Q&A: Anny Slater – “The established thought is that we are 50 per cent right brained and 50 per cent left brained. I subscribe to the theory that we should be 100 per cent in both.”

[Australasian Law Management Journal,Finance & Accounting,General Management,Marketing & Business Development,Strategy & Leadership] March 9, 2016

In our latest Q&A, Slaters Intellectual Property Lawyers founder Anny Slater explains how she has successfully combined her love of film and the law – and why operating as a sole practitioner has made her a better lawyer.

You came from a family of Scottish engineers, your first degree was a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and you love film and the arts. How did you end up being a respected intellectual property lawyer?

“The expectation was that everyone in the family would study science. There was no discussion. That was quite a struggle because as a young person my interests were elsewhere. Strangely enough, though, I’ve come full circle and I’m grateful that I had a grounding in science because I fell in love with intellectual property law – and it requires a knowledge of both science and law and my practice has a strong technology focus. I’ve also come to appreciate engineering as a noble profession.”

Do you think lawyers’ education can sometimes be too narrowly focused?

“Narrow is a relative term. What I consider ‘narrow’ is someone else’s ‘broad’ and vice versa. It was once suggested to me, and I agree, that there are different lawyers for different clients and that there is room for everyone. I worked with someone who quite famously boasted along with his wife that on their honeymoon they were both reading law books in bed. Both of them are great lawyers, fun to be with and think about the law 24/7. It’s just particular to the person whether they need some other kind of gratification outside the law. In my case, the law is my profession, but I need to have an artistic outlet and I like making people laugh. I always have. When I realised that immersing myself in my art was all I needed for balance, my art and my law practice became symbiotic and both simultaneously became my passion. I try to give 100 per cent to both endeavours and clients and audiences benefit as a result.”

So let’s talk about your movies first. Your collective film work has been included in Australia’s National Collection held at the National Film and Sound Archive, your Australian political comedy The Ball qualified for nomination in the best live action short category of the 2004 Academy Awards, and you were once commissioned by Sony Pictures to write, direct and produce an original series of your animated character Barney the White House Terrier for Sony’s mobile network. We understand that a focus on shorter forms of film has become quite liberating for you. Is that right?

“Yes. I came late to the arts and by an unorthodox route. As a happy workaholic, I knew I could never, nor did I want to, take weeks or months away from my business in order to make a feature film. So I made short live action films and animations on weekends and after-hours and looked for a market for what I was doing. That was a tremendous personal breakthrough for me. It meant that I could have an artistic life and a law practice and I didn’t have to choose. My work in the arts has also afforded me a unique perspective on entertainment law.”

What are you working on now?

“I write whenever I can, all after hours, of course, and I’m finishing a film inspired by a mail boy I met years ago at a Sydney law firm who used to sing and dance when he delivered the mail. It’s a dance film featuring songs I wrote with jazz impresario James Morrison. I also have an animated character who is seeking the 2016 Republican nomination for US President and l’m completing a Masters in commercial litigation.”

On the law front, you have won a swag of awards over the years, including 2015 Sole Practitioner of the Year in the Lawyers Weekly Women in Law Awards and you won NSW Woman Lawyer of the Year in Private Practice in 2009.  Does such recognition help your business?

“It does. However, there will always be a small proportion who interpret a sole practitioner practice that wins awards as a form of as self-promotion.”

Where does that leave you if you want to market your skills?

“The best marketing is the job that you do for each client. It begins and ends there. Awards are great and allow a client to (have confidence in you), but I’m in a service industry and if the service isn’t there then no amount of marketing will assist.”

So you haven’t chased awards for awards’ sake?

“No. In sole practice it can never be about ego. I love what I do and I believe it shows. The awards have helped, no doubt. But when the awards ceremony is over you need to be able to live up to the accolade. Accolades don’t improve customer experience. I purposely don’t go after rankings because they require clients to take time out of their day to talk to a third party and I don’t see that as a client’s role. I prefer to rely on my work and the viral network that comes from that. I’ve also had the most wonderful support from law and patent attorney colleagues. Without that support the road would have been much more difficult.”

