Q&A: Matthew Karakoulakis – “What I’m saying is that hard work has its place – and sometimes people forget the need to work hard.”

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Marketing & Business Development,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership] August 12, 2020

In the second part of our Q&A, AMK Law founder Matthew Karakoulakis tells us how the Japanese principle of kaizen is giving his firm an edge, and why diversity is so important to his life and work.

How is AMK Law faring during the COVID-19 pandemic?

“COVID-19 has definitely changed the world, not just the legal profession. Our firm is very fortunate, though, to still have plenty of work on our plate. I can actually see the pandemic creating more work for us because if you look at 90 per cent of our clients – businesses and government organisations – they will inevitably be impacted by COVID-19. That impact could include debt collection, or work around corporate governance and structuring, shareholders’ rights and agreements; those kinds of things. These elements are being looked at closely by clients and now is a good time to do it when they’re not as heavily burdened by their day-to-day operational activities. In litigation, too, I can see more happening in that space because when there’s pessimism in the market people become more litigious.”

How agile do firms need to be in this environment?

“Everyone talks about ‘pivoting’ and sometimes those clichés really annoy me. However, I realise that in recent months during COVID-19 we have pivoted as a firm. There was no deliberate move to pivot; it was just a cultural response because our approach is always to look at what clients need and how we can best service them – looking through the client’s lens, rather than our lens. When COVID struck I’d be calling clients and asking them ‘how are things?’ and they’d be asking legal questions to do with governance, structuring and  agreements. So that was a natural pivot that occurred, but only because of our client-focused approach.”

It’s 6½ years since you left top-tier firms to set up AMK Law. How difficult is it to launch a boutique firm?

“Running a boutique firm can be very challenging. I started AMK Law with an office in the corner of a bedroom after I got married. At the time I didn’t know much about marketing, leadership, management or business. I just knew how to be an excellent lawyer through what I’d learnt at university and in practice.”

It must have been tough leaving large, well-resourced firms to suddenly be working out of a home office. How have you made it work?

“Absolutely, it was a massive change. When you first start a business you’re really just grateful to get any clients and there’s always this fear of whether you can succeed. Over time I’ve learnt that I need to use different styles of communication with different clients. In the early days, if I was speaking with a prospective client I wanted to show them how brilliant I was as a lawyer and I’d speak about technical principles that would just wash over their head. So I quickly learnt the real need to speak in a way that clients understand, whether it’s in a written or verbal sense. No two people are the same, either. Even if you’re dealing with your ideal clients, you still need to listen to them with empathy to not only understand the results they want but to clearly articulate what’s happening with their legal matter all the way through.”

What lessons did you learn from working at the bigger firms which have helped at AMK Law?

“No. 1 was work ethic. Lawyers have a reputation for working really hard and grinding out the billable hours and there’s lots of negativity around those issues. But one of the upsides is the great work ethic that’s instilled in lawyers from a young age at those top-tier firms, and it’s one of the keys to brilliance and success. No. 2 is quality of work. There’s a reason why top-tier firms are top-tier. With the systems and the number of great lawyers in those teams and the knowledge that gets passed down the chain, the expectation is all about excellence and quality. That’s something I’ve carried across into AMK Law.”

So, it’s not just about ratcheting up the hours, but working intelligently and efficiently?

“One-hundred per cent. Just sitting there and doing hours for the sake of it is not smart. You must work intelligently and part of that is looking at what clients need and trying to achieve that outcome efficiently and effectively – and that’s where innovation, the right mindset, technology, systems and processes all come into play. We have our automated systems that can save costs for clients. But if I can work at 100 per cent efficiency with a great attitude while also working cleverly my output will be much greater than if I worked smart for say one hour a day. I’m not encouraging working long hours. What I’m saying is that hard work has its place – and sometimes people forget the need to work hard.”

There’s lot of competition among boutique firms. How can you stay ahead of the pack?

