Richard Parnell: Passing the baton

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For someone who was fairly indecisive about which interests to pursue in his further education days, Richard Parnell, 41, certainly climbed the Bridge McFarland ranks quickly once his eyes were on the ball.

A swift jump from politics and international relations to the world of law ended up being the beginning of an 18-year career with renowned Lincolnshire businesses. After just over two years in the Bridge McFarland Managing Partner seat, Richard and the firm are preparing to move forward with a new structure.

Richard, who now lives in Sudbrooke with his wife and three boys, grew up in Retford, Nottinghamshire and admits that, during his schooldays, he always wanted to be a carpenter or a fireman. “I actually then went to university to do geography”, he said. “I didn’t like it and switched to do politics at the University of Lancaster because that was where my interest was at that stage.”

He certainly discovered his niche in law however, finding his footing on the ladder after converting to the College of Law in York and applying for a training course at Chattertons Solicitors in Horncastle and Boston.

“I knew a couple of people that had gone into law and I’d spoken to them and followed the same route they’d taken, thinking, if nothing else, law was a good qualification to have. Of course, once you get into applying for jobs and so forth you come to a bit of a treadmill and you just keep going and going.”

After gaining a trainee position at Chattertons in 1997, Richard went on to deal with some of what he still considers to be his most interesting and challenging cases. “We dealt with what’s called a proprietary estoppel case, which was a property case regarding promises that were made to an individual, and those promises not being fulfilled in later life – a case called Gillett v Holt. That was a significant landmark case in law and saw me whisked across Lincolnshire in a Sky News van talking about our work.”

Richard was admitted as a solicitor in 1999 and joined Bridge McFarland in 2001. By May 2004, aged 30, he’d been awarded the position of partner of the leading regional law firm, transferring from Grimsby to Lincoln. He has since gone on to play an instrumental role in the company’s mission to bring speciality practice to the forefront of the service.

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Management journey

Bridge McFarland’s roots go back to the successes of lawyers Keeble Hawson Bridge and Co and McFarland and Co in the 1970s. While both were flourishing independently with their Lincolnshire branches, they eventually merged in 1990 to become Bridge McFarland Solicitors. Now, the firm has seven offices, with five across Lincolnshire (Lincoln, Grimsby, Louth, Market Rasen and Mablethorpe), one in Hull and one in London. In the beginning, the merger brought together six other partners and, as of May, 2015, the team of partners will have increased to 23, against a total staff force 160-strong.

Richard, who became the firm’s Managing Partner in January 2013, says that through the coordination and varying specialisms of the wider partners and six board members, the business benefits from a broad cross-section. Managing his fellow peers however is something Richard describes as a venture all of its own. “That’s half the challenge”, he explains. “We all have pretty much an equal stake in the business, there’s no one higher than anybody, it’s a very flat structure that allows everyone’s views and input.

In his approach, he described himself as fairly ‘laid back’. “I’m not aggressive, I’m not confrontational, I’m very much about finding solutions and ways around things rather than through things. I think I’m very approachable, and I’ve got respect from the partners and staff because I’m home-grown. I’ve climbed the ranks to achieve what I have in a fairly short period of time, and through hard work. In a way, I have been there done that and got the t-shirt; I’ve gone through what it’s like to be a staff member and I can understand and empathise with members of staff. I think that’s a real plus in managerial business.”

In a peripatetic role, Richard has not only chaired the activities of the partners and inner board in his time as managing partner, but also seen under his watch a sizeable investment in Lincoln. Due to ongoing work to build a major road through what used to be the firms Lincoln office site, the team took on a move (down the street) to brand new £400,000 offices, which were opened by Britain’s most decorated winter Paralympian Jade Etherington in August 2014.

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Sports law specialism

There’s an underlying passion of Richard’s which has spurred growth in one specialist area in particular, a niche market which the firm believes no one else does better. For Richard, law, ethics and technologies surrounding sport are a developing area with great potential.

Richard not only works closely with organisations such as the Lincoln City Football Club, Lincolnshire Sport, the Amateur Swimming Association and Basketball England, among others, but he’s also a nationally sought-after expert in areas such as child protection and doping in sport. His reputation has also landed him a seat on the National Governing body for Rounders and he is also in the process of beginning his PhD in the area of biotechnology and human enhancement in sports law. “I think from this region’s perspective, there’s no one else in the Lincolnshire, East Yorkshire or Humberside areas that concentrates on sports work and sports law.

“Outside of this area you would have to go to Manchester or London to get that kind of experience. My work with sporting governing bodies in Lincolnshire mainly came through links with Lincoln City Football Club, where I am the company solicitor. We started to sponsor and work with the football club about four or five years ago. I then got involved with Lincolnshire Sport as a trustee and a non-executive director and that led to other avenues opening up.

“I’m really interested in sport and ethics and the ethical questions around performance enhancing drugs being one method of enhancing the human form in sport specifically. I’m also really interested in bioethics and biotechnology, so genetic engineering and the question of whether or not genetic engineering is going to be the next challenge when it comes to doping the human body.”

Demand for the niche field has lead to the firm expanding its commercial team and launching a new specialism in sport which will be a first for the region. Richard will be at the helm of the project. “We’ve brought in Chris Hubbard in from Ringrose Law to really push the commercial side of the business and then there’s Joanne Wright who we’ve brought in in Hull, she’ll be championing employment law over there in terms of the sports side of things.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Stepping down

When Richard took on the role of managing partner he was adamant that he didn’t lose contact with his roots. “As managing partner, one of the difficulties is it takes you away to a certain extent from your client base and the law itself. So if you spend too long out of that process then you can cut yourself off from it, so we tend to have a two to three year cycle of being in a managing partners post.

“I’ll be stepping down from the managerial role in about two or three months. Our financial year starts in May, which is when we will start the handover process. I’ve known that for a while and I’ve been putting measures in place to cater for that so it’s not just an abrupt change, but it’s pretty much a seamless change overall.

“Over the next few months I will then be weaning myself off management and into more of a traditional role to take on more clients. The new managing partner is our senior partner, Stephen Lambert, who is a clinical negligence partner in Louth. Stephen will be absorbing the managing partner’s role into his current role as senior partner, which is more of a kind of presidential figurehead role.

“At a time when other organisations are commoditizing certain aspects of law, we want to do something that other companies would find difficult to do, something we are good at. Personally, all things being equal, I would like to have developed a specific niche practice in sports law work. If I’m able to do that on a full-time basis that would be great, and that would be very much with Bridge McFarland.”

This feature interview was first published in issue 27 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.