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Legal Leaders: The mark of Kain – John Kain, Kain Corporate + Commercial

Legal Leaders: The mark of Kain – John Kain, Kain Corporate + Commercial

Uncomfortable with the partnership model, John Kain sought to make his name in a one-city firm run along corporate lines, writes Angela Priestley.

Uncomfortable with the partnership model, John Kain sought to make his name in a one-city firm run along corporate lines, writes Angela Priestley.

ELIMINATING THE PARTNERSHIP MODEL: John Kain, Principal, Kain Corporate + Commercial
Asked to explain how he ended up with the nickname "Jonty", John Kain launches into a long explanation that harks back to a sporting incident in 1992.

In Sydney to watch the World Cup Cricket semi-final between England and South Africa, Kain and his two mates decided to adopt the personas of South African cricket fans. Kain become Jonty Le Roux, a combination of expert fieldsman Jonty Rhodes and Garth Le Roux, a fast bowler who made his mark during the apartheid era. "Jonty" wore the riding boots, blue socks, beige shorts, South African cricket shirt, pith helmet, national flag and everything else one could imagine a South African cricket fan might adorn in 1992.

And for whatever reason, Kain says the name "Jonty" just kind of stuck ever since.

An obvious fan of cricket, Kain is also a football and golfing enthusiast, an Essendon football fan with three children who, despite his support for a Melbourne-based football team, longs to stay true to his South Australian roots.

He's also one of South Australia's leading corporate lawyers. But, it was long after he joined the partnership of two law firms that he realised what would not stick with him throughout his life - and that was being a partner in a law firm.

"I learned things about private practice," he says. "I began to form a view of what I wanted in a legal business and also a view that it was going to be too difficult to get to that point in an existing structure, within an existing partnership. That was going to be too hard, so I thought 'why not start from scratch'?"

And that's exactly what he did, deciding not only to go it alone, but to also eliminate the partnership model all together.

That way, his practice Kain Corporate + Commercial (Kain C+C) could be run on corporate lines which, Kain believed, would ultimately see the business build via better decisions to produce solid outcomes.

After officially incorporating in 2009, Kain is still the only director of the firm but he's supported by an advisory board which aids in driving the business forward, rather than having to have people within the business making the tough decisions.

"I saw a pattern in the partnerships I was involved in where I thought decisions were being made in the immediate interests of one of more of the partners, rather than the broader interests of the business," he says.

It's this one-man approach that Kain also uses to drive his original ambitions for leaving the partnership model - especially, a commitment to philanthropy. "My thinking has always been, 'how can I make a difference?' Well I can make a difference by influencing family and work colleagues and trying to create a business where you can build that in as part of the culture."

It's a commitment that sees all Kain C+C staff participating in at least one of the firm's three charity projects - including a homeless legal clinic, work in Uganda and a new program assisting disadvantaged youth in South Australia

It's also a one-man approach that has encouraged Kain to introduce rules and procedures into his firm that he says improve client service, such as the "short form advice".

"That involves three things: what's the question, what's the answer and what's our recommendation," explains Kain. "The key distinguishing fact is that the advice should never, ever exceed two pages and it always includes a recommendation, which in this profession is not all that common."

One city, one focus

Today, Kain C+C boasts around 30 staff members, 20 of whom are fee earners. It's carved a niche undertaking M&A and corporate work with a focus on Adelaide.

It's a good place to be. Kain says Adelaide was relatively buffered from the uncertainties of the Global Financial Crisis, with M&A activity barely feeling the pinch and the city's small financial services sector continuing business as normal.

"I saw a pattern in the partnerships I was involved in where I thought decisions were being made in the immediate interests of one of more of the partners, rather than the broader interests of the business"

John Kain, Principal, Kain Corporate + Commercial

As a city that Kain says is curiously still not really plugged into the "national grid" of the legal profession, Adelaide's isolation is exacerbated by the lack of large national law firms in the region (aside from Minter Ellison).

It's slightly insular feel was also further evidenced by South Australia rallying against the national profession reforms last year, a notion that Kain labels as "disappointing".

"I thought it was short-sighted. Just get with the times! There's no point retaining what is really a 60-year model of regulation. The world has moved on," he says.

Adelaide, adds Kain, has too much to offer to miss out on being part of the change sweeping up the legal profession across the rest of the country. Especially given the fact that after five years of significant government-led exploration work in South Australia, Kain believes the city will shortly be due for a resources boom.

But for Adelaide-based law firms, realising the promise of what's underground has been a long wait leaving some - like Johnson Winter & Slattery as well as Thomsons Lawyers - to consider their options interstate.

Kain is not prepared to do that. Not yet anyway.

"I wouldn't rule it out, but it's not something we're actively looking into at the moment. There are certain things we'd like to achieve at home first"

For now, Kain is comfortable in Adelaide where, at a distance, he can watch the future of the Australian legal services sector take shape.

He believes that with the arrival of international players in the Australian legal market a new tranche of purely national law firms will emerge. Outside of that, he believes smaller firms will need to specialise and be very good at what they offer in order to be successful in the future.

"The call for general practice is going to be a lot harder and a lot more difficult to do well," he says. "So it may well be that with the reshuffling of firms over the next five or so years, that the best spot to be might be is in a one-office practice that's mobile enough to advise geographically, rather than building a national infrastructure that may not be all that relevant in the future."

As the director of a growing one-city law firm, Kain knows that with the right people on board, success in law can exist well outside the national grid and away from the partnership model.

Even if your own staff refuse to give up on a nickname like "Jonty".

Like this story? Read more:

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Legal Leaders: The mark of Kain – John Kain, Kain Corporate + Commercial
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