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Legal Leaders: The bigger picture
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Legal Leaders: The bigger picture

Mark Rigotti, soon-to-be managing partner of one of the world’s largest law firms, tells Stephanie Quine how lessons learnt on a journey with Freehills will help him in his new role.

Mark Rigotti, soon-to-be managing partner of one of the world’s largest law firms, tells Stephanie Quine how lessons learnt on a journey with Freehills will help him in his new role.

Mark Rigotti is getting ready to pack his bags for London. It’s been 20 years since he worked in the British capital and a lot has changed in that time.

His firm Freehills is about to join a number of other Australian firms by merging with a global partner; in its case Herbert Smith. It’s something Rigotti never imagined would happen in his lifetime.

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“I thought Australian lawyers were too comfortable …[and] our rates are so low relative to the rest of the world for what we do, so I never thought that profitability gap would narrow,” he says.

It wasn’t an idea he spent a lot of time pondering last time around in London though. It was 1992; Andre Agassi had just won his first Grand Slam in Wimbledon and Barcelona was gearing up to host the Olympics.

Rigotti was working as a lawyer in a small office of six people. “It was such a different experience. You get to know everyone really well and the work profile is boom and bust, so if there’s a matter on [it’s] all hands on deck. If there’s nothing on, there’s nothing on,” he says.

If the phone didn’t ring, there was literally nothing to do for a week, Rigotti explains, but that taught him one of the biggest lessons of his career.

“We had to go and hunt down every job, so it just taught me to never take a client for granted,” he says.

Sow before you can reap; think six months ahead; stay close to your clients; be “relentless” about going out and finding work – everything Rigotti preaches in his current role as Freehills managing partner he experienced earlier in his career.

Rigotti says these principles and a strong client focus were essential to the success of the office, because without them “electricity literally got turned off”.

Global man

Rigotti will be in a very different office, with a much bigger electricity bill, when he lands in London this time around to take the reins as managing partner (clients and industries) of Herbert Smith Freehills.

Rigotti will land in December, two months after the full-equity merger, which brings together 2800 lawyers spread across 20 offices worldwide, takes effect on 1 October.

“Over 2000 lawyers and 1000 of them will be Greek restructuring experts in 12 months,” jokes Rigotti, although this may not be so far from the truth.

Europe’s troubled economy adds another layer of complexity to Rigotti’s task to ensure the client and industry strategies of Herbert Smith Freehills line up and support a vision to be globally elite and a leading firm in Asia.

Acting for “really good clients”, strongly pursuing Asian opportunities and ensuring a best-practice client management system will all be in his mandate.

“It’s a big business, it needs almost $6 million a day in revenue, so you don’t get that unless you’re managing clients and not just standing in the market waiting for the phone to ring,” he says.

Up for the job

A confident and engaging speaker, Rigotti is well versed in painting a digestible picture of market dynamics, legal services and what clients want.

In 2009, he launched Care for the Client, a change program designed to improve Freehills’ lawyers client service behaviours, but described by Roll on Friday as “mad management group-think” taken to a whole new level.

It was the program’s ‘empty chair initiative’ that drew the cheeky criticism. A coloured chair, intended as a reminder of the client, was placed in every meeting room.

Firm Spy gave me a hard time for a while, running a survey on whether it was going to be the end of my management career or something, so I had to get my mum to go on and vote 100 times,” laughs Rigotti, admitting the program, which also includes a client conversations master class for all senior lawyers, internal and eternal client surveys and graduate training, didn’t have a clear path to success.

But, three years on, Rigotti says the Care for the Client program has changed the way people think about client service within the firm.

“We’re getting great results and feedback,” he says. “Frankly, we had a fantastic revenue year last year and I’d like to think that some of that is we’re actually delivering better, more consistent experiences to clients.”

Rigotti says the program has been one of the most rewarding experiences of his career; up there with a job he worked on for former Sydney-based global investment firm Babcock & Brown before it went into liquidation in 2009.

