BigLaw to boutique
What to know about setting up shop and being your own boss.
The latest figures coming out of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) indicate that by the end of the 2017-18 financial year there were 2,313,291 actively trading businesses in the Australian marketplace. The number represents a 3.4 per cent jump from the year prior.
With such a high volume one has to question the practicality of opening up yet another shopfront to the Australian consumer. It’s of course not a decision to be made lightly, with many factors to be considered: Do I have enough funding? What kind of covers do I need? Will I be able to attract and obtain clients? How do I go about hiring the right staff?
Add on to these pressures the fact that over 50 per cent of small businesses in Australia close within their first three years of operation and you’ve got a lot of people choosing to forgo the effort.
However, despite the seemingly “doom and gloom” there are many benefits that come with opening up your own shop and nobody knows this better than the lawyers we’ve featured over the next few pages.
Join us as we uncover the reasons why legal professionals choose to leave BigLaw, or any established firm in the Australian market, to start their own; what they value as being their key point of difference; the challenges boutique law firms have in getting off the ground and the wins that come with deciding to do so.
“If I were to start my own business, what would it be?” We’ve all had the thought with not many able to provide a concrete answer. However those who do end up achieving their dream of company ownership seem to be prompted by similar influences.
Some feel it’ll provide them greater work/life balance, some say it’s to fulfil a lifelong passion, and others just want to be their own boss.
For the four founders of Velocity Legal it was the desire to break free from the “old-school” law firm model that got their idea over the line.
Launched by John Storey, Andrew Henshaw, Rajan Verma and Scott McKenzie back in November 2016, Velocity Legal was created in the hope of offering a different kind of service than what was already available within the Aussie legal market.
“We decided to launch Velocity Legal because we wanted to do things differently. We wanted to break free from the ‘old-school’ law firm model,” Mr Henshaw told Lawyers Weekly at the time.
“For us, this meant: fixed fees for all work to give clients certainty; not being tied to our desks (because we don’t have personal budgets); meeting at our clients’ offices rather than our boardrooms whenever possible; being outcome-focused (i.e. solving our clients’ problems) not input-focused (no time recording and no billable units); genuinely sharing relationships between our directors (‘no silos’); [and] being a firm dedicated to private enterprise, not just another ‘add-on’ service.”
“… We’ve listened to our clients. We deliver top-quality legal advice. However, we have taken away all the things that clients hate about lawyers, for example, lack of transparency on fees, slow response times, lack of business awareness [and] internal rather than external focus.”
In a similar vein to the Velocity Legal founders, Adam Merlehan - who was a partner at MinterEllison before departing BigLaw for his own boutique - wanted to “reshape” Australia’s legal landscape by creating Merlehan Group.
Dubbing it the country’s first full-service multidisciplinary business and law practice, Mr Merlehan says the decision behind launching his own firm comes from a longing to “do more” for clients.
“I have seen first-hand the benefits of collaboration between law and other disciplines both during my post-graduate business studies and my experience working in-house with large global clients as part of a commercial team solving problems and devising plans for growth or important change,” he says.
“I’m convinced we need to do more to deliver our clients strategic advantage over their competitors in an increasingly crowded, globally connected and competitive marketplace.
“While some law and accounting firms are starting to cater to a broader range of client needs via internal restructuring or offering complementary services, we will be offering a truly collaborative and multidisciplinary approach from the outset.”
For Nick Mann - former Victorian head of medical negligence at Slater and Gordon Lawyers - it was the welcome challenge of opening a new business that drove him to launch personal injury-focused Polaris Lawyers, with Mr Mann noting that the response to smaller firms at the time gave him the push he needed to pursue his passion.
“After 12 very enjoyable years at a large firm, I was ready for a new challenge and saw the changes affecting the legal industry, which were being taken up enthusiastically by boutique firms,” he says.
