Thomas Mansfield Solicitors has offices all over the South East including two in Tunbridge Wells – the second of which has just opened on the High Street. Eileen Leahy sits down to chat to the firm’s co-founder Neill Thomas along with partner and Head of Family Law Kate Rayner and Head of Private Client Emma Howlett to discover their unique way of doing business and why they are so happy to bring back a customer-facing office to Tunbridge Wells…
Stepping over the threshold of the smart new Thomas Mansfield office, which is located at 65 the High Street in Tunbridge Wells, for the very first time I am greeted by a group of smiling faces. The fizz is flowing and delicious canapes are being handed round to staff members and loyal clients. People are chatting and laughing – and clearly excited.
Now, it has to be said that this is not the usual scenario you’d expect to be playing out in a law firm but as it’s the official launch for Thomas Mansfield’s second office here in Tunbridge Wells it’s clearly a very special occasion. The town’s Mayor is also present and the mood is one of celebration.
When I return to the new Thomas Mansfield office, which is positioned right opposite the historic G Collins & Sons jewellers, a few days later the ambience is still very much upbeat. The firm’s co-founder Neill Thomas welcomes me in to the stylishly appointed space, where team members are chatting and passers by stop to peer through the windows.
“We’re so happy with how our official opening went,” states Neill as we walk up to the main meeting room which is positioned at the back of the new office which is decorated in a sleek combination of navy and white and feels genuinely inviting.
“We were looking for quite some time,” Neill goes on to explain. “We have wanted a customer-facing office in Tunbridge Wells for a good while and so when this premises became available we knew we had found the right space. It was a very natural progression for the business.”
Neill co-founded Thomas Mansfield in 2004 with his colleague Jonathan Mansfield. The firm now boasts offices all over the South East of England – and even one in Frejus, France which is proving to be a huge success for ex-pat clients.
Over the past 19 years since the firm was established the company boasts legal expertise in a number of different areas including employment law and dispute resolutions but in its Tunbridge Wells branches – the first of which is located at the top of the town near Pret a Manger – the focus is very much on family law and wills and probate.
Thomas Mansfield is Lexcel accredited (the Law Society’s law management quality mark) and recognised by the leading independent legal directories, Chambers & Partners and Legal 500.
“Although our business has expanded over the years our initial commitment to provide the best expert legal advice from lawyers who also connect with their clients on an individual level has never changed,” continues Neill as he introduces me to the firm’s Head of Family Law Kate Rayner and its Head of Private Client (Wills and Probate) Emma Howlett.
“When Jonathan and I established Thomas Mansfield in 2004 we felt we could offer clients a more personal and cost-effective service that would make a difference to their lives. This simple principle still drives our lawyers’ work today,” adds Neill.
It’s a good time to be opening a new premises and being featured in SO magazine as Neill tells me that January is traditionally the busiest time of year for any law firm, with divorces and tax being two of the biggest legal issues to have to deal with.
That’s why in 2017 Thomas Mansfield created a new Family Law team, which is now run by Kate Rayner who, Neill tells me, is one of the country’s finest experts in this particular area.
“The team has expanded rapidly in Kent, London and Surrey, and we now employ a number of solicitors and paralegals in this team,” he states.
In 2019, the firm grew into yet another specialist area, that of private client law which encompasses estate planning, wills and probate. This particular team is run by Emma Howlett and helps clients draft wills, create Powers of Attorney, administer the estates of people who have died and also provides advice to clients about reducing their inheritance tax liabilities.
Neill says that having the new office on Tunbridge Wells High Street will help the firm to be more accessible to the local community in all of the matters above.
“When the opportunity arose to take over this place we jumped at it because it’s a way of raising awareness of our services,” explains Kate before adding that they are not really ‘expecting walk in trade.’
“But if people can see the areas we specialise in then hopefully, should they need us, they know where to find us. It also gives us the chance to be closer to the community in which we work and to be more accessible. As a Tunbridge Wells local I deeply understand the nuances of our community.”
Neill goes on to say that by having such a prominent premises in Tunbridge Wells means that Thomas Mansfield are helping to bring the traditional solicitors office back onto the High Street.
“Traditionally most solicitors would have had a visible presence in towns some decades ago but with the rise of the internet most firms are no longer accessible to the general public. Now if you walk up and down a high street there are literally no other firms there. If you are looking to instruct a solicitor then most people would have to do a Google search if they didn’t already know one. We are trying to make the whole process of using our services as personable as possible.”
Emma then makes the valid point that when most people contact a lawyer it is not for the most positive of reasons.
“Now having this type of visibility we hope will break down some barriers and mean that potential clients aren’t having to do a blind search on the internet. It will also help raise awareness of our brand and if people are on the high street they can look in and immediately see what we do and keep us in mind should they need help.”
