QUEENSLAND’S ANSWER to the national problem of how firms should distinguish themselves in the market, this week appeared to be via mergers with other firms.
Boutique Brisbane firms Templeton Smith Lawyers and Bennett & Philp Solicitors merged this week, claiming their clients would be better served as a result.
In another example of starting the year off as bigger and better entity, Brisbane firm Shand Taylor Lawyers merged with Lowes & Co Solicitors this week, another boutique-sized firm.
Both mergers attribute the move to the necessity to better serve clients, including providing more comprehensive support infrastructures.
According to Shand Taylor Lawyers managing partner Rod O’Sullivan, who spoke to Lawyers Weekly just before the union on Monday, the firm was keen to get a little more experience in the commercial property section, which has been one of the main areas of growth for the firm in recent years.
The firm approached John Lowes of Lowes & Co, who is a well-regarded commercial lawyer, said O’Sullivan. When asked if he would be interested in a merger, Lowes said he would. “Things developed from there. [Lowes’] practice is also very strong in wills and estates, which is an area we felt we could develop with more manpower,” said O’Sullivan.
“We are, in the Brisbane scale of things, a small- to medium-sized commercial firm. We like to offer the full spectrum of commercial advice to our clients. Wills and estates is one of those areas that is really becoming a more commercial advice area than it used to be perhaps, with superannuation and asset protection being a much bigger issue than it was years ago,” he said.
O’Sullivan rejected the idea that a firm must find a niche area to practice in order to succeed in the small to medium size market place. “I don’t agree that you have to find a niche area to practice in. We don’t have that, we have a heavy property practice but I wouldn’t say it is a niche.”
He said some firms find another way to distinguish themselves. “I think smaller firms do need to distinguish themselves from other firms. That may be in the areas they practice in, or it may be in other things,” said O’Sullivan.
For his firm, a priority is accessibility. O’Sullivan argued that this is how the firm can stand out in the market. “Direct line phone calls, no phone screening, direct email and the lawyer who is given a matter handles the matter. We don’t assign a team of five lawyers to every matter that comes in the door.
“[In some firms] clients find themselves paying for the conversation the partner has with the senior associate about the matter, the one that senior associate has with the solicitor and the solicitor to the trainee. The client is then billed three of four hours of conferencing between the various solicitors. We are big on providing personal service to our clients. If you want to talk to the lawyer, you call them and more often than not they will answer the phone. That is our niche,” O’Sullivan said.
He acknowledged that talent is a big issue for smaller firms as well as the top-tier. The firm focuses on trainee recruitment, and building careers for the junior lawyers it has. O’Sullivan himself started as an articled clerk at the original firm, which was then called Hill & Taylor. Partner Matthew Shannon also did articles with the firm.
“We have found that to be the most successful way to attract good staff is to get them as trainees and keep them. It’s probably the case that well over half our solicitors either joined the firm as articled clerks or first year solicitors,” he said.
Another area of specialty which allows the firm to stand out is lifestyle, said O’Sullivan. “We don’t expect staff to be here at 10 o’clock at night and rarely is our office occupied past 6.30 in the evening. When we are here we work hard, there is not much mucking around. If you’ve done the work you can go. Rarely are people here on the weekends and we don’t expect our staff to work to 7pm. If the work has to be done it has to be done. But the work gets done within reasonable hours.”