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Expanding your firm’s leadership team is not ‘a linear process’

For smaller firms, expanding the senior leadership team or directorship can help promote wellness within the team and reduce burnout, as this principal and director has found.

user iconLauren Croft 30 March 2023 SME Law
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Meg Caines is a principal and director at Polaris Lawyers based in Melbourne. Speaking on The Boutique Lawyer Show, she reflected on knowing how and when to expand the directorship of a smaller firm — and the benefits of doing so.

Ms Caines started working at Polaris in 2017 when the firm was only made up of two people: founder Nick Mann and lawyer Becky Bass. Now, she’s part of the senior leadership team — and said that there was no one-size-fits-all approach to bringing on new directors.

“It’s definitely not been a linear process, and adjusting to the personalities of who you’ve recruited and how to get the best out of our leadership team going forward has been and continues to be a work in process. Nick, Becky, and I had worked together for a really long period of time, and it’s like that well-worn shoe. There’s a comfort to that, and it would’ve been really easy to rest on our laurels and stay in that comfortable place,” she explained.


“And we are now going through a period of growth and change that we’ve all come to with the right mindset and an openness. And the new directors that we’ve brought on are brilliant and inspiring, and they are finding their places as well, but we’re humans and human leaders, so there’s certainly not a clear process map that I could give you as to who should do what and how we carved it out. We’re still finding our feet and working together collaboratively to get the best results.”

There have also been a number of lessons that have come out of recruiting new leaders for the firm.

“As an existing leadership team, you need to have a clear idea of what it is you want your leadership team to look like going forward. So, recruiting with a goal in mind while acknowledging those things that we’ve talked about and the need to be flexible, but an idea of where you want it to end up and how you want it to look is really important. Heavy vetting of the people that you are thinking about bringing on was also really important to us,” Ms Caines added.

“In Victoria, in the personal injury space, it’s a small field that we’re operating in, but we spoke to a number of really excellent candidates. And by talking to other people in the industry, making sure we were having long-form conversations with the candidates that we were considering, and really getting to know them on a personal and professional level before we were offering directorship was important to making sure we could have a harmonious working environment.”

However, Ms Caines noted that Polaris Lawyers is unlikely to have to go through a large recruitment process again and will instead focus on promoting internally.

“I don’t think that the type of recruitment and director expansion that we’ve gone through this time is likely to be the way that we will approach it again. I think we have now built our leadership capacity to cover that organic growth, and we would now, going forward, look to fill either a particular business need, although there are other ways that, as a firm, we are looking to get involvement in insight and development within our own team to cover those areas,” she said.

“We are [also] really drawn to the idea that people who work at Polaris can have a career here that takes them to the next level. I’m an example of that. I came over as a senior associate and have developed my career to that of director, and going forward, we would want to make that opportunity available to our staff even when the time’s right. Also, you don’t want your leadership team to be too broad.

“At the moment, we’re sitting with five, and for the size of the firm, that’s probably about right, though. I can’t imagine that we would be looking to expand without there being some change in directors anytime in the medium future.”

This growth also means that the leadership team has the “right balance of experienced voices”, which Ms Caines said should be a priority without overloading the team.

“I don’t think everyone needs a seat or wants a seat at the table, but I think for our organisation, three was not large enough. But also having people who are invested in the firm from an ownership perspective changes the way they see their work. At a senior level, you are getting more buy-in, more innovation, more drive, more energy from senior lawyers when they have that autonomy and that seat at the table,” she outlined.

“And I think we see that in large firms all around the country. And it’s something that I have seen throughout the course of my career that you have gifted lawyers who are in that middle management earning role whose work becomes somewhat stale, and your drive and your energy fade away.

“And I think by having the directorship and by having that fit our staff to work towards, and also for our senior lawyers to grow into and to operate at that level, I think that you’re getting more out of people, and I think that you’re getting a better leadership team and better buy-in from our staff.”

For smaller firms, expanding their leadership team can also mean reducing the risk of burnout among senior leaders.

“For us, avoiding burnout and hiring with the view to make sure that all of the needs of our staff and our clients are met rather than chasing our tail when everyone’s burnt out and everyone’s overworked has always been a really important driver for us. And we’ve done the same in that director space. I don’t think I can say clearly to other firm leaders, this is the ideal number, but I would say that reflecting on it weekly probably isn’t accurate, and reflecting on it over the course of a year might not be accurate,” Ms Caines added.

“But looking at your workload and what you’re contributing to the firm, say quarterly, I think, gave us all a good view of where we were at and what our needs were. We didn’t look at it on a day-to-day or a week-by-week basis, but we looked at how we were feeling in terms of our workloads on a quarterly basis and whether there was a real need there. Being able to be there 60 per cent of the time and knowing that you are not imminently at risk of burnout is the spot for us.”

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Meg Caines, click below: