Joanna Green and Andrew Brookes are typical of many lawyers in their early 30s.
They are smart and ambitious, and both are balancing the responsibilities of being a lawyer and being a parent to young children – two roles that involve long hours, clients needing regular attention and even the odd tantrum to keep you on your toes.
While their current work-life situation might be one that is shared by many lawyers of current and past generations, the environment in which they work is not at all typical of a traditional law firm environment.
Joanna and Andrew recently joined Melbourne’s Hive Legal, a “virtual” law firm where working remotely is encouraged and timesheets are not.
“From my point of view, being part of a business that is essentially starting with a clean sheet of paper and thinking about how things should be structured differently, the opportunity to be part of that process to be innovative and to think about things differently has been really exciting,” says Andrew Brookes, who has a five-month-old daughter, Georgia.
Andrew and Joanna both left senior associate positions at Minter Ellison to join Hive in July.
For both of them, this meant foregoing the chance to work towards a partnership position at a large law firm in order to jump into the unknown.
I don’t feel like I have much to lose,” says Joanna. “And if I need a new job at the end of it, [it was worth it] to say I was part of something different and genuinely client focused.”
It has become exceeding difficult for young lawyers to even get a foot in the door at the large national and global law firms in Australia.
Large law is generally taking fewer graduates, with fierce competition meaning lateral partner hires are becoming more common.
This combination is limiting organic growth, pushing the path to partnership out further and further for junior lawyers.
Sparke Helmore’s national managing partner, Jesse Webb, told Lawyers Weekly earlier this year that market conditions have made it harder than ever for lawyers to make partner in their own firm.
“It used to be five years, now it’s extending in a lot of firms,” he said.
It is also clear that many lawyers don’t have faith in the process that firms have in choosing new partners.
“There is so much politics around it and the requirements and the hoops you have to jump through,” says Joanna, adding that often the members of the partner-selection committees at large firms don’t have a great deal of knowledge about particular candidates.
“At Hive we often talk daily to all the owners, which is not something you have access to at a big firm.”
Small firms attract big players
Joanna and Andrew first met two of those founding principals, Mitzi Gilligan and Jacinda de Witts, when working under them at Minters.
For Joanna, working under the tutelage of such senior women showed that she could aim high professionally and not compromise her personal goals.
“I always knew family life would be a priority for myself, and if that meant parking my career at special counsel, so be it,” says Joanna, who has a 21-month old boy, Noah. “I spoke to Jacinda and Mitzi and they said: ‘you can do everything, we have families and we can blend it’.”
At Hive, the only requirement for “face time” in the office is to try and be in the fledgling firm’s Market Street premises for at least one hour a week on a Wednesday.
This allows both Joanna and Andrew to structure their working lives in a way that enables them to see clients and their respective children to the satisfaction of both.
Such flexibility and a willingness to throw the legal rule book out the window is just not possible in a large law environment.
“Like many within our industry, I was particularly disengaged with the way large law firms were operated – seemingly void of quality management, commercial responsiveness and innovation,” said James Ryan when talking to Lawyers Weekly about why he left Piper Alderman as a 30-year-old senior associate to co-found his own firm with Pipers senior partner Robert Speirs earlier this year.
With their increasing number, boutique firms are also becoming increasingly influential, and that has large law worried.
“The big boys and girls are just punching it on in an environment which is quite obviously materially over-serviced, and it is going to be tough for them for a long time to come,” says Peter Monk, one of the founding principals of Hive and the former Melbourne head of DLA Piper.
Clients demanding specific expertise and a sameness that many feel exists amongst the large and mid-tier firms, in addition to competition, means we will see more specialists and less generalists in the future.
“Standing for everything is exactly the same thing as standing for nothing,” says Tim Williams, the founder and director of Ignition, a US company that helps firms “create and capture value”. Tim spoke at the ALPMA Conference held in Melbourne in August.
“If you do everything for everybody that is not a strategy, that is the absence of a strategy.”
At that ALPMA conference, Hive won an award for thought leadership.
For young and old
Senior lawyers like Peter Monk are attracted to small, start-up firms such as Hive in the latter half of their career when they are confident that the key relationships and long-standing clients forged in pastures old will join them in pastures new.
For the less-senior lawyers that come behind them, it is the chance to forge their own path whilst not compromising personal goals that makes such a switch enticing.
“The overall thing for me is that it’s a model and a way of working that works for clients and for lawyers,” says Andrew Brookes. “Having the lawyers happier in a model which drives efficiency and productivity will be good for everyone.
“It is that sort of proposition that makes it a very attractive proposition for someone in the mid-stages of their career.”