Q&A: Peter George – “Small firms can provide all the services of the big firms. Small is the new big.”
In our Q&A, Peter George, managing partner of Melbourne-based commercial law firm CIE Legal, explains why he thinks small firms are well placed to capitalise on disrupted legal markets; why decency should be on the radar for all firms; and why he loves planting trees.
On the CIE Legal website you are described as the wise owl of the firm, drawing on your experience in a former in-house counsel role at Ford Australia and a former role as a partner at Minter Ellison. Do you like the tag?
“Well, I’m the oldest in the firm, although by only a couple of weeks compared with one of the other partners. So I do take on that role. I’m not sure how wise I am, but someone has to have that mantle.”
CIE Legal has eight partners and more than 30 employees in total. How is the market for the firm’s services?
“Our trajectory for the past 12 months and more has been positive. We do a fair amount of work in the automotive products space and that’s been active. The automotive industry, in general, has had a lot of activity from a legal point of view with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) conducting inquiries and that’s generated quite a deal of work for us.”
You have commented that firms need to foster ‘generalist’ lawyers, at a time when many firms are touting the specialisation of their lawyers? Can you outline more about your view?
“I came from a large, top-tier firm, a great firm with a lot of extremely smart specialised lawyers. But one of the issues was that clients didn’t necessarily know what area of expertise or specialisation they needed to resolve their legal problems. If they came through to a lawyer who didn’t have the necessary general knowledge, they ended up having to speak to a number of different people before they could get a solution to their problem.
There’s a real role for what I’m calling a generalist, but in reality it is a lawyer who has a real commercial and industry-focused approach. They’re a specialist in the sense that they understand the industry and the client, and they’re able to identify the key issues and questions. That’s often the hard bit, and ultimately you may require specialist input, but you’re able to obtain that specialist input if you can’t provide it yourself. So the generalist’s point of differentiation is the ability to interpret matters and contextualise issues. It’s not a narrow legal-practice specialisation.”
Having a generalist lawyer could help prevent clients being passed around from lawyer to lawyer and becoming quite frustrated. Is that the key?
“Yes, and it enables clients to have one point of access. It also gives them confidence because you’re able to speak their language and frame their questions and articulate their issues in their language and then translate that into the legal issues and get them resolved. So it’s not to say you don’t need specialisation, but you’ll also need and welcome the rise of the legal generalist. Increasingly, it will be the generalist lawyers who come to the forefront.”
Do other factors, including technology, help generalists?
“The fact is that technology disruption means that knowledge is now so available that’s it virtually worthless. Yes, it needs to be interpreted, but generalists are free to interact with the client knowing that they can access, either themselves or through specialists, that knowledge. Remember, too, that in many cases clients don’t need the brain-surgery solution to their issue. Often, and it’s hard for lawyers to hear this, near enough is good enough. In many cases that’s what the client not only wants but needs, and specialists can struggle to provide that.”
Has this rise of the generalist informed CIE Legal’s recruitment approach?
“Absolutely. For a start, we don’t have silos at all. All of our lawyers work for all of us. Of course, as they get more senior they tend to develop an area of expertise – this is the T-shaped knowledge that people talk about whereby a professional has knowledge that is broad, but deep in one particular area. That’s what we try to encourage. Most of our lawyers have had in-house experience and clients value that, too.”
You have been working in the law for decades. What has been the big game-changer?
“The fascinating role that technology is playing and will continue to play is extremely interesting. At the moment there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors around the so-called innovations in practice, and I admit that I don’t quite understand some of the developments; blockchain being one of them. However, there will be this freedom for smaller firms to access this technology and provide everything that the large firms provide.
The arms and legs that the large firms have can be accessed through all sorts of outsourcing arrangements. So the technology allows the decentralisation of talent, and in turn small firms can plug into the arms and legs or specialist knowledge. That’s a real disruptor. The fact that there have been some extremely talented lawyers who have left the large firms and who are operating solely or in smaller practices – and who are able to contract out their expertise – has been a crucial development.
The whole issue of pricing of legal services is another area that is developing and the smaller firms that aren’t tied to the time sheet have a real advantage. At CIE Legal, we call it ‘consensus pricing’, which is about reaching a consensus with clients up front, invariably on a fixed-priced basis or on a risk-sharing basis. But we are rarely tied to a timesheet unless that’s what the client wants.”
On the culture front, CIE prides itself on straight-talking and decency. Correct?
“Decency is an important word for us. It’s one of our absolute core values. We treat everyone decently and we treat each other decently. That shows in our culture. We just enjoy coming to work. We have a great bunch of people and we have complete flexibility. Most of us tend to like coming to the office because of the collegiate nature and the ability to talk about issues that arise. But there’s no compulsion at all to work in the office. It’s completely acceptable if you want to leave at lunchtime and we have a lot of partners who are on different work arrangements. Indeed, I work four days a week.
My opinion is that there’s still benefit in face-to-face contact; just the fact that having that sort of social interaction is beneficial. That might be because of my age, but it seems to be the case that staff at CIE Legal prefer to come in and work in the office because they want to be with nice people. Decency is an old-fashioned word, but to us it’s all about treating people properly.”
Are there any key challenges the firm is experiencing?
“It’s not so much a problem, but we do want to expand into the development and commercialisation of products we’ve developed, including CIE Documation (a secure online portal that enables clients to produce standard legal documentation) and CIE Learning (customisable online training to keep people up-to-date on key legal issues). It will be a challenge for us to commercialise those products. That’s the hard bit that lawyers aren’t always good at doing.
Our other challenge will be to continue to move up the legal food chain and to convince clients that a smaller firm like ours can do all of their work, including the work that clients may traditionally see as the job for the top-tier firms. Don’t get me wrong. The big firms are great and I have great respect for them, but we need to dispel the idea that smaller firms can’t do that work. Small firms can provide all the services of the big firms. Small is the new big.”
On your days off you often head out of the city to plant trees. Tell us about that.
“I grew up on a farm at Geelong and my wife and I have bought the remains of that property. We’re doing a whole lot of planting to link wildlife corridors. The Barwon River is our northern boundary and we’re trying to revegetate that space. It’s really coming back, as has the vegetation of our upstream and downstream neighbours. There are platypuses in the river, and also kangaroos, echidnas and eagles in the area. I try to get down there most Fridays, pretending to be a farmer. It’s fantastic and you can still do legal work if you need to, but it’s good to get on the farm and do some other work.”