Q&A: Carly Stebbing – “The bigger firms have more to be concerned about than smaller firms in this technological era”

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Marketing & Business Development,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership] February 28, 2020

In our Q&A, Resolution123 founder and principal Carly Stebbing discusses her passion for helping employees access affordable legal justice; how she encourages a culture of innovation at her firm; and why she thinks smaller firms are well placed to thrive as technology disrupts the legal sector.

Your employment law firm represents employees only. How is the state of the market?

Wages theft and underpayment have been a hot topic for the past 12 months because of high-profile cases involving MasterChef’s George Calombaris, Subway, Woolworths and others. The Fair Work Commission is introducing some dramatic changes involving model annualised salary clauses in a number of awards, effective from March 1, that require employers to keep better records. That’s keeping employers busy more so than my firm given that we only act for employees. However, the beauty of the changes for us is that one of the biggest problems in the past with wages theft or an underpayment claim is that many clients did not have the work records they needed. So that’s going to be a great tool for employment lawyers on the employee side of the fence.

You set up online legal firm Resolution123 almost three years ago, leaving the security of partnership at a traditional firm. Why?

In 2017, the Law Society of NSW released a report, called the Future of Law and Innovation in the Profession, identifying the fact that there was a market for the Missing Middle – that is, those people who don’t qualify for community legal centre or legal aid support but who don’t earn enough money to  get traditional legal services. It also indicated that technology was part of the solution. I’ve been an employment lawyer for 15 years but I’d only ever acted for employers until I started this firm. In my former work, I repeatedly had people contact us and say ‘can you help?’, but the reality was that with the rates we were charging we were not accessible to people who were earning under about $150,000. So I knew that there was this big market of people who needed help, but who just couldn’t afford it.

At the 2019 Women in Law Awards, your firm won the main gong for innovation. What do you think got you across the line?

In effect, the judges indicated that our firm has identified an unmet need in the market and that we have been able to satisfy that need through the use of technology while also attracting great legal talent through flexible work practices. When I set up the firm it was on the premise that there’s an access-to-justice crisis for people across Australia and worldwide who cannot afford legal services but who require them. The consequences of them not accessing legal representation, particularly in the employment law space, is quite dramatic and poses a real social burden because there are mental health implications for people who can’t access legal services and there are financial implications for them if they default on loans or can’t pay their mortgage.

Tell us about your firm’s innovation edge?

Resolving claims is a labour-intensive process and in the past someone really had to have a claim in excess of $20,000 to make sense for them to get a lawyer involved. So, at Resolution123, we have looked at ways that technology can solve that problem – how we can identify repeated tasks that we might be able to train a computer to do. My view when I started was that surely there could be an app for this, so I entered a hackathon weekend with this idea that we could create an app to help out. I won that competition and around the same time the Law Society report was handed down and all the stars aligned for me.

How does the tech solution work?

At the moment our app is really just a sophisticated workflow tool. It’s not machine learning or artificial intelligence. When a client used to sit down and start telling me their story, I’d be ticking off a range of boxes in my head about the matter around questions to ask and actions to take – and I’d do that at every single consultation. So now with the app there’s code that takes the client from one question to the other and directs them according to their responses. The issue at the moment is that, across the law in Australia, we don’t have enough volume of the same sets of data to properly teach the computer to come up with the same answers that a lawyer would come up with. So lawyers are not going to be replaced for quite some time.

What else are you doing?

Mid last year we launched our first online master class informing employees about their rights. And at the end of last year we launched our first do-it-yourself unfair dismissal package which is designed to help people go through the initial stages of a matter by themselves if they can’t afford to engage a lawyer at that stage. We use a combination of automation for people to complete the form, along with a webinar from me that talks about the action I would take if I were acting for the client.

So you must be a tech-savvy person, right?

I’m really not! When I say we built an app it’s really a case of saying that I went to a developer and asked, ‘Can we do this?’ The key is being aware of the opportunities with technology. There are so many systems now that can assist firms. For example, tech startup Josef offers legal automation services, like a chatbot, that lawyers can use to build their services quickly. Once you put yourself in startup land you suddenly have your eyes open to all these systems that can be adopted into law. Sometimes when you’re sitting in a traditional firm and using the practice management system you’ve been given, you can stop asking questions around ‘why do we have to do it this way, and isn’t there a better way?’ So I’m more curious than I am tech-savvy.

You are also a Flexible Work Ambassador and implement flexible working policies in your firm. How does it work at your firm?

