Q&A: Andrea Michaels – You’re a good lawyer, but how do you rank as a business or people person?
In our Q&A, NDA Law founder and managing director Andrea Michaels explains how she wants to break down barriers between budget-conscious clients and the law; why she doesn’t believe in time-based billing; and how she came up with a novel name for the South Australian firm.
Since opening its doors in 2015, NDA Law has been conscious of many small businesses being too scared to phone a lawyer because of perceived high costs. Can you tell us the rationale for setting up this new firm and undertaking this initiative?
“Clients want to know that firms won’t adjust their costs or charge extra for simply picking up the phone. That’s not our business model. Our focus is on helping and mentoring our clients.”
To that end, NDA Law is one of the parties behind a South Australian Business Buddy program that will give $5000 each in legal, business and marketing advice to three local businesses. What led to this idea?
“It stemmed from a favourite café that shut down because it expanded too quickly. The owners didn’t ask the right questions about what they should be doing. We want to help stop that happening again. We want business owners to talk to their accountants, talk to their lawyers – rather than being too frightened to spend money up front.”
You have adopted a company model with shareholders and key employees participating in a profit-sharing arrangement. How does that work for staff?
“We profit-share once or twice a year. When I see someone doing a fantastic job, they’ll be rewarded. It’s discretionary; it’s not about ticking a box. If someone is doing something amazing, I want to say thank you.”
Personally, you have a strong practice in tax and superannuation law, commercial law and estate planning. Do you enjoy mixing the practise of law with the management and business side of running the firm?
“Yes, the finance side of business has always interested me. I grew up in a family business and I did a commerce degree, too. And my original practice area is tax law, so I’m a numbers person as well. But I also like the people side, the HR side. Just because you’re a good lawyer doesn’t mean you’re good at the business side or the people side, so you have to weigh that up before setting up your own firm.”
NDA Law was nominated for three awards – Boutique Diversity Law Firm of the Year, Executive of the Year and Thought Leader of the Year – at the recent 2018 Women in Law Awards. Being nominated in multiple categories must have been a buzz.
“Absolutely, it was an awesome night for the firm and we won the Boutique Diversity category. I’m glad we won the firm award rather than the personal awards because it much better represents what NDA is all about. This award recognises our inclusive policies and encouragement of women to excel in leadership roles.”
How is the profession going in terms of championing women law firm leaders?
“There’s been some improvement, but we still have a long way to go. What I worry about is that many women who do get to the top still feel as though they have to act like a man in that position. I don’t think that needs to happen. The world outside the law is changing. Businesses and clients are accepting different models that encourage flexibility and diversity, but still internally we struggle with that as a profession.”
You, like quite a few other women, have opted to set up your own firm rather than trying to rise to the top through a traditional firm. Is this option empowering women?
“Yes, and it’s great that we’re doing it, but there’s also some sadness that we can’t do it within the existing structures. Some firms are not really taking on board the feedback from women lawyers and embracing change. It’s great, on one hand, to have a policy on flexible workplaces, but if you’re leaving work at 3 o’clock to pick up your kids and the partner next door gives you a dirty look it’s not helpful.”
On the subject of flexibility, you are chairman of the Commercial Law Committee of the Law Society of South Australia, chairman of the Family Business Australia Adviser Subcommittee (SA), a member the Tax Institute’s Professional Development Committee and you sit on various boards. How do you juggle all these duties in addition to running your firm?
“I don’t like to say no. I haven’t learnt that skill yet! But to me they’re all things I love doing, so it’s not a burden. I’m happy to spend time on weekends reading board papers, for example, because that’s what I like doing. Yes, it’s a juggling act. I drop my kids off in the morning and pick them up after school and I might work at night, but that’s the flexibility I want so I can do the things I want to do.”
What is giving NDA Law an edge?
“I started this firm on the basis that it was not going to be about us as staff but rather about our clients. That meant changing the business structure. I scrapped timesheets. I could never get my head around why I would want to give sometime an incentive to spend as long as they possibly could on a legal job. Our business model is very much about getting the work done; it’s about performing technically excellent work as efficiently as possible. And that’s not consistent with the old way of doing things under time-based billing.”
Many firms are still grappling with value pricing models, though. How have you coped?
“Where firms struggle is that they don’t know another way to measure performance other than time. So, they might do a fixed-fee job, but when they’re trying to assess their employees’ work they’re still going back to thoughts of ‘did you meet your budget on billable hours?’ That’s inconsistent with our business model. You have to flip not only what you do with clients but how you judge your staff, and it has to be about things other than how long they’re sitting at their desk.”
How does it change lawyers’ behaviour?
“It encourages loyalty. They know that you trust them because you’re not looking over their shoulder to see what they’re doing every six minutes. It changes the culture of the firm.”
At the same time, you are very business focused. Is that right?
“Absolutely. My business model is based on cash flow. That’s what I care about – clients getting their bills and paying them. That’s what matters, and having the volume of work to keep us going and being very profitable.”
In a client service sense, you have discussed the need to work closely with clients to determine their objectives and plans for the future and give them the appropriate advice that meets their goals. How do you do that?
“It’s about being a trusted advisor, not just a lawyer that they come to with a problem. You can do so much more valuable work if you get inside their business and know what’s coming up for them. You really need to get to know them and their families, know the second generation that’s coming through and understand what everyone is trying to get out of a business. You have to be proactive.”
Do you also have a management mantra?
“It comes down to our core values of trust and integrity, technical excellence, having fun and being different.”
In what way is the firm different?
“There’s a story behind the name of our firm. NDA actually stands for ‘No Dickheads Allowed’. It’s critical to what we are. We just care about really good work for our clients and that’s how I assess people and manage people. I want to make sure they are as good as they can be. For instance, my office manager was my secretary 10 years ago and I put her through a bookkeeping course and she has kept adding to her experience. I ask staff what they want to do, how they want to improve.”
How did you arrive at the firm’s name?
“When I started the firm, I was having brainstorming meetings about names because NDA was just a project name. As we started to actually set up the firm we thought ‘this is real now, so we need a serious name’. But it was never going to have my name as part of the brand – that is not what we are about. The truth is that we couldn’t come up with a suitable name, so I said ‘Right, we’ll go with NDA and no one is ever going to ask us about it’. And, of course, from the day we went public every single person asked us about the name and now the whole of Adelaide knows about it!”
You have seven people on your team. What is your plan for growth?
“I wouldn’t want to get past 20 staff. I really want organic growth with the right people. At times you have to take that leap of faith, so getting it right at the recruitment phase is really important. In terms of growth of our client base, we’re making a big push out to the South Australian regions because I think that area is under-serviced. You just have to get out there. You can’t sit in a flashy office in Adelaide and think the clients are going to trust you. We are also doing a fair bit of work in Sydney and Melbourne and I want to see that grow, but it is really about sticking to our core market of SMEs and family businesses. I believe we are in exciting times.”