Tim Capelin and John Stanton have seen workplace laws change dramatically in the ten years since they founded Australian Business Lawyers. For clients, that means a necessity to speak "plain English", writes Angela Priestley.
Lawyers are known to take pride in their language abilities but all too often, believes John Stanton, co-founder of Australian Business Lawyers, they will mistake the notion of complex speaking as an indication of their own intellectual abilities.
"Law can be very frustrating [to non-lawyers] if the mystery isn't taken out of it," he says. "So written advices should never be seen as something that will be framed as a showcase of the intellectual abilities [of the lawyer] but, rather, they are meant to resolve the issue for the consumer of the legal services."
In 1999, Stanton, along with Tim Capelin, saw an opportunity to revolutionise their legal work at what was then known as the Australian Business Limited - now the NSW Business Chamber - and take their belief in the language of simplicity to the next level. Instead of providing advice on employment and industrial relations matters through an advocacy unit within the chamber, Stanton and Capelin moved to open a fully functioning workplace law firm to provide such advice to the chamber's members at competitive legal rates.
Ten years on, it's a model that has since been followed by many employer associations and one that has provided a profitable venture for Capelin and Stanton - as well as a much better resource for businesses requiring employment law advice. Meanwhile, in that same ten years, industrial relations law has taken on many different incarnations and become much more complicated in the process.
As Capelin notes, the traditional workplace law advice work provided by an employer association back in those days revolved around maintaining awards and dealing with industrial disputes. "But industrial dispute laws were pretty simple in the old days," he concedes.
"It there was a dispute, you filed a notice, you went to the commission and you told them all the good reasons why the dispute should end," he adds. "They usually agreed, battered the parties around the head and the workers went back to work and the company went back on with its business."
The workplace law headache for business has only grown more painful over the years, calling for a growing marketplace of employment lawyers to assist. "At no point in all those changes (to workplace laws) have the laws become less complicated," says Capelin.
"At each point they have become more complicated, then layered on top of that is obviously discrimination laws, trade practices laws, OH&S laws - all of which have also not become simpler over time."
Positioning a law firm in the midst of such change was a smart move. Since ABL's inception, Capelin and Stanton's firm has grown to five partners and 35 staff in total and serviced clients ranging from Coca-Cola to American Express, Boral and Asset Super. While the firm maintains a referral arrangement with the NSW Business Chamber, Capelin says it has also moved to generate new business in more traditional ways.
As for the headache that businesses have been forced to endure around workplace laws, both Capelin and Stanton believe that their firm's stance on speaking "plain English" to clients has led to their successful growth. Knowing that the bulk of their instructing officers will be made up of people experienced in HR - and not law - the two proclaim the importance of ensuring their advice is as straightforward as possible. The firm also relies on hiring new staff with some kind of background in HR - be it through a dual degree, or direct experience - and prides itself on delivering "consumerable advice" to clients. "We tell our lawyers that the starting point [in advising clients] is always to offer a 'yes' or 'no' to a question the client asks," says Capelin. "Then add qualifications as it is necessary for the client to be able to make commercial decisions."
For Capelin, it's a method he believes separates the firm from its competition. "We're very strong on not advising with a strong eye on our insurance policy and we think that makes a big difference," he says. "We believe a lot of our competitors are defensive in the way that they provide their advice - and that's not good for the client."
Hiring the right lawyers is, therefore, essential, adds Stanton. While he believes simplicity in language is a skill that can be taught to more junior staff, he says it's a much more difficult proposition for more experienced lawyers. "If we get candidates for our senior roles that are clearly drafting in an old-fashioned way, it's very unlikely that we will take them, it's just too hard to change," he says.
For ABL lawyers, Capelin declares that enabling such simplicity also comes down to ensuring that lawyers have a life outside of law. "It's a fact of life that if they have got a life, they might understand a bit more about the world and be better advisors," he says.
"If the only people they know are other lawyers, because that's where they spend their life, their chances of being competent advisors are diminished."
To that end, the firm boasts a strong commitment to work/life balance. Capelin claims the firm's budgets for lawyers are about 25 per cent lower than their competitors, which gives work/life balance a true foundation to start from. "Giving people laptops and PDAs doesn't provide them with work/life balance, but requiring their quantity of work to be lower actually gives them that ability."
ABL has extended on this communication strategy by launching its HR Advance online product - a toolkit of HR documents which HR professionals can use to generate workplace-related documents online via sets of simple questionnaires. According to Capelin, the toolkit recognises that certain areas of workplace law are essentially becoming commodities, and while most law firms will attempt to produce consulting services around such areas, ABL believe the process can be much cheaper and simpler.
Thousands of subscribers pay a subscription fee which the firm says is usually less than what it would cost for one consultation session with a law firm. The product won an award for IT innovation in law in 2007.
For ten years, ABL says it has been focussed solely on its clients - so focussed, in fact, that a quick look at the website indicates that even with the innovation of the HR Advance toolkit, the firm's branding is somewhat outdated. All that, says Capelin is about to change. "We lost a bit of focus on the broad public look of the firm and we're in the process of modernising the look," he says.
And, in terms of the next ten years of life in the firm, with a fresh look and their continued communications approach, both Stanton and Capelin are convinced that they are in a strong position to evolve as one of the best firms in the business.