“Some of those opportunities reflect technological changes, while others arise from new and evolving practice areas, such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme, but all appear to be most easily taken up by small and agile outfits not relying on traditional legal infrastructure and methods.”
From the ground up
Thankfully, when it comes to the local legal market small businesses seem to be thriving. More clients appear to want the specialised service that a boutique law firm can provide and are prepared to forfeit the branding behind BigLaw.
However despite the willingness of clients to go to a boutique law firm, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, diamonds and rosé, Bollinger and caviar. Before you actually get to the point of onboarding clients, there are many things to consider before taking your business public.
Polaris Lawyers’ Nick Mann says there were several challenges he had to overcome before bringing his firm to the market, despite calling the initial process of registering the new firm “straightforward”.
“I took some extra time in the planning stage because I wanted to challenge my own preconceptions about the way that personal injury law has been practiced and how it might change,” he says.
“This meant speaking with a wide range of people, both inside and outside the law: legal experts from both defendant and plaintiff camps, health experts, creatives and innovators, past clients and people who had had no direct experience with lawyers.
“… I also think that there are a number of subtle advantages and comforts, which come from working in a large firm which I’d taken for granted. For instance, in a large firm there are whole departments dedicated to branding, marketing and IT, which allow you to practice as a lawyer on top-quality matters, and which you'll only fully appreciate in their absence.
“Stepping away from a large firm meant being without those kinds of support, and it also allowed me to think critically about how much of that infrastructure is actually needed to deliver results for clients and to build a team that shares that vision.”
The story is a similar one to Mona Emera’s, founder of Emera Smith.
Also a Slater and Gordon alum, Ms Emera, alongside former Berry Family Lawyer partner Ben Smith, left BigLaw to embark on the journey of opening up a new boutique focused on family law.
“When my previous firm Slater and Gordon announced that they would no longer be offering a family law service, my immediate focus was ensuring that I could continue to offer this service to my clients. As I started to think about how to best do this, I realised I had actually spent most of my career thinking about the type of firm I would build if I had the choice/freedom,” she says.
For Ms Emera the process of establishing Emera Smith started with a conversation about what values the firm would encompass, which she and Mr Smith used as a starting point to get their idea off the ground.
“It all started with a conversation about our values and the type of firm we wanted to build; from there the concept grew into reality fairly quickly. Our clear alignment on all the fundamentals of Emera Smith set us on the right course and made the process a lot easier than I expected, although not without challenges,” she explains.
“It took about three months from start to finish, although to be honest we could have used an extra month or two! It was a lot of fun creating something from scratch and seeing it come to life. Milestones like seeing our website for the first time and taking our first new client were exciting and motivating.”
Some of the challenges, Ms Emera says, revolved around making sure there was as little disruption as possible to existing clients.
“To do this we had to complete an array of administrative and technology processes and things didn’t always go to plan. We found that simply being honest and sharing our experience with our clients helped a lot,” she says.
“We are very lucky to have clients who are genuinely excited for us and were understanding when we hit speedbumps, like our computer systems not working for a few hours. We quickly learned that almost anything can be done with a laptop, a mobile phone, some Wi-Fi and a bit of ingenuity!”
The Australian Government’s Department of Industry, Innovation and Science offers a simple checklist to those who have the basics in place for starting a business but are struggling to get the wheels in motion.
While it speaks to businesses broadly, the tips are applicable to legal professionals wanting to branch out into their own boutique.
Things such as making sure you’ve registered your ABN, GST and other registrations and licenses are a necessity, according to the Department, as is the need for adequate protection for intellectual property.
Safeguarding your firm with the correct level of insurance cover is also crucial, as well as understanding record keeping and information management requirements under tax law.
However looking beyond all the logistics, to really ensure one’s success in starting their own firm it’s vital to maintain a strong level of commitment, passion and drive for only those that exude this standing a chance in surviving the congested small business market.
Take the aforementioned Merlehan Group founder Adam Merlehan, for example.
