How gunnercooke Fosters a Culture of Innovation and Entrepreneurship

gunnercooke is a corporate and commercial law firm established to challenge, improve, and evolve the way that legal services are delivered to businesses in the 21st century.

It is one of the UK’s fastest-growing law firms, providing a wide range of corporate and commercial legal services to businesses, banks, and financial institutions.

Bernie Toledano, ZERØ’s Head of Marketing, sat down with Darryl Cooke, the firm’s Executive Chairman and founder, to discuss the firm’s origin story, how it fosters its culture of innovation, and the importance of reading and learning a diverse range of content. To listen to the full podcast episode, you can access the series on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube, or wherever else you may get your podcasts.

ZERØ: Tell me a little bit about the origin story of gunnercooke.

Darryl: There was a long preparatory period before we officially opened the law firm in 2010. My own background in entrepreneurship began when I was a barrister in London, since all barristers are self-employed. After this period, I joined a large, multinational company and got a lot of very good management training there. Then, after moving back to private practice, I worked at some very, very big law firms. At that point, I think I was already questioning of the services that those law firms provide, and I always felt that they needed to be challenged and those services could be better.

The real start of it was when I went to watch England playing football in Portugal at the European Championships in with a friend who’d just left as a partner at PWC, and we stayed up a couple of nights just talking about the legal services model and how it could be improved. From there, being a typically cautious lawyer, I then went out and spoke to more than 50 people, Heads of Legal, General Counsel, chief executives, and the like. And I asked them two questions: what they disliked about lawyers (a very dangerous question that resulted in reams of paper on how they disliked how the legal service was delivered) and what would they do if they set up their own law firm. There were virtually no answers to the second question. But as Henry Ford said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” And as Steve Jobs said, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” So the knowledge we discerned from those interviews gave us the impetus to kind of develop the gunnercooke model, which we officially launched a few years later in 2010.

ZERØ: What are some of the specific features that distinguish gunnercooke from traditional law firms?

Darryl: One of the key facets is that the lawyers within the gunnercooke model are self-employed, and we remunerate differently. As opposed to a traditional firm model, our lawyers participate in a revenue share. In practice, this means that our lawyers have the freedom to design their own lives. This gives them the ability to earn a lot of money, if that’s what they want to do, but other lawyers in our model will choose to earn a lot less.

I see us as a traditional law firm with a different community model. While firms that have similar models often refer to themselves as platform models, I don’t really refer to gunnercooke as a platform at all. We work really hard on creating a really strong culture that goes beyond being a platform. That said, it’s very traditional in the sense that the lawyers work very closely together.

ZERØ: Given the fact that lawyers at gunnercooke design their own lives, what do you do to foster a unified culture?

Darryl: When we first set out, a ton of people used to ask how we would foster teamwork in an organization where we encourage lawyers to work from home or at clients’ offices if they want to. That’s why we have worked on building an extremely strong culture—stronger than any law firm I’ve ever personally worked at. We have a vision and know exactly where we want to go, and we have a really strong set of values. A key aspect is being innovative and doing things differently. And most importantly, we really focus on making gunnercooke a place that people want to be a part of—as we like to say, anyone can copy what we do, but no one can copy our culture. We’ve even developed a culture book, which is particularly helping us as we make plans to grow internationally. So while we want our people to be autonomous and have their own freedom to develop the practice that they want, we also want to the engender a culture that is consistent across the whole business.

We’ve grown very rapidly and are now at over 400 people., and an immense amount of thought has gone into maintaining our culture. For us, the key is to have the benefits of a big company while retaining the feeling of a tight-knit organization. For example, we have a symposium at Oxford University every year where we bring all of our employees together in a couple of days of celebration. But we also implement small gestures, like putting people into WhatsApp groups where they support each other on a more frequent basis.

ZERØ: It seems like the small steps are just as significant as the larger steps.

Darryl: Absolutely. As Dave Brailsford (the former performance direction of British cycling who took them to several Olympic medals) calls it, “the aggregation of marginal gains.” Or, as the Japanese call it, kaizen (continuous improvement).

ZERØ: What are some of the values that underpin this culture?

Darryl: There are two parts to developing values for an organization: creating those values and really living those values. While our values aren’t necessarily different from those of other firms, what really distinguishes us is how we execute these.

