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Boutiques need to be viable before they can ‘reach for the stars’

Despite the current market being a challenging one, this firm has been able to remain purpose-driven and remain viable — which the founder said is a result of having a “clear plan and a reason for existing”.

user iconLauren Croft 25 May 2023 SME Law
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Nick Mann is the founder and one of the directors at Polaris Lawyers. Speaking on a recent episode of The Boutique Lawyer Show, Mr Mann discussed creating and growing a purpose-driven law firm and the challenges of doing so.

Mr Mann worked in BigLaw at Slater & Gordon for 12 years before starting Polaris Lawyers in 2017. While he originally vowed to stay true to the firm’s values and emphasised having a purposeful practice, he said Polaris Lawyers has occasionally stumbled on this front.

“There are a couple of examples there. One of them is that in the early days, we were particularly excited about the bright, shiny tech that might be available for our clients and for our staff as well. We spent a lot of time trying to put together essentially a tech integration that we thought would save our staff a bit of time on double entry when they first got a new client inquiry,” he said.


“We spent months trying to get this thing. And it was probably lucky that at that stage, we didn’t have too many clients, so we didn’t have people waiting on the phones much. It was a time where we could try and fail, and try and fail we did.

“It didn’t cost us a lot, save for time [sic]. But the really disappointing thing is, looking back at it, that if we had succeeded, it actually wouldn’t have done much at all for our clients. I don’t think it would’ve improved efficiency. It was a shiny integration that would’ve been slick, but the benefits in terms of what it delivered for our clients or even our staff just didn’t stack up.”

Polaris took a number of lessons from this — and Mr Mann said the boutique has since gotten better about triaging their projects and using tech that’s more likely to benefit the firm long-term.

“We haven’t walked away from the legal tech stuff, but we’ve thought about it a bit smarter and also probably come to understand that innovation doesn’t always need shiny, new tech. There are ways to innovate that are actually more like the pencil than the pen that writes upside down into space.

“I think the time that I was most concerned about whether we were moving towards our vision was about 18 months ago. We took on a chunk of new files because there was a firm that was no longer doing that area of work, so a lot of new clients to speak to and claims to handle, and they’d had some mixed experiences with their previous lawyers. But for the next six months that followed, me and the majority of our team were really bogged down in work,” he explained.

“You’ve got to have a firm that’s viable if you want it to reach for the stars; it’s got to pay the bills first. But we were recording this conundrum where all of our time was being soaked in the day-to-day work, and we weren’t able to lift our eyes at all. We weren’t able to do the kind of project work that would make us different, that would cause us to have a reason to exist over the other half a dozen firms that had started in this space since 2017.”

The firm combated this by bringing on new directors, who brought “new energy and good ideas” as well as created capacity for Polaris to home in on its purpose again.

“In difficult times and with the breadth of the stuff that you’re asked to do as a boutique firm leader, from small-business accounting to innovation, to the finance client work, finding and leaning on people that you trust for advice and to call it out for you is really, really, really helpful. We’ve actually been in the process of creating an advisory board in the last little while, not because we think we need oversight, we want to be able to formalise those relationships and get advice from people that we trust to make sure that we’re on the right path,” Mr Mann added.

“Now, you might, as a small law firm leader, have that kind of informal set-up, have a mentor that you go to, but I think as long as you have a clear plan and a reason for existing, both now and into the future, you are on the right path.

“I know there are a huge number of challenges, and in the environment we’re in globally, those challenges are ever greater. But I think getting that advice, making sure that you have your plan set and that you’ve got time and space to reflect on it and deliver on it, I think those are really critical ingredients for success going forward.”

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

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