One year on since starting his multidisciplinary law and business strategy firm, Mr Merlehan has been able to advise across more than $10 billion-worth of infrastructure, energy and development projects throughout Australia.
His success isn’t put down to luck, but instead the focus and determination to continue an idea that stemmed from wanting to fill a gap in the market.
Speaking to Lawyers Weekly earlier this year, Mr Merlehan noted that the firm’s early success “is an endorsement for multidisciplinary solutions offered by legal and non-legal talent within one firm”.
“We have been fortunate to be retained by major project owners and consortia around the country to advise on some of the largest infrastructure projects currently in execution or planned in Australia,” the managing director says.
“We are seeing clients benefiting from our unique blend of top tier construction law talent, commercial management, and senior project delivery experience accumulated from many billions of dollars of projects globally.
“When you put that type of expertise together, projects are setup for success, capability is added to assist delivery and high stakes issues as resolved pragmatically when they do arise. Our engagements have spanned initial project setup, tender strategy design, contracts preparation and negotiation, independent tender evaluation support, in-project issues resolution, commercial management, and major legal dispute resolution.
“Our people are working externally as well as embedded members of client project teams.”
Mr Merlehan says the firm’s strategy in taking a multidisciplinary approach is particularly effective for clients, who are able to improve their business operations by utilising the firm’s separate business strategy division.
“We are currently engaged by a multinational client on a wholesale business performance review of its operations in the Asia-Pacific region,” he says.
“To illustrate the power of the model, on that particular engagement our senior marketing strategist is reviewing and advising on product demand for the business, our senior CFO and business financial planning analyst is advising across financial performance and cost base improvement, and our commercial legal talent is supporting smarter business risk and compliance management.
“Each of those team members are servicing the client holistically with one goal; to see that client succeed and do better.”
Onwards and upwards
Looking ahead the ABS predicts that more small businesses will continue to infiltrate the Australian marketplace. After all, the benefits - albeit some challenges - are there and more people are wanting a slice of the pie.
But is that the same situation when we consider law firms specifically?
For Emera Smith founder Mona Emera the answer is yes. Ms Emera says she envisions there to be more partners from either national or international law firms who will eventually decide to leave and launch their own practice, and thus create more boutique operations.
“I think there are a lot of talented lawyers and managers in the industry who are looking to create something new and different. The reasons vary – some want greater flexibility, others feel hamstrung by restrictive processes and want to embrace all things New Law,” she explains.
“For Ben and I, it was really about setting-up a firm directly aligned to our values. Transformation can take place within existing organisations, but it is often easier when you are building something new!”
And while the idea of more boutiques may seem like overkill to some - considering the already vast competitiveness within Australia’s legal profession - research by Globality has found that it is these players that are considered better than BigLaw in two fundamental ways.
According to the company’s Global Trends in Hiring Outside Counsel Report, 62 per cent of respondents believe small law firms are better at client service, while 43 per cent find them to be more innovative than their BigLaw counterparts.
Commenting on the findings last year CIE Legal managing partner Peter George said: “’Small’ was [once] a dirty word. Legal services were all about law firms and not just any firm, but a big, preferably international partnership located in an expensive city centre office. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve heard ‘we’re a full-service firm’ or ‘we have the largest [take-your-pick] team in the country’, the implication being that, however the service was delivered, whatever the style of the lawyer, however thoughtful or innovative the approach, size trumped all”.
“Now, as we know, things are changing. Now, the need for legal advice no longer automatically leads to instructing a law firm. Now, even if a law firm is instructed, it’s no longer necessary for that firm to be big, international and multi-office,” he says.
“The time of the small firm has arrived.”
In conclusion, it’s fair to say that there’s appetite for more boutique law firms in the Australian marketplace but how someone goes about setting up their own shop and plans to keep it afloat will determine whether it sinks or swims.
At Lawyers Weekly, we’ll be continuing to watch this space and I, for one, hope it’s the latter.