Q&A: Andrew Lacey – “There is no space for layers of management and what I would call ‘light-touch lawyering’.”

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Marketing & Business Development,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership] April 29, 2020

In our Q&A, McCabe Curwood managing principal Andrew Lacey outlines how his firm is preparing for the fight against COVID-19; the challenges it has faced following a merger just over two years ago; and why his staff no longer have to wear a suit and tie every day.

How is McCabe Curwood responding to the COVID-19 crisis?

As everyone is saying, COVID-19 is unprecedented. We are really well equipped from a technology standpoint to be able to work remotely. The transition has been better than I could have hoped for.  It is a difficult time and, like anything, it takes time to adjust, but the staff are really responding. Productivity is good and, importantly, staff morale is high. We have been using our technology to video-conference all the time and we even have video-conferencing drinks nights after work hours to catch up on life outside work. Like everyone, we just don’t know how long this will all go for, but we know that we can work together to get through it and we know we will be stronger for it.

The dramatic events of the past few months have caused many people to reflect on life and work. What do you love about your job?

As a lawyer, it is immensely satisfying to get good results for clients. Often in litigation, we get to meet people in a very difficult time in their business and personal lives. To be there with them and help improve the situation can be incredibly rewarding.  You also get to meet many fascinating people.

As the managing principal, I speak for the board of directors, and play a great role in the stewardship of the future of the firm.  The past few years for the firm, both before and after our merger, has been a really challenging and exciting time and I am really proud of what we have achieved to date and excited about what is on the horizon for us. To be able to be a part of that is a great motivation for me.

Tell us about the merger when McCabes and Curwoods decided to join forces. What is your assessment of how the merger has gone, and what has management done to ensure the new entity has thrived?

We started with the concept ‘Stronger Together’ and I believe almost two years in that we have achieved this. We wanted through the merger to position ourselves to build on our proud position in the insurance industry, and recent successes in national tenders are evidence that the market has agreed with us. We wanted to strengthen and grow our government practice. We now have arguably the strongest state government practice going around and it continues to grow. We also wanted to continue to grow our commercial practice and develop opportunities to expand those practices through our government and insurance practices and in the past two years we have done just that.

What have been some of the key challenges?

Change management was always going to be a challenge and I am really proud of how both management and our staff handled this. We relocated half the staff to new premises in Chatswood within six months of coming together and adopted a flexible workplace model to encourage staff to work between our Sydney CBD and Chatswood offices. It was a lot of change in a short space of time and the staff were very good. Management really worked hard through the first 12 months as we adapted to new systems and a new way of doing things. There were plenty of bumps in the road, but we got through it, together.

On a personal level it has been a really rewarding experience.  I have enjoyed it and learned a great deal.

Was there one element in the change that was more difficult than others?

Perhaps IT and systems was the most significant. We integrated on a very tight timeframe and our IT team and management team pulled out all stops to make it happen. It was an exhausting and difficult challenge but worthwhile as we are now able to support a much larger firm and we kept the clients happy the whole time, which is key.

McCabe Curwood has established itself as a leader in a number of practice areas. Overall, what is the market like at the moment for legal services?

Like most markets it is always changing, but we believe that we are changing with it. We really value our clients and we invest a lot of time trying to understand their markets so we can better provide the service they need and therefore better plan for our firm’s future as well. To be a leader in a practice area, the starting point is to listen to your clients and that is something we really pride ourselves on at McCabe Curwood.

Your firm has a strong client base. At a time when the power seems to have shifted away from law firms to clients, what is McCabe Curwood’s approach to delighting its clients? 

As I said, listening. It is the starting point. Like any successful relationship it is the base and the foundation, but it is not the only thing, of course.  It works both ways.  I think clever clients want to listen to us, too, because together we can work out ways to make the relationship work for both parties. Clients want more and more for less and less, but they are sophisticated and know that they need quality legal services. We can teach each other how we can work better together. Our principals are on the tools.  We give our clients access to the best lawyers we have. If I were a client in the legal market, that is what I would want. The approach I have with my clients is to treat them the way I would want to be treated if I were the client and that is what we try to do with all of our clients. We ensure as senior lawyers that we are available to our clients. It can make it really challenging at times, particularly for the bigger practices, but the results follow and the clients can see the results. We have also invested heavily in technology that will assist us with delivery of a better client experience. It is an ongoing investment and one we are committed to long-term.