What matters to clients now?

“It’s important to check in with clients on a regular basis and I hope I know what my clients want. However, there is no doubt that the legal market has changed rapidly in the past 12 months. The public has access to more information than ever before and a small proportion consider that they can make a fist of the legal work themselves and only need lawyers to check their own work, or if something goes wrong. However, it’s only a small proportion. A risk-averse director knows that it’s false economy and prefers to rely on a professional they can trust.”

There have been a lot of predictions about the likely demise of sole practitioners in an era of great boutique options and low-cost technology-driven firms. Do you have a future?

“That’s a loaded question. The assumption is that sole practice can’t offer real competition, but the fact that you’re asking questions of me and my practice has been ranked in the top 5 IP law firms for most of its 15 years of operation tell you that sole practitioners are as viable as any other service offering. I can’t speak for other firms, but I’ve always viewed my practice as an early disruptor.”

Until you made the switch to sole practice about 15 years ago, you had worked for the likes of Gilbert & Tobin and PwC. How tough was it to give up that security?

“There is never any security anywhere and anytime. However, the mental jump 15 years ago from partner at the big end of town to sole practitioner was gigantic. However, I had a burning desire to give my management theories a run. Notwithstanding, no matter where you work it’s important to continually upskill and be aware of the market you’re in. Day 1 in sole practice, I fell in love with the law all over again and it’s a love affair that continues each and every day. It was one of those serendipitous situations where it was the right thing at the right time.”

What impact did your large-firm experience have on the way you ran your own firm?

“I felt there was a need for a low-administration, pure service law firm where the client has access to my experience and knowledge at reasonable rates. That’s why I think of the practice as an early disruptor. I was able to fill a gap in the market that wasn’t being serviced. I just stripped all of the admin out and tried to make it as pleasurable a process as possible.”

Has that become easier with technology over the years?

Yes, technology has made it possible for my practice to be mobile and for me to travel. It also helps to communicate with clients who prefer to Skype or talk on Google Hangout. However, to my mind, nothing beats being across a table from a person with a problem to solve.”

What other trends are you witnessing in the law?

“I have had a lot of Practical Legal Training students come through my firm over 15 years and I’ve only seen one with a burning passion for the law. IP has always attracted lots of students who lay claim to a fascination, but it’s mostly only ever a dalliance. Of recent times, law appears to be a stepping-stone qualification and not a calling.”

That must be a concern for the profession?

“Well, again, it’s different pathways for different folk. I’ve always thought of the law as a calling, as it used to be many centuries ago, and there’s a great deal of compassion in the work that I do. Allowing compassion and passion into the work induces a nobility that might not otherwise be present and that’s why I also do a lot of pro bono work. It gives a three-dimensional character to the work I do and also I find it hard to turn away someone who finds themselves under someone else’s thumb.”

What impact has going it alone had on your skills as a lawyer?

“Sole practice has made me a better lawyer because I’ve had to consider all aspects of my practice and be a hands-on businesswoman. That role gives me an insight into what my clients are facing on a daily basis. In larger law firms, some of those responsibilities are taken away from you for the sake of efficiency and you don’t have the necessity to learn those skills.”

You seem pleased with your career choices.

“I am very happy. But like everyone else I’m open to new opportunities and diversification. If I stood still, I’d be out of business. The established thought is that we are 50 per cent right brained and 50 per cent left brained. I subscribe to the theory that we should be 100 per cent in both.”

Anny Slater has more than 25 years’ experience as an intellectual property lawyer and more than 16 years in the chemical patent attorney field. She is also a Notary Public. Anny was recently judged NSW Woman Lawyer of the Year, and was placed on the State Government’s Honour Roll for her outstanding achievements in law, arts and the community. She is the NSW Law Society’s representative at Law Council Intellectual Property Committee meetings.