Q&A: Roger Blow – “To be able make personal calls on how you work is a freedom you can only really get by having your own gig.”

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Marketing & Business Development,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership] June 29, 2020

In our Q&A, Cove Legal founder and practice director Roger Blow explains why he is cautious about his boutique firm growing; how he tries to be brutally honest if something goes wrong with a legal matter; and why participating in cycling and music makes his life a whole lot better.

 

First thing first, how did you decide on the firm’s name, Cove Legal?

“Well, Blow Legal wasn’t really going to cut it in the commercial sector, so I had to come up with a different name. ‘Cove’ came out of the concept of protective cover from a storm, with the storm in my case being litigation.”

With two lawyers and a small administrative support team, Cove Legal is a boutique commercial litigation firm in Perth that specialises in dispute resolution, tax litigation and defamation. How is the market and what impact has COVID-19 had on the firm?

“In the aftermath of COVID-19, almost every business has been on a mission to try to cut overheads and manage cashflow and workstream. However, as dispute lawyers focusing on tax, the media and medical and health matters, we aren’t really in the business sectors that the pandemic has decimated. So being small and agile with only a small number of significant overheads has been an advantage for us. Part of our branding with clients is that we take a genuine commercial view as to what we’re charging, and that helps keep clients happy if they’ve got necessary legal work that they just can’t park during this crisis. Our clients have still brought work to us during the pandemic because of the trust we have built with them over the years. COVID-19 has shown more than ever the importance of human relationships and trust, as opposed to just having a brand within a market. If someone really doesn’t want to spend any money at all but they have a need, they’d rather go to someone they know and trust. That’s human nature.”

Your work in the medical and health space has also given you a profile, too. Is that right?

“In 2019, we acted for International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) in the coronial inquiry in Perth into the death of a Christmas Island immigration detention centre detainee. That was probably some of the most challenging and fulfilling work I’ve ever done. We now have a wide practice representing doctors, surgeons, dentists and other health practitioners in regulatory matters and commercial legal disputes. We have also recently assisted St John Ambulance WA in commercialising new cutting-edge virtual reality technology for first-aid training.”

Despite having worked for large firms such as King & Wood Mallesons, Gadens and TLT in Australia and the United Kingdom, you’ve intentionally kept Cove Legal small since setting it up about six years ago. Why?

“The key word is freedom. Having previously worked in larger firms, for me running a small practice provides an autonomy and a personal flexibility that doesn’t exist in large or even mid-tier firms. The slog to partnership is a long, hard road and even once you’re there the pressure to work long hours and make everyone around you do the same never really eases. My first year with Cove Legal was probably my favourite. It was just me and I had plenty of work, but at the same time if all my deadlines had been met in advance of a Friday afternoon it wasn’t unknown for me to end up on a mountain bike, or to be at a local bar reading over stuff in the sunshine. Just the ability to make those choices felt like it had real value to me. I also had the freedom to choose who to work for and how to work for them, whereas in larger firms you’re always having to fit within a mould. To be able make personal calls on how you work is a freedom you can only really get by having your own gig.”

How do you balance the desire to stay flexible with the inevitable temptation to grow the firm?

“I think very carefully about what I do with the firm. The natural move would be to seek to grow numbers and one of the ways to do that would be to add dispute-resolution litigators who specialise in similar spaces to our firm. But I’m conscious that the second I take on a fellow director or partner, there’s then more expectation as to what I do, how I do it, how many hours I work and how much money is coming in. So I’ve jealously guarded my freedoms and autonomies. That plays a large part in why Cove Legal is still very compact.  I have also been very lucky in having some great lawyers work alongside me over the firm’s seven-year history.”

What are some key factors behind the success of the firm?

“We’ve sought to stay in our lane. My practice has always focused on dispute work. My tax-dispute background comes from having worked with the Australian Taxation Office when I was in larger firms, so it was a natural crossover when starting up Cove Legal to assist people in that space. We want to be genuine specialists as opposed to saying we’re smaller and cheaper and we’ll do everything for clients legally. Yes, we’re competitive, but we seek to provide very specialist, commercial, strategic advice. The other aspect of having my own firm is that I can make a commercial strategic call on any file. I don’t have to be concerned if I’m writing off too much, for example, and it’s up to me how we record time. There has never been an hourly target for any fee-earner in the firm because, having worked in the big firms, I know you can’t have high hourly targets and not expect that to impact the way that your services are then billed to clients. I have always read articles about how the billable hour is dead. I don’t think the billable hour has ever been the problem; it’s just the way that firms have got bigger and bigger over many decades and the fact that so much now internally is based around maximising the recording and then the billing of chargeable hours. If that’s the focus, you’re going to have padding on files. I’ve tried to take a very different approach and one that would perhaps be critiqued as uncommercial – we don’t have hourly KPIs and we don’t even monitor overall hours. Of course, we record time on files, but that’s just about the work being done and how long it takes, which is what it’s meant to be about.”

