Doubling down on a decentralised legal model

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Marketing & Business Development,Strategy & Leadership] November 6, 2021

Empowering more junior staff to take responsibility for legal matters and contribute to the business in non-legal areas is at the heart of a new ‘cluster’ model for law firms, writes Demetrio Zema.

You may recall earlier this year that I wrote about how Law Squared had done away with the traditional hierarchy that exists in many traditional law firms across the country and the world.

We favour a decentralised and non-hierarchical ‘cluster’ model for our lawyers. Now, six months on, I can reflect on our experiences and successes with this approach and discuss how we have doubled down on our promise to do law differently.

A quick recap

Law Squared is a NewLaw firm specialising in working with Australia’s leading disruptive businesses, corporates, ASX-listed entities and multinational clients. Founded in 2016, the firm has grown rapidly to a team of 35.

At our core, Law Squared prioritises team culture and client relationships above everything else. This philosophy has resulted in the firm being markedly different from other law firms and its value proposition.

We have three key pillars:

1. Firm values – values that are genuinely embraced by our entire team and shared in their interactions with clients and each other;

2. Value-based billing – our pricing model aligns the objectives of our clients and the firm, rather than perverse time-based incentives; and

3. Non-hierarchical ways of working – the cluster model maximises collaboration and creates access to experience that is usually reserved for practitioners at the ‘top’ of the pyramid.

 

In May 2020, our team collectively agreed to remove all hierarchical titles for our lawyers and create titles that practically reflect the nature of work lawyers do. This move meant that, rather than keeping to the OldLaw, hierarchical ways of working your way up from Lawyer to Associate to Partner, each lawyer is now descriptively titled according to their practice area and not their tenure – for example, Employment + Workplace Relations Lawyer, Corporate Lawyer, Commercial Lawyer and Disputes + Litigation Lawyer.

The rationale behind this move was to steer away from the OldLaw way of doing things and focus on collaboration that empowers all lawyers, irrespective of their post-qualified experience (PQE), to have access and opportunities that are not limited by their PQE.

Why did we adopt a cluster model?

In our view, the traditional hierarchical model needed rethinking; years of experience as a lawyer does not necessarily give a lawyer leadership or decision-making skills.

Similarly, it should not be expected that years of legal experience (and limited client contact)  should automatically see lawyers become skilled professionals in business development or mentoring and nurturing of junior lawyers. In fact, many in the legal profession suffer from resentment attrition and, therefore, an inevitable vicious cycle ensues.

Likewise, less experience does not mean that you should be shut out of firmwide-decisions that affect you, or be kept from taking on leadership qualities (and opportunities) in your day-to-day work.

At Law Squared, we have always believed in a merit-based system, not a title-based one, and we believe that no matter the level of legal experience, everyone has the potential ability to develop leadership and decision-making skills, should they wish to.

Therefore, after much thought and deliberation as to how we could continue to promote ourselves as a law firm that did law differently, we landed on the cluster model.

Implementing the cluster model

At Law Squared, collaboration is key. Every team member acts autonomously, taking ownership of each matter or challenge, and managing that matter to ensure we get the right outcome on the right timeline.

This requires constant negotiation across each of our legal teams to ensure that the right things are being worked on at the right times. Managing these competing interests can be challenging during sustained periods of growth. However, this doesn’t mean that new starters or more junior lawyers are left out in the cold.

Naturally, there are going to be instances where they require their work to be ‘sense checked’ by more experienced members of the team, but the junior lawyers still are responsible for getting that piece of work out, or managing the expectations of that particular client, with the support of the wider team.

Under our newly developed ways of working, particular skillsets and experiences are highlighted, and lawyers are accountable for seeking advice and clearance from others who are domain experts. But a lawyer at our firm does not need a title of partner or special counsel to approve an advice or piece of legal work.

The difference between the traditional law firm model and our model at Law Squared is that each lawyer is accountable for collaborating with each other to the benefit of the client, and not because of a title.

The flexibility and dynamism at the firm has created opportunities for lawyers to experience aspects of the legal profession that might not otherwise have been accessible to them for years or even decades.

Some other advantages of the cluster model

Other key benefits of the adoption of the cluster model so far have been that:

  • our people care about the business – everyone is striving to improve all the time for their own benefit and for the benefit of the firm, as they see how their contribution impacts our growth;
  • there is less control, and more empowerment – people are understanding and look to those in the firm with more experience, or equal experience to them, as allies for growth and development, not competition; and
  • there are increased opportunities for junior lawyers to progress faster than in a traditional legal setting – our early-career lawyers have more exposure to business decisions and client interactions. Therefore, not only do they see how they contribute, but this approach also fast-tracks their growth.

What’s next?

We have just been through a significant period of growth at Law Squared. We have welcomed a number of new team members, both from the legal side and also the operational side of the business.

As a result, we are in a really fortunate position to be able to work together with everyone to ensure that the cluster model is implemented and iterated correctly and smoothly across the firm.

We have worked together to shape the way our scalable business can and will thrive in complexity, to further develop the cluster model for each individual legal unit. We are looking forward to seeing the firm continue to thrive in a market that we see is ripe for disruption.

Our cluster (and business) model is unique and requires a complete transformation of traditional/OldLaw thinking (and business model) to truly succeed.

At our firm, everyone is encouraged to identify and act on an opportunity to improve the firm, and they are invited to contribute to work on the firm in areas they are interested in beyond purely legal areas.

This mindset and way of working is not for every firm, however this deliberate difference means that Law Squared is truly challenging the traditional law firm business model for the better.

Demetrio Zema is the founder and director of Law Squared, a specialised commercial law and litigation firm focused on working with high-growth businesses and ASX-listed companies.

www.lawsquared.co