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Some personal thoughts of Chris Hart, the Chief Executive of Wollens

Today sees a very significant day in the history of Wollens, with the opening of the new South Devon hub office in Torquay. The day is hugely exciting in that we are launching an office with wonderful facilities for clients and staff alike – facilities that will compliment the talent within the firm, and will provide hugely improved communication facilities with clients and professional colleagues, and also with the firm’s other offices in Exeter and our North Devon hub. It’s also a day that during several of the latter years of my 34 years with the firm (so far!) that I occasionally doubted we’d see.

However, this move is tinged with sadness as well. We must recognise the history of the locations of Devon firms that make up the modern Wollens – and the huge contribution that the predecessors of the South Devon side of the firm have made over countless decades to the success of the current firm – partners and all colleagues alike.   As we have closed doors on offices at Market Street in Newton Abbot, The Quay in Dartmouth, and Carlton House, The Terrace in Torquay, we remember all that these offices and those that worked in them, and clients that visited them, have contributed to the firm. Indeed, offices that we have moved out of over the weekend have seen legal advice dispensed to tens of thousands of clients, including world famous names, for over 150 years.

Whilst the new hub office sits in Torquay, we will be serving the whole of the South Devon community from the South Devon hub, and we will ensure that our community and business activity will not diminish within Teignbridge and the South Hams. Lawyers and support staff will continue to be bedded in these areas, supporting organisations, charities, businesses and individuals, as they always have done.

Two clear outcomes from a professional services perspective have become obvious to me as the COVID pandemic played out.  Firstly, the priority for clients is not where their lawyer sits, but that they have continuity in terms of the lawyer looking after them and continued great service.  Indeed, over the last 9 months the ability to actually “see” lawyers and clients has perhaps been enhanced with the swift and straightforward options that we have all become used to.  Whilst getting back to face to face meetings will be good, they will not always be essential, and many of the virtual benefits will continue.  Secondly, working from home is not all it was initially cracked up to be, perhaps when it was a novelty and the weather was lovely in April and May.  Instead, in many cases home workers have become increasingly isolated, with considerable challenges for businesses around supervision, particularly of more junior members of staff who need good supervision as a fundamental part of their own career development.  In addition, those working at home miss out on all of the advantages of being able to collaborate with colleagues, and also have none of the “demarcation” of the working day that travelling to work and the natural breaks with colleagues that occur during a working day in an office environment.  That said, what is clear to me is that an element of home working (for people able to do so) during a working week is certainly appropriate and is here to stay.  It has significant advantages for many balancing work and family responsibilities, as well as providing some flexibility to working life.  It is all a question of balance.

Our new South Devon hub office will enable Wollens to progress all of these elements moving forward.  The client facilities are superb, as befit a modern law firm in the 21st century.  The video conferencing and technology facilities are second to none, and aside from client meetings will enable much more effective communication with our teams in our North Devon hub office and also our ever growing Exeter office (as well as less time spent out of the office and travelling). For those attending physical meetings at the office the various meeting room space is varied and comfortable.  The firm’s boardroom will accommodate large client meetings, as well as meetings of all of the partners plus a huge range of internal team meetings.  The room is flexible so will convert from boardroom to theatre layout for seminars and presentations for up to 50 people.

For our staff the workspace will be a huge change for them – from desks, chairs and technology through to the café area, breakout space, quiet rooms, gym (post COVID) and even the (much improved!) toilets, every effort has been made to provide terrific facilities that will enhance their time in the office which ultimately works to the benefit of clients and the service provided.  I hope that our staff will love the office – the early signs are good!  In addition, of course, we recognise that to attract the best talent to South Devon and west of Bristol and Exeter we must be providing facilities that rival or better those of the largest law firms in the region.

For me personally today marks the culmination of a project that I’ve lived with for a full decade!  It was 10 years ago that I attended the exhibition that was held at the Grand Hotel in Torquay when I first discussed the office space with the developer, Peter Tisdale.  As many will know, the whole £32M project has been beset with delays over the years, but we have hung in ever since – having always seen the benefit of the project – both to the firm and the local economy generally, and recognising that we needed to modernise our own facilities for staff and clients.  I would like to thank Clive Meredith, our Practice Director, who has worked with me on this project since the very start.  His face dropped when I returned to the office 10 years ago to tell about the exhibition I’d attended! Over the years we’ve both hugely enjoyed this project – this week Clive said to me that it has been the best project he’s ever worked on.  I’d also like to thank the Wollens partners (past – some have retired over the last 10 years – and present) for having the foresight and perseverance for sticking with the vision and committing the finances to the project.  In addition, a shout out to all those with whom we’ve worked to get to this point over the years – all of our managers and colleagues in the office, THAT Group, the Torbay Development Agency, Torbay Council, Tom Banks from Quite Early One Morning who developed the Wollens rebrand last year partly with this project in mind, and the creative agency Stuff, plus Commercial IT who have helped so much with the tech logistics involved in moving three sites into one.  Last, but not least, I’d like to thank Interaction, our Bath based space design team, with whom we’ve worked over the last 8 years, developing scheme after scheme with the various site changes and layout changes over the years, some resulting from the development changes and some as a result of our own needs changing over such a large period of time. We’ve certainly all clocked up some miles between Bath and Torquay!

And so as today dawns, we come to the culmination of a project that will take the firm into another phase of its development.  We can’t escape the knowledge that events of the last year with the pandemic have probably hastened our decision to create the South Devon hub and move three offices into one, following the success of a similar move in North Devon.  That gives us the benefits of larger teams with much more backup and support for each other, as well as improved communication, supervision and work allocation.  All of this ultimately benefits the clients so far as service and speed of work are concerned, and that is the most important thing of all.

We look forward to continuing to serve the communities of South Devon and well beyond, from our new South Devon hub offices, just as our offices in North Devon and Exeter continue to look after their communities.  Whilst opportunities to visit the new offices are naturally somewhat limited just at the present moment, we also look forward to the time when we have the opportunity to welcome clients, the business community, and the wider South Devon communities into our new offices to show you the end product of the work of which we’re very, very proud.