Q&A: Emma Zadow – “You’re pushing and cajoling lawyers to get them out in the marketplace, to be talking to clients, to be selling.”

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Marketing & Business Development,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership] October 2, 2020

In our Q&A, The Fold Legal chief executive officer Emma Zadow explains how a people-first approach has helped the firm deliver a great client experience and create an excellent place to work.

How is the market for The Fold Legal at the moment, especially given uncertainties around COVID-19?

When the pandemic really hit in April, our work initially dropped off by about 50 per cent. So many of our clients were thinking, ‘Oh, my goodness, what does this mean for us?’ and their focus turned to their own client base and ensuring their own employees were safe. By June/July, I think most businesses had realised you couldn’t just wait until COVID-19 finished. Since then, our firm has seen enquiries increase exponentially, to the point where the team are now quite overwhelmed.

How do you explain the turnaround and what makes The Fold a successful firm?

The Fold is such a niche practice – we only assist financial services businesses – and our clients are regulated by ASIC, which is still knocking on people’s doors during the pandemic. Other clients are being opportunistic and getting things in place for when the market improves. We’ve also seen a huge uptick in corporate and transactional work among our FS clients.

Our firm chose very early on to be narrow in its focus. This means from a client’s point of view that they can come to our firm and know that anyone who advises them is steeped in their industry. Such specialisation also means we are incredibly well networked and can link clients together. For example, if a start-up needs a financial services licence we might have someone else in our network who is selling one, so we’ll connect them. Clients really appreciate such a value-add.

From an internal point of view, the advantage of a narrow approach is that we don’t have to worry about a lot of different practice areas. We just know what we’re good at and concentrate on that. Of course, there will always be a place for full-service firms and it makes sense for a big corporation to go to a full-service firm where there might be efficiencies from having a lot of eggs in one legal services basket. Ultimately, however, The Fold is of a size where we rival many of the equivalent financial services practices in those big firms, and we’re much cheaper. We don’t really major on cost, but our clients are getting all of the technical expertise that they’d get from a major firm, but at a more competitive price.

How does The Fold attract clients?

Most of our work comes from word-of-mouth referrals, including from existing clients and from industry associations such as FinTech Australia and Insurtech Australia. We also have strong referral relationships with firms who don’t have an FS practice.

You studied marketing and business development at university. How did you end up working in law firms such as Minter Ellison, Corrs Chambers Westgarth and now The Fold?

I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve ended up working with lawyers all my career. In my final year of university I did a placement at Minter Ellison in their Melbourne marketing and business development team. Later, when moving to Sydney, I boldly asked the head of marketing at Minter Ellison, who I’d never met, for a coffee. At the end of the meeting, she offered me a job and I’ve been in law firms ever since.

The attraction of a law firm environment was the idea of selling a service, such as a people business, rather than a product. What became apparent to me in the early days of being in law firms was the need to persuade highly intelligent people – that is, the lawyers – to do things that they are generally really uncomfortable doing. You’re pushing and cajoling lawyers to get them out in the marketplace, to be talking to clients, to be selling, which is obviously still a four-letter word for some partners. I relished the challenge.

After leaving Minter Ellison, you worked in London with Herbert Smith and later returned to work at Corrs in Australia. Given such big-firm experience, what led to you joining a smaller firm in the form of The Fold?

I didn’t really want to be in the law again, but then I met the three partners at The Fold – Claire Wivell Plater, Charmian Holmes and Jaime Lumsden – and found them so refreshing. They wanted to get somewhere and they weren’t complacent about that. I loved that. It’s great, too, to be working with directors who are focused on one common goal as opposed to all the different agendas that come with being in a practice of 120 partners or more. You can get into the nitty gritty and make a big difference growth-wise.

You are now the CEO at The Fold, which has a team of 18. What’s the cultural difference between working at a large firm versus a smaller boutique firm?

The biggest difference in a smaller firm is that you know everyone and if you want to make a change, you can. You don’t have to go through every level of authority. A big part of the appeal for me is having a culture of being able to get things done and make an impact, and being able to experiment more quickly and easily. In a smaller firm you feel like you’re in the thick of what the firm is trying to do, which means you feel more wedded to where it’s going, as opposed to a big firm where you might be more of a number, a cog in the wheel. The other thing here is that you’re just a whole lot closer to clients. Our BD person and junior lawyers at The Fold are speaking directly to clients in a way that I didn’t see in the big firms. So some of those learnings around how clients work and what clients expect come more quickly and easily. The only downside is you don’t have the same support as in a big firm – my role some days is akin to being head of HR, and other days I could be sorting out an IT issue because we don’t have a CIO. Ultimately, though, the culture and other perks make up for it.

What sort of perks?