“One of our values as a firm is the Japanese principal of kaizen, which involves the art of continuous improvement. So the questions our team members ask ourselves at the end of every day are ‘What could I have done better today?’ and ‘How can I implement that betterment into tomorrow?’ Sometimes it might be a little thing, but it’s about a constant focus on how tasks can be performed better, and how clients’ needs can be met with a greater level of efficiency and effectiveness. For example, we focus on having really clear client interactions and making sure that they have access to their documents and their matter every step of the way. We also hold ourselves accountable for the amount of time we’re spending on matters. Even when most matters are done on a fixed-fee basis we still want to be able to be as efficient as possible in managing our time and getting our tasks done and then being able to address any problems that might arise. It’s a continuous cycle.”

What else do you do differently?

“When we work with barristers we don’t have the same approach as other firms, which typically conduct the whole matter and then near the end give the brief to the barrister to appear on a particular court date. When a barrister works on a matter with us, they start working on the matter very early in the piece and their role is to be a key player in the team throughout the whole matter. That’s innovative in its approach because it’s different, but it also delivers better results for clients. The barrister is the person who speaks in the courtroom and if the barrister understands the case and the client and has been involved from the outset, they’re going to be in a much better position to articulate the legal position of our client and achieve a better result.”

Won’t that result in higher costs for clients?

“No. From an efficiency and cost-effective point of view for our clients, we engage some fantastic junior barristers who might have been partners at top-tier firms and who have just gone to the Bar and whose rate is a third or a quarter of what it would have been prior. Their rate is lower than mine. So, if the barrister at the lower rate can be doing work for the client, it means we are still achieving excellence but at a more effective price for clients, too.”

You are proud of your Greek and Aboriginal heritage. What impact does that have on your life and firm?

“I’ve been able to draw on my Greek and Aboriginal heritage in understanding people, understanding diversity and also being able to then serve our client base much better through the quality of our legal services. The key is to have empathy and understand people from different backgrounds. I feel a sense of responsibility and leadership towards my mob and our Indigenous community across the country. The position I’m in is not one to be taken lightly. AMK Law is the only 100 per cent Aboriginal-owned commercial law firm in Victoria, and we are the only 100 per cent Aboriginal-owned law firm that handles litigation matters to the level we do. I feel a great level of responsibility in not only representing our clients but also inspiring our Aboriginal community and showing that our people can work very well in commercial law. If I can be involved in inspiring Indigenous people to start law and set up their own firms and work in the commercial space, I’ll feel very happy.”

Do you feel a responsibility to bring through Aboriginal law graduates?

“Absolutely. That’s a great responsibility, but we haven’t been able to do that to the level I’d like at this stage. However, I am on the management committee of Tarwirri, the Indigenous Law Students and Lawyers Association of Victoria, and there are also a lot of fantastic non-indigenous lawyers in that group. For example, most of the judges in Victoria are part of Tarwirri and provide advisory assistance. In my role there I provide mentorship for lawyers coming through the ranks and we’re also focusing on projects to create some cultural awareness in larger firms to enable some young Indigenous lawyers to come through in a culturally safe environment.”

Finally, can you tell us about your management approach?

“My aim is for effective leadership that empowers others and identifies the needs of the people we are serving. I understand there are different types of leadership, so for example you could have a visionary style where you paint the picture and enable players in your team to see that end vision. But sometimes a coaching-type style is really important because people may have unbelievable greatness inside of them and the leader’s role may be to just help bring that greatness out. At other times, a more direct type of leadership could be needed. Former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink is an amazing guy who served in hostile environments such as Afghanistan and Iraq and he advocates that there are key times when direct leadership is required. In the battlefield for example, lives are at stake. Sometimes a direct leadership style is frowned upon in the corporate world, but the choices underline the fact that you need to be flexible and understand each individual communication style. Regardless of the leadership style, though, I think it’s important to allow opportunities for each team member to have a voice.”