Talk up your team – both your lawyers and paralegals. What, in your view, makes them great for the firm?

I head the litigation and dispute resolution group and I am horribly biased, but we have a great team. We are a high-functioning and cohesive team that supports one another and also knows how to have a good time. I am wonderfully supported by Chiara Rawlins, who is also a principal of the group, and Foez Dewan, another principal. We spend so much of our lives at work that it helps to genuinely enjoy the company of the people you work so closely with each day.

As managing principal, I also get to work with the management team headed by Marc Walker, our chief operating officer, who is fantastic. I am very busy, but I like it that way.

McCabe Curwood describes itself as a firm of “meritocracy”. What does that mean and how do you achieve that goal?  

Put simply, if you work hard and are dedicated to your practice, you will be rewarded. To achieve this, we need to display our core values – respect, honesty, integrity and a commitment to quality. We all work hard and we all invest in the McCabe Curwood community.

As managing principal, can you tell us about your management or leadership approach?

I was always taught to lead by example. I certainly would like to think if you asked anyone in my team that they would say that is what I do. I don’t ask anyone to do anything I would not do myself. I am very much in the trenches with my team. I believe to be successful as an Australian-owned, large boutique firm that we need to have a ‘producer model’. Clients want results. They want to deal with lawyers who can help them solve their problems quickly and effectively. They know what they want and how to get it. Clients want to deal with the person who has the knowledge and experience, and there is only one way to get that knowledge and experience – hard work. There is no space for layers of management and what I would call ‘light-touch lawyering’.  You have to share the wins and the losses with the team and the clients. It is truly a partnership with clients in that sense. It is the same in leadership and firm management.

You have said in the past that the firm is “building for the right reasons and with the right people”. Can you explain the right reasons and what constitutes the right people?

We aren’t just growing for growth’s sake. Any new offices we open or practice areas we take on are to complement or build on our existing offering. So far as people go, we want ambitious individuals who want to have control over their career paths and align with our core values:

  • Integrity; respect, honesty, openness and trust;
  • Excellence; dedication, creative thinking and continuous improvement; and
  • Courage; determined, tenacious and progressive, we face challenges as an opportunity.

On a lighter note, I understand your firm has a policy of ditching the suit and tie where possible and opting for comfortable attire. How has this policy gone, and why did you do it? Have there been any drawbacks?

Yes, we delivered a ‘dress for your day’ policy as a part of our future workplace plan. We are split across four offices currently, with two in Sydney – one in the MLC Centre and the other at Chatswood. We knew that the move to Chatswood was going to be embraced by some, and be not so popular with others. We see the Chatswood and MLC Centre offices, however, more as home-base for employees, with hot desks accessible in each location. The ‘dress for your day’ policy aligns with this home-base concept. Essentially, if you are not meeting with a client, or going to court, you do not need to be wearing a suit and tie or high heels – if you don’t want to. We want our employees to be comfortable; it is no secret that lawyers work long hours. It has been interesting to watch the response from staff. While it is ‘dress for your day’, there are still some parameters, and you are expected to be neat and tidy. Some people only ever wear a suit, but most have adopted to wear smart-casual on non-client days.

The firm has also been involved in a ‘leading with laughter’ event to encourage a new way of thinking and problem-solving. Why is it so important for lawyers to laugh?

The legal industry has some of the worst statistics when it comes to mental health and depression. Laughter is good for you. We all need to lighten the mood from time to time. There is always a lot of pressure and having a laugh really helps.  It also helps you problem-solve, which is such a huge part of what we do in our practice. Clients pay us to solve complex problems and we need our minds working well to do that effectively and efficiently.

With an eye to the future and in an era of disruption, what will be the key to success for McCabe Curwood in the years to come?

This recent COVID-19 pandemic is a classic example of how quickly things can change. As I said earlier, we see challenges as opportunities. You face them head on. That is the key to dealing with any problem. You work at ways to solve the issue. You have to be proactive. It can be really hard work, but it can be so rewarding.

Are there any other messages you would like to get across?

It is a really exciting time to be a lawyer in this country and, in my view, an even more exciting time to be a lawyer at McCabe Curwood. We have some wonderful people here and I while we have plenty to challenge us ahead, we have plenty to be proud of.