Speaking to Lawyers Weekly as part of a series about standing firm among the shrinking ranks of Australia’s mid-tier businesses, Hall & Wilcox managing partner Tony Macvean (pictured) said that competition today is tough for everybody.
Despite the harsh reality of the competitive legal services environment, Hall & Wilcox has been able to grow, and its success is due in no small part to the precision with which it has targeted a particular area of demand for work among its corporate clients.
Mr Macvean explained that the firm has been able to do so by directing its strategic focus on operational or ‘business as usual’ client needs.
“A few years ago, we recognised that the bigger firms seemed to be more focused on larger transactions and mega disputes and there was an opportunity for a firm like ours to move into the space that had been or was being vacated,” Mr Macvean said.
“And as a result, we have been appointed to a number of legal panels to kind of handle that ‘business as usual’ and operational work.”
Mr Macvean has captained his mid-tier ship for 10 years now and his perspective about competition in the legal landscape is frank: conditions are hard and disruption in law is showing no signs of stopping.
His answer to this dilemma is a combination of balance, focus and the ‘smarter law’ tagline that Hall & Wilcox has claimed to refer to new technology solutions it is offering its clientele.
“It is competitive at the top end and competitive in the middle as well, with price pressures, the shift of work in-house and reducing volumes of work,” Mr Macvean said.
When it comes to balance in the mid-tier market, fixing an appropriate price point for legal services is also crucial. The challenge for firms is to nail the pricing of quality work, which a client also views as being value for money.
Mr Macvean suggested that the approach of those firms desperate for work and inclined to offer legal services at drastically low prices only undermined long-term viability of their business. Conversely, those mid-tiers who get their value proposition right are endorsed when sophisticated clients accept those firms for their panels.
“If you go in too low, it’s just poor quality or lack of investment in the business. At the same time, for operational and ‘business as usual’ work, it needs to be provided at a price that demonstrates value to the client. So it’s a balance,” Mr Macvean said.
“There is also no doubt that there’s price competition and the work needs to be done at a price that is competitive, which is less than what the top-tier firms might have traditionally charged for that type of work,” he said.
For Australia’s leading mid-tier firms national expansion has decisively been led by clients in the insurance and finance sectors. It is a message consistent with the views of Sparke Helmore’s Mark Hickey and Mr Macvean.
However, Mr Macvean also considers this expansion as part of a strategic endeavour that Hall & Wilcox has undertaken with its insurance clients to solve problems together.
“We’re not just an insurance firm, but we do that work well. A lot of our national growth has come off the back of our insurance practice and looking to support insurer clients nationally as they consolidate what were state based panels into national panels,” Mr Macvean said.
“We expanded into new offices and new locations to reflect that and to support those clients.”
Sharing his views on how extra investment in technology-focused solutions need not mean cutting down on fee-earning personnel, the Hall & Willcox head said being innovative can in fact generate more work for mid-tier lawyers.
Mr Macvean acknowledged that the firm’s ‘Smarter Law’ initiative, in addition to investment in artificial intelligence and document automation technology did have the direct aim of reducing labour costs and giving clients products at a cheaper price.
However, digital infrastructure such as portals and collaboration tools also provided platforms for better client engagement, bringing with it more work and justifying the need for a growing workforce.
“We have built some logic-based applications, which we’ve provided to clients. That has been one way of providing value to clients and, consequently, clients requiring our assistance more as those applications lead to more opportunities to do things,” Mr Macvean said.
As in all business, there is an element of uncertainty about what future challenges tomorrow will bring. For Hall & Willcox, Mr Macvean said he believes that means being poised to adapt to changing conditions and constantly looking for new ways to do things better.
“There’s a lot more to do and I would only consider Hall & Willcox to be among the leading firms when it comes to this stuff, not the best, but just among the leading firms.
“Our willingness to try different things and to work with our clients to solve their problems is one reason that we’ve had the success and growth that we have,” he said.