm.
“It’s part of my job I really enjoy, and I’m not giving it up,” he says. “It’s about growing links with Chinese companies, law firms, other multipliers, banks and investors in China. And it is about growing links with companies that want to invest in China or need assistance with Chinese investment into this country.
“Even in my five or so years on the China desk, the number of Cambridge-centric inquiries either from Chinese companies who want to invest in Cambridge, and the number of companies that we act for looking for Chinese investment, has spiralled.”
And he’s certain this international investment will continue.
“I think it’s inevitable and it’s a good thing. We are internationally recognised for a lot of expertise. It’s a magnet for investment.”
But with growth comes hurdles – not least around infrastructure.
“I think it’s a challenge but also an opportunity,” he suggests. “Some of the plans that are being considered to alleviate the infrastructure problems we have – which are really a symptom of our success – are very innovative. I know the mayor is very keen to push these ideas, whether it be the underground or other forms of transport. Getting to that point is not going to be an overnight fix. But it will happen.
“I think we should be bold. But we also have to employ that boldness in a way that respects the history of the city and the inhabitants. It’s about engagement and partnership with the community to get something that works for all.”
Engagement is a theme Nick returns to more than once – continuing progress made under his predecessor. His vision for Mills & Reeve is of a law firm with “clear blue water” between it and its competitors but also one that is a “good neighbour” to its immediate environment and the city.
“That means in a way stripping off the fact that we are a law firm. If we can work with businesses to sell Cambridge, regardless of what it does for us, that’s a good thing,” he says. “I see my job as engaging with business and local communities and working with them in partnership.
“The corporate social responsibility (CSR) side is really important to us.”
Mills & Reeve is working with children’s charity Blue Smile and supports other organisations through its charitable trust. It donated £103,000 to charity in 2016-17, a year in which its turnover reached £92.3million.
It is clear Nick believes that being a successful business means continuing to be a good employer – and in Cambridge’s white hot competitive environment for talent, that’s no surprise.
“One of the things we’re very keen to focus on within the office itself is a next-gen project for our younger lawyers and staff members. It looks at what they can do to get more engaged with the business, to grow the business and get involved with the CSR project. Hand-in-hand with that is our diversity policy, which I’m really passionate about.”
As the Cambridge Independent has reported, Mills & Reeve has just won an award for its diversity work.
“One of our unique selling points is that we are a truly collaborative firm,” Nick adds. “The way we structure ourselves means we are able to encourage our younger staff and share work with them.”
“For our staff we have a very detailed programme of continuing discussion and assessment.
“We have a number of staff training as lawyers through alternative schemes – working through apprenticeships, rather than going to law school. And we are rolling out the business services graduate programme, which brings graduates to work into the non-lawyer side of the business, such as learning to be a financial controller, accountant or work in HR.”
Mills & Reeve also offers its lawyers secondments to clients and even to international law firms.
It’s a strategy that’s working.
“We’ve seen growth across the board,” he says. “We have seen a lot of new work from high-tech businesses. We’ve been in this office four or five years and we’re pretty full, which is indicative of the way the firm has grown in life sciences, in technology and spin-offs into health. As a result, our corporate and commercial teams have seen a huge increase in real estate, infrastructure and construction.”
Among the many deals that have occupied Nick as a real estate lawyer was the acquisition of a multi-tenanted landmark Docklands property investment for £180million. He has also advised on the regeneration of a 24-acre brownfield site in the centre of Cambridge and the promotion of a similar-sized site on the outskirts of the city. So is there enough space left to keep up with Cambridge’s economic growth?
“Inherent with the growth of the city will be a greater demand for commercial space,” he notes. “One only has to look at the fantastic work that Brookgate has done at CB1 and the way that has become a tech and professional hub. There will be more of that out at CB4 in Chesterton, which is indicative of the success of the city and its ability to attract businesses – like AstraZeneca.”
As the Cambridge success story continues, Nick sees Mills & Reeve’s star continuing to rise with it.
In five years, he predicts, it will have “filled the entire office”.
“I think we’ll have secured even more business from local companies and I would like to see us increasingly involved in the local community and what makes it tick, with our staff out there, helping,” he says. “And I’ll have lost all of my hair.”
Educated at Sawston Village College and the University of York before attending the College of Law at London’s Lancaster Gate, Nick began his career as a trainee solicitor with Allen & Overy in London in 1991.
He progressed to senior solicitor, then joined as an associate at Mills & Reeve in 2001 before becoming a partner in 2003. He now has 20 years experience as a real estate lawyer.
When he’s not running the office, or heading up the China desk, he is kept busy by two children, two “over-sized deerhounds” and a penchant for gardening.