I leave the office about 4.30pm each day so that I can go and pick up my children and have dinner with them. I also have Wednesdays off each week to spend time with my young son. I don’t think there are many CEOs in a law firm who are doing that. Of course, I still log in later or might have to take calls if an urgent issue arises, but I have real flexibility. Others in the firm also know that if they need to leave work and be home at a given point in time, they can do that. People are treated as grownups. It’s the outputs, not the time spent at the desk, that matter. Flexibility is a no-brainer and it’s for that reason that I couldn’t go back to a large, top-tier firm.

What has been the biggest challenge in making the transition from being a business development executive to a CEO?

The biggest challenge in becoming a CEO – and it sounds ridiculous, but I know it’s a common sentiment – is having imposter syndrome and thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing as a CEO?’ I’d taken on the role just before I’d turned 40, and suddenly felt super responsible for both the staff and shareholders’ livelihoods. During COVID-19 that feeling of responsibility has exponentially increased.

The other challenge is that it can be quite lonely being a CEO. At The Fold, I’m both an employee of the shareholders who own the firm, but I’m also their boss. So sometimes I’ll need to talk to them about pushing harder, or doing something out of their comfort zone, and at other times I just want some support myself. That’s a really difficult line to walk.

You mentioned that lawyers need to get more comfortable ‘selling’ the firm’s virtues. What other advice do you have for law firm leaders, especially given your extensive business development experience?

The main piece of advice is that BD is the responsibility of everyone in the firm – the receptionist, the legal assistant, the most junior of lawyers, everyone. Focus on business development, and client service in particular, should start early. It’s not something that you suddenly start doing when you’re a senior associate on a partnership track. You need to be developing those skillsets all the way through. The Fold is a smaller firm, so BD is easier to manage. We do things such as BD sprints, giving out points for people who get out and do their BD activities, and they also get extra points for collaborating with others. That’s for every lawyer right through to partner. We also get everyone involved in our strategy days – things like client-journey mapping or a simulation where the team have to make decisions as the CEO and learn how they impact on clients, people, financials and the like. This gets people thinking like both clients and entrepreneurs.

The Fold has what it describes as a transparent and ‘people first approach’ to clients and staff. Can you tell us about that?

In terms of putting people first, this is a people business. I got into the law because I care about people and I love working out what makes them tick. If you don’t put people first, whether it’s the team or the clients, you don’t have a business. Internally, putting people first means having really transparent and open communications and being focused on life outside the office. That could be around flexible working, regular feedback and development conversations, or checking in on people’s mental health. The team regularly say they know more about what’s happening at The Fold than they’d know if they were elsewhere. If we look at COVID-19, for example, we’ve updated the team every one to two weeks on how the pipeline is looking, how cash is looking, how the number of new matters being opened is looking. We cover each of the vital statistics in a briefing for the whole firm so all employees know how we are tracking. It makes them feel safe, or otherwise, because they know we’re managing any issues.

For clients, it’s about being really aligned with their personal success. Many of our clients are SMEs and we’re working directly with the founders or owners to take their business forward, or protect them from being on the wrong side of the regulator. We drum into the team that clients want to be treated the same way we all want to be treated – promises met, work delivered on time, commercial needs addressed and so on.

The firm prides itself on giving employees the right tools and support. What does that mean in practical terms?

Development programs are crucial. We have regular development check-ins focused on short and medium goals, and what support people need in the coming months. By no means are we doing this perfectly. It’s harder in a small firm to make some of those L&D things happen because we don’t have a specialist to manage such programs. However, most of the team are comfortable with what we’re doing and have what they need.

Personally, how do you approach management and leadership?

Well, I mentioned the people-first approach. The other key is being very collaborative. This is to some extent easier because we are a smaller team, but it stems from my belief that everyone has a valid opinion. At strategy days, everyone in the firm comes along. Yes, it may be more challenging for, say, a receptionist to contribute to the client-strategy session, but ultimately if you don’t ask then you don’t know what they’re thinking, who they’ve spoken to and what insights might come out. I constantly aim to have everyone feeling comfortable about putting their views on the table, even if they’re challenging.

What do you love about your job?

For me, it’s the people. We have a really superb team here and to some extent it feels like a family. Everyone knows each other well and looks out for each other. So I love that and I love working with super intelligent people because I find that challenging and rewarding. I’m really privileged to work in a firm that has an exceptional brand and knows what it stands for. Most of my days as a CEO are focused on taking the firm to the next level and driving some improvements in some way, whether that’s client service or something for our people. For me, having those constant journeys of improvement and perfecting things is something I really value.

2020 has been a tough year for many firms, but what is the outlook for The Fold?

It is strong. I’m not so arrogant as to say it won’t be challenging in this market. Clients are trying to hold on to cash. But as a firm we’re doing many of the right things. We’re keeping clients central to what we do and we’re checking in with them all the time. Since July, the  uptick in work for our firm has been phenomenal, which suggests we are on the right track.