Jan 2023
Out and About in the Carbon Community with Michael Burne

We enjoyed being out and about in the community in 2022 talking to our lawyers about their legal practices with Carbon Law Partners but also more importantly, the people behind the lawyers. Because at Carbon Law Partners, we believe that law is about hearts and minds. It’s about the people. But we’ll come on to this.

Last year, we spoke to:

  • Peter Steer about being a lawyer in the charity sector, his most memorable cases and his operatic ambitions.
  • Kian Golestani about corporate and real estate law, the need to diversify your legal practice and coming to the UK from Iran.
  • Laura Manning about financial services, being part of our Bristol hub and her childhood dream to be a lawyer.

Now who better to start off a new year of being out and about than the CEO and Founder of Carbon Law Partners itself, Mr Michael Burne!


So Michael, if you had to review “The Year That Was” in legal for 2022, what would you say?

There has been lot of positive change. But the pace of change is slow when you consider just how big the legal market it. Social media is but an echo chamber of the 10,000 law firms which make up the legal sector – a good 5,000 of which are sadly unviable.

We talk a lot about sustainability in the legal sector. But I worry that the legal profession itself is not sustainable. I love entrepreneurialism and the drive for more to step outside the traditional structures we have built, but we still need to think outside the box. Think how vast the run-off market is. There are thousands of small law firms with less than £1 million turnover. Great firms, great lawyers, doing good work in their communities. But when it comes to retirement, unless you have an internal successor or can find a buyer, law firm founders often have to exit with run off cover costs of potentially hundreds of thousands. If you can’t go into run off, your firm goes bust.

As someone who cares about smaller firms doing great work and serving their communities, I hate to see this happening. I am driven by a greater purpose to try and ensure that lawyers’ life work is valued, respected and supported, and that they don’t have to run off!

Let’s talk positives. What do you think are some of the good changes?

I think we are seeing the greenest of green shoots when it comes to ESG, but don’t think it is being fully embraced by the legal industry. We have a handful of law firms who now have B Corp status and pockets of people talking about sustainability and governance. But green shoots need to take hold. Clients need to be the change they want to see in legal. Law firms need to consider how everyone lives and breathes ESG rather than seeing it as a tick box exercise.

It feels like we have finally moved past the global pandemic. How did this period in history impact on the legal profession?

It broke presenteeism once and for all. It removed the ability for law firms to say “You have to be in the office as that is what clients expect.”  But will this last? Law firms are already starting to ask people to return to the office. This is because a lot of large law firms are not well adapted to flexible working as they have a command and control infrastructure, whereas small firms have adapted well to agile working.

As someone who has been building a community for lawyers since 2014, I think it is unfair to hijack the request to come back to the office as a route to community. I don’t think we should use community as a route back to presenteeism, especially when we have built virtual communities so successfully. Community is a voluntary thing!

On a personal level, the pandemic reminded me that law is all about the people and not bricks and mortar. To me it is about hearts and minds, and hearts and minds do not live in bricks and mortar.

If you are reading this and your law firm is saying they need you to be in the office, I do encourage you to ask “Why?” Who is served by you being present – does it provide community, does it enable your development, do you miss your colleagues, would it help a project or the client for you to be in the “office”? If it doesn’t, why are you travelling and wasting time, causing stress and using resources? We need to have a mature discussion about hybrid working and avoid lurching from one extreme to the other.

You’ve been leading a firm that works differently for both lawyers and clients since 2014. Is “the alternative” legal scene continuing to change and evolve as fast as we might think?

I find it glacially slow. If you look how rapidly other industries have changed – video to streaming say – and you look at the scale of changes taking place in a £40-50 billion industry, how much of it is really being practiced differently to 25 years ago? That is not to say there isn’t any change – but we are not as far along the curve as we might think. Some law firms have changed dramatically. Some have not changed at all. The bulk of firms in the middle that haven’t changed that much. We are charging the same and largely carrying out work in a way that is not that different. There is an echo chamber of digitally aware law firms with brilliant and loud voices, but in many law firms lawyers are STILL only being paid 30% of what they bill. Is it right for the technical brains of a service to get paid only 30%?

What do you think we should do to accelerate the pace?

The pace of change has to be led by people and we need to look outside law. We need to keep listening, keep reading and keep looking for inspiration and for markers of what society expects from us as lawyers. What do our customers want? Let’s have less focus on lawyers and more focus on customers.

Who do you think is getting it right in the legal industry?

There are some amazing founders with exciting visions. Jodie Hill at Thrive Law – the way she is building her team and engaging her colleagues. Catherine Hyde of Hooper Hyde – one of our Bamboo brands – is a great example of an approachable, experienced lawyer shaking up how things are done. Then there’s Alistair Wells at Tend Legal or Anna Ashford at ALT Legal. We have to give a voice to more people in the legal industry. Jodie’s approach to people and Catherine’s approach to client service heralds a new tone in the legal profession and I find this encouraging. Alistair and Anna also stand for doing this differently in a way that really resonates with the SME markets they serve. I am a white middle-aged man, but I still stand for difference and disenfranchised communities. We built Bamboo Platform, Carbon’s sister company, with this in mind, to encourage more people from diverse backgrounds to build law firms that people can relate to. After all it’s easier to get advice from people in one or more of your tribes!

We ran a poll recently on LinkedIn to find out what skill most lawyers would like to invest in in 2023, and there was a landslide vote for leadership at 75%? How do lawyers become good leaders?

For me, leadership is about influencing your community to make progress on the things that are important to it. It’s about serving others. A leader does not make a culture. A leader creates the conditions for people to flourish and keeps asking how to help by listening and asking the right questions. So I am proud that many years on, our mission statement at Carbon still has so much meaning for the community: “At Carbon Law Partners our mission is to create and develop the conditions for exceptional people to flourish.” And watching exceptional lawyers flourish and grow their legal practices on our platform is what gets me out of bed every morning! Even the frosty ones at the moment.

And that seems like the perfect place to finish and wish all of you all the very best for the rest for 2023.

If you are a lawyer looking to join a community and flourish in your legal career in 2023, we are always looking for like-minded lawyers to join us. Find out more about what is means to be a partner at Carbon Law Partners.