Babcock & Brown was bidding to buy what is now called Alinta. Even though the firm came second and lost the bid, Rigotti remembers the company executive’s praise for Freehills.

“We were up there preparing on bid night, there were banks everywhere, all the people getting drawn in on the bid, we were side-by-side with the client [and] even though it was a loss at the time … it was rewarding to get such recognition from the client in front of a whole bunch of other people; it’s the best type of advertising,” he says.

Tough choices

Rigotti always enjoyed the pace of corporate law. After graduating in 1988 and joining Freehills, he did a redeemable preference share issue, a leverage lease and a public company takeover in his first year at the firm.

“It was literally boom, crash and then a bit of a recovery and then a recession all within about two years, so it was actually quite exciting to be there,” he says.

Despite this excitement, Rigotti left the firm briefly to work as an associate for a judge in the Federal Court. He considered going to the Bar but spent time in litigation and decided he wasn’t cut out for it.

“I enjoyed the pace of corporate law; I think it’s very different to what’s happening in the economy now. Transactions happened pretty quickly … I like a short story; a start, a middle and end. You get a sense of achievement and a bit of afterglow in terms of the deal successfully concluding.”

In the 1990s, there was one, maybe two lawyers per partner, and far less specialisation, says Rigotti.

“It was quite a diverse range of people in those days too [who] probably wouldn’t get away with some of the behaviours now but they were quite colourful,” he recalls.

Rigotti kept his options open though, interviewing with some investment banks.

“[There was] one position I didn’t take up and as these head-hunters do they’ll say ‘oh have you got a friend that you can refer us to?’ Well I referred my friend and he went on to absolutely fantastic things; senior role in one of the New

York banks and he’s now retired living in Switzerland so … I probably took the wrong fork in the road by some measures,” he laughs.

He’s not complaining though. Approaching his 30-year high school reunion, Rigotti has had a rewarding career as a lawyer, a partner and a manager within the one organisation.

He counts Freehills’ current CEO Gavin Bell and former Freehills chief executive Peter Hay as role models, and says he learned much from past and present non-executive directors: John Harvey, Helen Nugent and Garry Hounsell.

“I actually found them to be great mentors in terms of guiding some of the things I’ve done, you know; pace of change, how to look to the horizon when you’re buried in stuff that’s just in front of you,” he says.

New horizons

Born and bred in Coogee, on Sydney’s eastern beaches, Rigotti regularly looks to the horizon to maintain his health and keep up with his wife and two young children.

He says workloads are hard to control and so makes his exercise routine flexible and tries to relax when he gets downtime.

“If you’re the kind of person who needs to be at netball at 6pm every Tuesday it’s going to be tough, but if you’re someone who can be flexible you’ll feel like there’s more work-life balance,” he says.

Rigotti is waiting until his kids finish the school year in Sydney before gently breaking it to them that they don’t get a summer break. Both will start school in England in the first week of January after the family, including a red kelpie cattle dog, move to a house near Wimbledon.

There will be a few adjustments for the family, both personally and, for Rigotti, professionally. He is aware of the international flavour to working in Europe, which may take some time to get used to.

When Australian clients talk about TV media, they think Channel 7, 9 and 10, he says. In London they’re considering German or Polish broadcasts into England.

“Over here it’s all about the Big Four [banks] and the rest,” he says, but on a recent call to England “the English guy was going through the banks that he’s currently doing work for and he was up to about 30; they’re banks you’ve never heard of”.

Rigotti plans to take “a little bit of the Freehills way” over to London, but is mindful of a need to respect Herbert Smith’s past.

There will be different ways of doing things, “but not better or worse”, he says.

The world is a smaller place in Europe and even more so now than it was in 1992, with the advent of internet technology.

New cultures, a far bigger organisation and unprecedented changes to a globalising legal profession are challenges Rigotti is well-equipped to rise to.

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