In the latest instalment in a series showing how Durham is Powered by People, PETER BARRON shines the spotlight on a law firm that prides itself on growing its own talent and a passion for client service

LAWYER Alex Wilby takes little persuasion to present a convincing case for Durham – because all the evidence he needs is at his fingertips.

He’s proud to have been born and raised in Durham, proud to have been the first member of his family to go to university, and proud to have risen up the ranks at the leading law firm in his home city.

Alex is a partner in the corporate and commercial team at Swinburne Maddison, a law firm with strong Durham roots and a core belief that its people are the key to its continued growth in defiance of national economic uncertainty.

Having joined Swinburne Maddison as a recently-qualified solicitor ten years ago, Alex is just one example of the firm’s long-standing commitment to growing its own talent.

“It’s really important to me to be from Durham and to be part of a business that’s been at the heart of the city throughout its history,” says Alex.

Now 39, he was born in the city’s Dryburn Hospital, the son of an electrician and a hairdresser. He attended Durham Johnston School before studying law at Leicester University, then backed that up with a Master’s Degree in law at Durham University.

Alex became a trainee solicitor with a Newcastle legal practice in 2005, then transferred to a bigger Newcastle firm, until the financial crash led to him losing his job. His time was filled by looking after the accounts in his father’s business and taking a second Master’s Degree – this time in business administration – at Newcastle University.

However, law remained his goal, and he was thrilled to be offered an initial short-term contract with Swinburne Maddison in 2009. It was a foot in the door which led to a full-time appointment, and, within seven years, he’d been made a partner.

“What I love about Swinburne Maddison is the way it likes to develop its own people,” he says. “The majority of the partners have trained with the business – I’m one of only two who’ve worked for other law firms.

“It’s also such a friendly place. Every day it feels like going to work with friends. The firm invests in attracting high-quality people and focuses on creating a happy working environment to retain them.

“Equally, we aim to provide the highest-quality client service possible. We’ve even had clients who were so appreciative of the job we’ve done that they’ve wanted to pay more than the agreed fee.”

Those traditional values have been consistent throughout the law firm’s history, which stretches back more than 200 years, and led to a merger of two long-established Durham neighbours – Swinburne Jackson & Moreland, and Wilson Maddison – in 1998.

The original offices were in a beautiful listed building in North Bailey, but they were not suitable for a growing team. A pivotal moment came in 2006 with a move to modern purpose-built offices on the top floor of Venture House at Aykley Heads.

Benefits included ample on-site parking for staff and clients, better transport links and the potential to expand. That’s exactly what the business did in 2017 when it seized an opportunity to acquire the ground floor too. In doing so, it doubled its office space to 10,000sq.ft, with a £500k refurbishment taking place a year later to maximise comfort and convenience for staff and clients.

Swinburne Maddison believes in putting people first and is, therefore, an enthusiastic advocate of the Powered by People movement.

Launched by Durham County Council, and supported by a wide range of partners, the initiative puts people at the forefront of promoting Durham as a great place to live, work and grow businesses in.

“As a law firm our business depends on professional services being delivered by people who know they are valued,” says Alex. “In turn, they want their clients to be happy – they all have different needs and everyone working for Swinburne Maddison is passionate about making sure those needs are met.”

The fact that the firm was recently ranked as one of the top scoring businesses in the North-East in The Legal 500 survey for client satisfaction, is a clear endorsement of that philosophy.

The firm’s credentials are further enhanced by its close working relationship with Business Durham, the county council’s economic development arm, in providing legal briefings for Durham-based businesses.

“We honestly couldn’t ask for any more from Business Durham and the county council,” says Alex. “They have always been so supportive and it’s exciting to see them being so proactive in the redevelopment of the city.”

Alex is also proud of Swinburne Maddison’s support for the local community. This includes its long-standing support for St Cuthbert’s Hospice as well as raising awareness of homelessness, domestic violence, addiction and unemployment.

Last year the law firm ran a month-long Christmas giving campaign and acted as a hub for food collections and other essential items in support of the Durham Food Bank and Changing Lives charity.

The business now employs 55 people, with a high female-to-male ratio in senior positions. Despite the global economic turmoil, Swinburne Maddison plans to maintain the momentum by recruiting new members to its team in 2021 and beyond.

“It’s been fantastic to see how the staff have risen to the challenge during the pandemic,” says Alex. “Everyone adapted quickly to maintain the levels of service to clients and support the wider community.

“What gives us particular pride is that we are doing it from Durham, where most of us are from.”

Swinburne Maddison’s continued expansion during such challenging times is another compelling piece of evidence that Durham is a great place to do business in.

Case closed.

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