Tell us about your management style.

“I’ve always enjoyed any form of coaching or teaching, both within my professional life and outside of it with sport and various organisations. I try with my solicitor colleague, Selina Gates, to commit time to her when working through a matter and to avoid just giving instructions and saying ‘here’s what we’re going to do and let’s do it’. I try to talk through how I’m thinking and explain why I’m suggesting we do something and perhaps outline longer-term strategic considerations that I’m taking into account. You learn a lot more if you’re learning about the why, not just the what.

“I’ve also done my best within Cove Legal to be open and reflective about anything that hasn’t gone right, or which could have been done better. As lawyers we are often terrible at recognising mistakes. I’ve gone out of my way to avoid that situation.”

You advise clients on legal matters pertaining to social media, but do you have any tips for law firms using these platforms?

“Many of my friends would say I embrace social media too much. I do think that, especially with the slightly older generations of practitioners, there is a resistance and a general dislike of social media because it’s something that perhaps has come along a bit later for some of them. I think a complete rejection of social media as a viable opportunity or something to be considered is, in this day and age, unwise on a commercial level. What I would say, though, for smaller firms that usually don’t have marketing and HR departments is that the way you use social media as a business does have to be given the same love, attention and investment as you would with any other form of marketing. For example, not many lawyers would contemplate filming their own TV commercial and expect to then go and put that ad on TV. So, in the same way, people should think about whether they are equipped to market on social media platforms because it’s a different world when it comes to content and how you get it out. I see some people launch into social media without taking advice when they wouldn’t do the same with other types of marketing.”

You are a strong supporter of community mental health initiatives, including being a long-time participant in the Hawaiian Ride for Youth, a week-long cycling fundraiser from Albany to Perth that raises funds for Youth Focus. What prompted you to get involved in this area?

“I got into cycling about eight years ago and quickly became passionate about the sport and Ride for Youth. Youth Focus helps young people dealing with depression or who have self-harm or suicidal tendencies. As one of the school presenters delivering positive mental health messages to pupils in local schools along the journey, I have also had the chance to listen to the stories of youths and understand how life pressures can impact children. It’s very relevant to me because I’ve got two boys aged 12 and 15. Having talked so much about the mental health of young people, I also started looking at it in a professional sense, in the knowledge that the legal profession is prone to mental health pressures. It culminated in me making a presentation in Bali last year addressing things that we can actively do as lawyers – where I was trying to provide some answers and not just acknowledging the problem.”

Can you summarise some of the solutions?

“A lot of the talk focuses on recognising within ourselves when we’re not at our best and taking out time to plug into our inner pleasure centres or joy centres. There are many things that we are told we should enjoy and which should be part of our life, but they aren’t necessarily the things that tap into our inner pleasure centres. The key is taking time to savour things and search out things that make us feel good, centred and relaxed. The other big factor is REM (rapid eye movement) sleep – and understanding that it’s the only time that our bodies develop natural hormones that go towards making us feel happy. As a lawyer, I can think back to many periods of my career when a colleague received real kudos if they were working until 2am and were back in the office at 7am. It was a case of hats off to that person for showing real tenacity. I’ve also heard lawyers being commended for how little sleep they have or need. But no one is at their best unless they get proper sleep. In a sports training context, no one can do every sprint at 100 per cent and keep doing that day in and day out. Likewise, in legal work we need to recognise that no one can keep doing 12 to 14-hour days for long periods and expect to be at our best. There must be some peaks and troughs.”

You cycle to get away from work. How does it help?

“Cycling has become my main pastime and sport. At its core, cycling is an endurance sport and it does wonders for your endorphin levels and you learn a lot about your willingness to push yourself. I’ve had many frank discussions with my inner monologue during some long hill climbs. At the same time it’s a sport that has a relatively low impact on the body, and it’s very social. The cycling fraternity is like a family.”

Since 2008, you have also organised the annual corporate ‘Battle of the Bands’ competition in Perth that raises funds each year for different charities. How did that come about?

“Music falls into that pleasure centre for me. There are few feelings that beat performing live on a stage. With the Battle of the Bands, once a year I have this intensive period of a few months because Cove Legal always enters a band, and I drag musicians together and we play for one night. It could be funk, pop, rock – whatever pleases the crowd. I started out many years ago as a drummer but now play guitar. I like to ironically compare myself to Dave Grohl (the Nirvana drummer who later set up the Foo Fighters and now plays guitar), ignoring the fact that he’s way more talented, good looking and successful!”

So you have your work-life balance sorted out.

“Nothing is ever perfect, but I’m content that my work-life balance is considerably better than it was at any of the larger firms. I wouldn’t look to change what I’ve got now.”

www.covelegal.com.au