Staff can work from home or in a co-working space in our Ultimo office in Sydney. Some of our lawyers work in other states, including one senior lawyer who is a primary-carer father who has to do the school drop-offs and pickups. With flexible work, most firms start from a position of saying ‘no’ because they have the infrastructure set up in a big, fancy office and the staff need to be there to use it. However, with my firm we started with just me and I was working at home around the needs of my children. So we set up systems to suit that scenario and have been able to adjust as the firm grows. It has given us an advantage attracting great talent who need and want that sort of flexibility.

Are there any challenges that flexible working practices present in running your firm?

You constantly have to consider the supervision of junior staff. However, I recall working in a traditional practice and the partner would go into their office and close their door and you might have a narrow window of opportunity to chat with them. Really, you’d just be printing out a piece of advice and giving it to them and then they’d write all over it in red and give it back to you. So we do that now using the IT systems we have. The junior lawyer will write a piece of advice, send me a link and I track my changes and, if necessary, we have a chat about it. Of course, we do have to be conscious of bringing staff together and having face time because that’s still important for our connections and creating a culture and a team spirit in the firm. For example, my whole team went to Melbourne for the Women in Law Awards and we got up and received the award together. That was an amazing bonding experience, and the award win shows that everything we are working towards is being recognised by our peers and the judging panel.

The specialised nature of Resolution123 matches the argument that, in an era of automation and AI, smaller firms will have to offer a narrower service if they wish to survive. Do you agree?

Actually, the bigger firms have more to be concerned about than smaller firms in this technological era because their structure, in terms of the income they need to generate and the office spaces they need to fill, is costed around people doing that labour and those repeated tasks. So, in that way small firms have a unique competitive advantage because we can start from scratch and build a system and a firm that’s intended to scale up quickly using technology. We don’t have the bureaucracy and overheads that are contrary to being able to do that.

Resolution123 has a full-time team of five people, plus two contract lawyers. Can you tell us about your management and leadership style?

Maybe you should ask my staff! In terms of my style, it’s very people based and connection based. With leadership, you need to have good connections with people, and people need to believe you and your vision. As I moved through the ranks in my career and made it to partner before leaving to set up Resolution123, I would watch and learn what I liked or disliked about a peer’s management approach. I always try to put myself in my staff members’ shoes. I don’t ask people to do things that I’m not prepared to do myself. I remember the things I hated about being a junior lawyer, including getting a knock on the door at 5pm after you’d been twiddling your thumbs all day and then the partner would come in and say, ‘Could you give me a hand with this project – and it’s due at 9am tomorrow’. So, I’m now conscious of my own time management. I remember working for a brilliant partner, Mark Sant, who used to be at Gadens. I was struck by him when I started working in his team because the instructions would land in his inbox and he’d push them straight to his team and say, ‘Go away and have a read of this and then we’ll have a quick chat’. He really  gave the team that trust and autonomy to move the matter on and encouraged lawyers to turn on their own brains instead of just being told what to do.

For such a new firm, you have been expanding quickly. What’s working on the marketing and business development front?

“To date the focus has been on strategic partnerships with the likes of LegalVision and the Fair Work Commission’s Workplace Advice Service. LegalVision is a corporate/commercial new law firm and only acts for employers, so when an employee contacts them with an employment law dispute they get referred to us. And if people contact the Fair Work Commission’s Workplace Advice Service and they want some preliminary advice, we help. Part of that service is that employees get one hour of free consultation and often off the back of that consultation the person may decide they want paid legal advice and they’re able to engage with us. This partnering strategy has worked well for us so far and we are now considering moving in to the next stage and tailoring our marketing strategy, which will be more about going direct to the consumer. Beyond that, I have been using my professional profile to reach out via Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. And I’ve been on Sky News and some commercial channels to speak on legal matters.”

What has been the biggest challenge in running the firm?

The biggest adjustment for me and the team has been the emotional load of taking on the applicant work. You get into social purpose work because you’re an empathic person – and the reality is that a lot of the clients who are coming to us have their own traumas and losses. For example, we deal with a lot of sexual harassment matters and severe workplace bullying maters. As a consequence, the clients can be suffering from stress, anxiety, depression and potential suicidal thoughts. So within the firm we’ve done things around mental health first-aid training and learning how to go back to practising gratitude ourselves on a day-to-day basis and celebrating our wins each day.

What is your vision for Resolution123?

I want the firm to be the main new law firm for employees in Australia. We know there are brilliant firms out there like Maurice Blackburn, Turner Freeman and Slater Gordon, the big applicant firms. However, they mainly service the unions or executives because that’s what their costing structure is set up for. I’d love Resolution123 to become the one-stop shop for average Australians who have a problem in their workplace and who are able to come to us and resolve the matter quickly, easily and affordably.