One of the first values is client service. We don’t want to be known for the number of lawyers or offices we have or our profits per partner but for our client service. Because of this, we introduced the Net Promoter Score (a metric that assesses customer experience), which is used by a lot of industries. This enables our lawyers to get an individual score of -100 to 100. The industry average, last time I looked, was a 19. Our average as a firm is 88, and some of our lawyers even have scores of 100.

Another core value of ours is innovation. I remember when I worked at a traditional law firm and we were discussing values, and I tried to add innovation as a value. It was almost as if I was speaking a different language. And I still feel that when many law firms talk about innovation, it’s very much aesthetic. At gunnercooke, we really believe in innovation, small or large.

Teamwork is also an important value of ours. When we started the firm, we used to ask ourselves how we would get people to work in teams if they were traveling or otherwise not in the office. This question laid the groundwork for us to really think about our culture and how to develop it. And because of this, teamwork is a stronger value in our organization than in most law firms—definitely any firm I’ve ever worked at.

The final component is autonomy. Our lawyers don’t want to be centralized and have people tell them what to do. We don’t dictate the number of hours they need to work or what their targets are. We let them decide for themselves and simply teach good behaviors. We had read a lot of material from behavioral economics and looked at the Nudge Unit (otherwise known as the Behavioral Insights Unit—a social purpose organization and former part of the UK government that generates and applies behavioral insights to inform policy and improve public services). Using the nudge framework, we try to encourage people to do the right thing but allow them to make decisions for themselves. As Richard Thaler said, we put healthy food at eye level but don’t ban junk food. Our job is to teach the right things and help the people who join us become better businesspeople.

ZERØ: It’s clear that you do a lot as a firm to encourage people to behave well, but the people who succeed in this framework probably need to have certain characteristics to succeed. What do you look for when you recruit lawyers to join the firm?

Darryl: We’ve learned a lot over the years. While we tend to recruit lawyers from firms where they are better trained, we focus on providing them with business training as well. From the first day that they join the firm, we tell them, “You’re no longer just a lawyer; you’re now a lawyer and a businessperson.” To do this effectively, we need certain types of lawyers. They don’t need to come with a vast amount of work, but they need to have a certain mindset and desire to constantly improve themselves as a lawyer, as a businessperson, and as an individual. To make sure we’re recruiting the right people, we even do a psychometric test that focuses on mindset before anyone starts at the firm.

ZERØ: Can you tell us about gunnercooke Associates and how you train these less experienced lawyers?

Darryl:  When we were first speaking to clients when we set out to build this model, they said that they wanted senior lawyers. When we first recruited lawyers, we focused on the ones who had accumulated more than 10,000 hours of experience, per the Malcolm Gladwell guide. But eventually, we felt that we had a responsibility to train the lawyers of tomorrow. This is why we’ve put our younger lawyers together into gunnercooke Associates. This allows them to work together and learn how to manage and develop themselves.  We’ve also developed strong training programs, which include commercially minded MBA-style training. We bring in insights from our management consulting and operating partners businesses, as well as modules from training that we deliver to different universities. The new associates are also put into a coaching program on the day that they join. Using these tools, they’re able to learn how to market themselves effectively to different audiences, internal and external, and drive their own business development.

ZERØ: You’re clearly very invested in moving the legal sector forward as a whole, but gunnercooke is also very involved in philanthropic efforts in local communities. Can you tell us more about that?

Darryl: As I mentioned earlier, when we first started the firm, we wanted to be known for client service. But in addition to that, we also wanted to be known for how we serve our communities. We’ve worked really hard on building the foundation for our lawyers to be really involved, which includes the fact that our lawyers are autonomous and have the freedom to take the day or afternoon off. Many of our lawyers, in addition to working on their own business development, will become very involved with different foundations or other initiatives.

At the moment, we work with 120 charities through inspire*, our social business. We try to enhance the effectiveness of the charities we work with by working directly with the charity leaders. We provide them with training, connect them with clients, and provide a of support for them.

When possible, we link our corporate clients with our foundation, from the belief that a CEO should look after local communities in addition to their employees and suppliers. While globalization has been fantastic in a lot of ways, but it hasn’t helped local communities. Local communities contain microcosms of different kinds of social ills, including disability, lack of opportunity, and mental health. We’re trying to start a conversation and raise awareness of this importance, so that CEOs see this community involvement as part of their legacies, beyond profit.

