Essential questions for growing in a disrupted industry

Hall & Wilcox has been an outlier in corporate law over the last four years – the firm has bucked the low-growth trend in professional services and expanded its footprint from being a Melbourne-only firm to having a significant presence in Sydney and a meaningful foothold in Brisbane, Canberra, Perth and Newcastle. Partner numbers and revenue have more than doubled, and the firm’s growth has been strategic, culturally aligned and profitable.

Rapid growth brings leadership and cultural challenges and there is the backdrop of disruption to professional services – Hall & Wilcox managing partner of 10 years, Tony Macvean, answers some questions on how to lead and maintain culture in a rapidly expanding professional services firm.

How do you navigate the unknown and bring people along with you during times of change?

Communication is vital. It is important to communicate clearly and often about what is happening. We do this by weekly updates, in town hall meetings, in teams, by email and using Yammer. This provides context and when necessary provides the burning platform for change.

We try to involve people from across the business, in cafes and hackathons and other forums. We can continue to do this even better, and ensure that we have bandwidth to implement new ideas coming from the business.

Old-fashioned face-to-face communication is still vitally important – being physically present has been crucial in fast-tracking our new offices. We made a concerted effort to have senior Hall & Wilcox people present and available as we have set up in new markets such as Perth and Brisbane. This also helps ensure good integration and a sense of “one firm”.

Finally, we don’t pretend to have all the answers. We are prepared to listen, observe and learn. We call it out when we get things wrong. We want to avoid being locked into rigid thinking about what disruption means and what is possible. We need to the freedom to try new things and move on quickly if they don’t work.

Disruption talk is potentially scary, how do you promote excitement instead of fear?

We try to focus on the opportunity, not just the risk. We think that an agile, innovative, forward thinking firm like Hall & Wilcox can be a winner in times of change and that this provides a great opportunity for everyone.

We talk about some of the wins, and how we are gaining (rather than losing) share. The old tiers are breaking down and brand counts for less. That’s good for us.

Finally, we try and be realistic on this. Disruption polarises people – some see it positively, while others see a doomsday scenario. We’ve put a lot of time and effort into bringing in people, like Pete Williams and Peter Campbell, who understand the big picture and bringing disruption into the open so we can talk about it, understand it and discover where the opportunities are.

A key issue is the huge number of technological possibilities – how do you stay grounded, and sort through the possibilities?

It is easy to become distracted by everything that is happening. We have great people involved – like our COO Sumith Perera, our Director- Client Solutions Peter Campbell, our Board member Pete Williams and a quality team. They help us stay focused on what’s important.

We keep our ear to the ground, talk to and observe as many people as possible.

We try to test everything by how it will help solve a problem for our clients. We don’t do things for the sake of it.

Again, we don’t pretend to always get it right. We have faced some ‘business as usual’ technology challenges in our new offices. We listen and try to make things better.

Where are the big opportunities for professional services firms during this time?

I think there are great opportunities to partner and collaborate with clients, to co-create the future. For instance, we recently ran a collaboration workshop with a client, Orora, which was a great success.

By partnering with clients, we can become an intrinsic part of our clients’ businesses.

More generally, if we can identify client problems and then collaborate to ideate and find solutions then this provides great opportunities for all of us.

Does the firm see itself at the cutting edge, or it is happy to follow?

I think we are probably best described as a fast follower, rather than at the cutting edge. Still, lawyers are prone to seek perfection before we test with clients. We are trying to be better at piloting concepts and testing a minimum viable product with clients and in the market, adapting and, if it doesn’t work, failing fast and moving onto the next thing.

How does a firm know if it is poised to benefit or suffer from disruption?

There isn’t really a test we can perform to see what will work. I think that we are well placed, but we don’t claim to have all the answers. The market for legal services is mature and is being disrupted, and will never be the same. We have some advantages over other legal firms but these will only be realised if we keep having the conversation, keep asking questions, exploring and trying new things.

Where does culture come into this?

Culture is fundamental to everything we do. When recruiting partners and teams, we prioritise strategy and culture above all else, including financial considerations. In assessing performance, cultural considerations and behaving consistently with our values (our Hallmarks) is given a high priority.

We regularly formally and informally ask our people how we are going in relation to culture. That said, culture should not be used as an excuse for not improving and making progress.  Culture needs to evolve with the business and the market. We also need to understand and accept that there will be sub-cultures across teams and offices.

Culture is important as it enables people to have an expectation of how things will run and how others will behave. It is also important as our culture attracts people to our firm and engages people whilst at the firm.

For us – I think that our culture is decent, collegial, authentic and restless. Our Hallmarks actually do a pretty good job of summarising what our culture stands for.

How do you keep tabs on culture during change?

We keep an ear to the ground. We ask people. We survey people formally and informally – for example, last year we ran a whole of firm culture enhancement project (which led the creation of our Hallmarks) and we have just run a whole of firm engagement survey.

With culture, we need to make sure that we are not too internally focused. Clients need to be central to what we do.

Who do you draw from for inspiration in this area?

David Morrison is someone who has inspired me. He was prepared to challenge the traditional culture nationally and in our armed forces by taking a public stand on gender equality.

Within our firm, the leaders in the firm both before and during my time have greatly influenced me in driving our culture and a sense of what is right – people like Noel Batrouney, Richard Wilcox, Keith James and Geoff Durham. Our chair Mark Dunphy has a good radar and is someone who I trust. I test just about everything with Sumith Perera – who is my partner in running the business.   Our board members and partners generally are also quick to ensure that we are giving culture the priority it needs and deserves.

How do you preserve or enhance a culture while growing from a single city to a national firm?

I think that culture is nurtured by continuing to prioritise and talk about it. Culture is very much part of the conversation. If we observe someone acting inconsistently with our culture and Hallmarks we are quick to call them on it – whoever they are. We are also always looking for ways to support and nurture our culture.

We also think hard about how our culture needs to evolve as the firm evolves.

We tend to be attractive to people and teams who embrace our culture. We structure along national team lines, and do all that we can to encourage collaboration and avoid competition between offices and partners. I and the leadership team are present in all of our offices as much as possible, reinforcing what the firm is about. We are transparent and communicate often. We invest in spending time together.


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