“It’s like a gentle reminder,” smiles Kate whose work sees her doing everything from pre-nups and divorces to family mediation.
And although Thomas Mansfield have numerous other offices including in Sevenoaks, Guilford and London, Neill admits there is something special about doing business here in Tunbridge Wells.
“It is particularly good as it’s a commuter town with plenty of character, excellent schools, great places to eat and excellent entertainment. It’s an attractive place to live and also has great transport links.
“And whatever situation clients contact us about we want to ensure they receive the best possible advice and service. We do this by putting a lot of effort into recruiting people with excellent academic records who have had extensive training, experience of life and an ability to see clients as individuals with a problem to solve. You only need to read our client feedback to see why the firm has become so popular.”
Another value to the new office is that it can serve as a bridge between the Thomas Mansfield team and the residents of the town. Community is very important to the business and so by having a customer-facing bricks and mortar premises the firm now has the opportunity to hold regular events with various legal experts.
“This could be for wills and probate or family affairs. It is all about offering guidance where we can and giving back to the community by sharing advice on matters that are relevant to them,” says Neill.
“The law is something most people don’t understand so these drop-in events will be an opportunity for people to come in and engage with us.”
Although Thomas Mansfield staff members won’t be in the new office every day – with the exception of a full-time receptionist – the idea is to hold meetings there on designated days.
“It’s great to be here as local clients can see us at a time that is convenient for them and in between seeing people we can work from here too,” adds Kate – who says the main aspect she enjoys about her role is the journey she goes on with clients.
“When they first meet me, they are usually going through an awful lot of emotional turmoil. So to see them gradually come through that, get stronger, achieve their financial independence and then be able to move on with their life is very rewarding.”
When I ask Neill about what he enjoys most he replies that he ‘likes dealing with people’.
“And the feedback we receive is excellent – that’s what also makes the job so worthwhile.”
As well as connecting face-to-face, Neill says the company would like to look at sponsorship and also introduce more volunteer days for the firm’s employees.
“Thomas Mansfield team members are encouraged to take a paid day off in order to undertake voluntary work. That is something that we do across all of our branches. It’s about having that compassionate touch.”
“In many ways this office reflects the fact that our USP is that we are very personal, specialist and bespoke in our approach to legal matters,” states Emma.
Neill adds that unlike traditional solicitors, Thomas Mansfield doesn’t ‘do a bit of everything.’ Instead it is firmly focused on the aforementioned key areas of law which means it has extensive knowledge and expertise in the family and wills and probate sectors.
“In days gone by your local solicitor would do a bit of everything. That could include criminal law, conveyancing, divorce and assets. But the fact is you can’t know all areas of the law inside out. The strength of our team is fantastic because their knowledge is excellent.
“We hire from the best law firms in the country and people want to work for us because we pride ourselves on what we do but crucially we are also flexible. So if someone wants to work from home for example then we can offer that hybrid. I think that really enhances our offering. That is then reflected in the type of clients we attract.”
Emma reveals the main part of her job she loves the most is having that very personal relationship with her clients.
“I really enjoy the contact aspect of my work. A lot of my clients are elderly so it is very rewarding to be able to help them through the often complex world of wills, probate and estate planning.”
“We are very fortunate to have Emma,” says Neill. “She has so much expertise in this particular area – and also in the international arena. She has brought us clients from all over the world including Nigeria and Hong Kong.
“We have now built a team of lawyers specialising in international family law so we can offer our services in other countries thanks to investing in good IT which means we can carry out high level work on a global scale. We have a lot of ex-pat clients in places such as India, Vietnam, United Arab Emirates and Australia. And since opening our dedicated office in Frejus, France in 2018 this has also proved to be a huge success.
“London is known as the divorce capital of the world because the legal system starts off with a presumption of an equal spilt of assets and offers maintenance to the spouse, which is much more favourable to wives than most other countries,” advises Neill.
But whether dealing with international clients or ones who are just on their doorstep here in Tunbridge Wells, Thomas Mansfield’s approach is always the same.
“We’re here to guide, support and stand by every individual navigating the terrains of family law,” continues Kate. “Our doors, both old and new, are always open to those seeking expert counsel with a personal touch.”
Next year Thomas Mansfield will celebrate its 20th anniversary. How does Neill feel to be still here 20 years on?
“It’s great to know the business is going from strength to strength. And I think that branching out into Tunbridge Wells a good few years ago has helped with the firm’s natural expansion. This town has really made a difference for us and encouraged us to open in other parts of the region. I’d say it’s actually been quite pivotal. I love the idea of us having a High Street presence here in Tunbridge Wells and if it works out then we will look to roll out the idea elsewhere.”