One specific initiative that we’re working on right now is related to loneliness, which is a massive issue these days with old people as well as young. In response, we’re working on a project in collaboration with financiers to develop bookshops across the UK. We’re hoping that people will combat loneliness through these bookshops. We have about seven at the moment: five of them are led by lawyers and two by management consultants.

Generally, I think that corporate social responsibility (CSR) is largely dead because there’s a limit to how many gardens you can plant or how many houses you can paint. But there’s still so much potential to get involved in local communities in a meaningful way. For CEOs, next to managing the company’s finances, he or she should also be invested in CSR and spend half his or her week or so assessing how to help the community.

We’re really trying to challenge people, but we also really believe in this, and we’re starting to have an influence on some people.

ZERØ: One thing that has been clear throughout our conversation and in your book is that you’re very well-read, and you read a lot in disciplines outside of law and legal innovation. How have these insights informed your creation and management of gunnercooke?

Darryl: My teachers would love to hear that I’m well-read! I don’t think they ever thought that when I was at school. But I’ve always felt that legal services are way behind other service organizations in many regards. Because of that, my approach has always been to read and to talk to as many different businesses and industries as possible. And I think if you look at the last 10 or 15 years, you can see how several industries have been transformed by some terrific businesses. For example, Amazon completely redeveloped the retail industry, Uber has completed changed the travel industry, and Airbnb has changed the holiday industry. And Google—Google’s kind of changed everything. We’ve deliberately taken a lot from the fantastic vibrancy and energy around those industries in those businesses.

ZERØ: You alluded to this earlier, but tell us more about your plans for global expansion and who you’re looking to recruit.

Darryl: We’ve spent a long time developing our model, and we’re very comfortable with it now. When we open overseas, our aim is that the cities where we open will have total autonomy in how they develop and grow their organization. In contrast, a lot of centralized U.S. and UK law firms will set targets for their overseas offices, but well never do that. But we are keen to ensure that they have the same culture as we have, guided by our Culture Book.

Now that we have this vision set out, we’re starting to speak with different people. We’ve set up friendship clubs in various cities, which helps the leader in each city really get to know us. We give them the psychometric test that I referenced earlier, and we also talk about their families and try to understand them as people.

Trust is a key factor in our expansion. We know that this model works and that we can take it anywhere, but we need to trust the individuals who are going to lead the different offices, and that’s what we’re working out right now. But we’re on a journey right now with six or seven different areas, and we’ll probably open a couple of offices every year. But we don’t want to rush it; it has to be right.

ZERØ: Our last question, and the one we ask all of our guests, is this: what is your vision for the law firms of the future?

Darryl: I’m a really big fan of lawyers. I believe that we uphold the rule of law. I think the integrity, the hard work, the intelligence of lawyers is fantastic. But I do feel that our law firms have gotten stuck. And I think the response has been that AI will change at all, but I don’t think that’s the answer. We need to look at our structures and our models, and really lead from the front.

I would love for many more firms like us to be set up. I’d be very happy to help people to do that. Because to me, being a lawyer is tricky, particularly when you’re in the very large firms, where the pressure is phenomenal. It’s also quite an unpleasant and unhappy place to be. And I think that it should be perfectly possible to be a lawyer and to enjoy being a lawyer and to have control over your own life as well. There’s a dreadful phrase in London called “beasting,” which describes how traditional law firms take the lives away from great young lawyers who had come in passionately and with a great view of the future. Working from 10 to 11 every evening actually changes them as people. They stop being the fun person with that they wanted to be, and they get stuck in a particular way of working. And I’d really love to change that. So I’d love us to be even more successful and bring more lawyers in to do what we do. But I’d also be very, very happy for others to come in and develop our model and move it forward.



  • Bernie Toledano

    As ZERØ’s Head of Marketing, Bernie is responsible for overall marketing strategy, brand management, and lead generation initiatives. Prior to joining ZERØ, Bernie was the AVP of Marketing and Communications at a global real asset investment firm, where she led and operationalized the marketing strategy across several subsidiaries and built the company’s marketing technology infrastructure from the ground up.

  • Gevorg Sahabalyan

    Is a Massachusetts lawyer, writer and media consultant. He also writes the blog Media Law and cohosts the legal affairs podcast Lawyer2Lawyer