Q&A: Stipe Vuleta – “It’s hard not to be motivated to do the job when you put positive energy out there and everybody in the organisation gives it back 10-fold.”

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Marketing & Business Development,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership] May 30, 2020

In our Q&A, Chamberlains Law Firm managing director Stipe Vuleta outlines the pressures and rewards of being a younger business leader; he tells us how his firm takes a unique approach to recruitment and retention; and he explains why he views the debate between value-based and fixed-fee pricing as superficial.

At 30, you are one of the youngest leaders of a major law firm in Australia. Since stepping into the managing director’s role at Chamberlains almost two years ago, how have you handled the extra responsibility while continuing to practise in the firm’s Litigation – Insolvency & Reconstruction division?

“I’m very lucky to have the support of our senior leadership team. I started doing various activities in the business about 4½ years ago with a view to stepping into the managing director role. So there was a long lead time and a lot of support from a lot of people, including the firm’s founder, Terry Chamberlain, before he retired. It’s been exciting. To say that every day is a learning experience, particularly for someone of my age, would be an understatement. But I’m blessed to have some good mentors, not just in the legal industry but in other sectors, too. Being a young leader of a young firm is actually disarming to some people and it’s a real positive for us.”

Have there been any negatives from clients or other stakeholders because of your age?

“Not that I perceive. Maybe it’s just our brazen confidence, but as a whole Chamberlains has just wanted to do business with people we like. It’s a very simple internal maxim. If you’re genuinely interested in your external stakeholders – whether they are existing clients and service-delivery partners, or prospective clients and service-delivery partners – you will find people who you like and who like you in return. So you just do business together and you prosper together and age doesn’t really get in the way of that.”

You have been named a Rising Star in the Australasian Lawyer 2020 awards and have been nominated for various other industry awards. What has helped you succeed?

“I’ve always taken a fairly selfless approach to our business, and I don’t mean that in a self-aggrandising way. In line with one of our internal values, my passion for the business means putting the firm before myself. I don’t see any of the tasks involved in doing this extra role of managing director as a challenge, but rather as an opportunity to do something and invest in our staff and invest in our Chamberlains family. In the context of a lot of uncertainty in the legal sector and society generally, we’ve come through the coronavirus crisis with a high level of internal positivity and a really strong team. It’s hard not to be motivated to do the job when you put positive energy out there and everybody in the organisation gives it back 10-fold.”

How have staff handled working from home during COVID-19?

“We have a very collegiate culture, so I think everyone is missing our family-like atmosphere and the direct support from other co-workers in the office. We always make sure we have a good laugh during office hours and enjoy the occasional pool game, some Nintendo, or a Friday drink in between the very long hours of work that lawyers put in. Overall, however, they’re doing very well. We’ve had our collaboration tools and the systems we’re relying on during COVID-19 in place for more than 18 months. As a result, moving to working from home hasn’t been hard for most of our employees”

What technology tools have worked for you during the lockdown?

“The entire back end of the firm is in the cloud. As a subset of that, we’ve always just used the suite of Microsoft and Cisco tools. They are pretty standard, but Microsoft Teams, for example, has had a reawakening in recent times because of the surge of videoconferencing and we use it to communicate between individuals and various offices. Microsoft Planner is good, too, and other workflow tools complement our practice management system (PMS). If you’re well organised, it’s not hard to use these simple tools for collaboration. We’ve always used third-party data room providers and eDiscovery services as part of our service offering, so continuing to add on different services and approaches seems a simple extension of that process. Even the way we divvy out our files to teams using cloud-based communication and workflow tools through our IT system means that working from home hasn’t changed much for most of the team.”

We understand that the market for legal services in the property and construction sectors has dropped during COVID-19, but that demand remains strong in your other practice areas such as corporate, M&A, restructuring and insurance. Does that point to the value of having a full-service firm at a time when many commentators are championing the need to specialise?

“To say we’re not affected would be a lie, but overall we’re seeing a good mix of work, which is what you want. A lot of businesses have taken this idea of specialisation to mean that you should specialise an entire firm, rather than putting in place structures internally to make sure you have specialised teams. Our staff don’t do things that are not in their speciality, which has helped us maintain a high level of specialisation within divisions. At the same time we’ve been able to attract new divisions to the business and diversify our offering.”

What do you see as the strengths of Chamberlains?

“We believe that being a lawyer is easy, but being a good lawyer is hard. With that in mind, we embrace the concept of continuous process improvement and putting in place the training and systems to develop a culture where work is always properly delegated and reviewed. Our people learn to collaborate and transparently provide each other with fearless and critical feedback about their work and turn those conversations into positive conversations that are centred on the client, rather than on creating structures that are based on historic executive power or hierarchical structures. I think that’s a very good way of managing staff and we do that very well.

“In addition, and I’m happy to say this, we’ve always taken a pretty transparent approach to hiring the correct staff and retaining staff who are excellent, and not having any space for people in our organisation who are not excellent. We put in place processes so people can prosper, and if they’re not prospering we help them move on to things outside our organisation and leave space for those who can continue to prosper and prosper at a faster rate. This has resulted in a lot of very aggressive development of good staff and retention of those staff who love the Chamberlains way.”

Does that mean you look for particular skillsets and personality types?

“We do, most senior staff engage in psychological profiling and evaluation and training every year and we get our entire team involved in the constant development of and reflection upon our values, goals and strategic vision on an ongoing basis. Part of maintaining and growing our culture is about everyone investing in that.”

What sort of training does this entail?

“Well, it starts before someone even begins working with us. We have our HR and marketing staff involved in the onboarding process for new starters. They take the new employee on a journey of what it’s going to be like to work at Chamberlains and make them understand the culture before they step in on their first official day. That’s really important for us. From that day moving forward, at a basic level, we have social-engagement processes and clubs, including an informal mentorship program where people are linked up with more senior people in other divisions and offices. When social distancing is not a factor, we encourage senior staff to travel between offices to see their mentees. That’s a formal KPI and now people are doing it digitally during the pandemic, so people are mentored every step of the way. Then at a certain point they go from being a mentee to a mentor.

“We provide training for our staff on a monthly basis for everything; not just professional development and building expertise, but training to understand what the other teams do because we want to maintain a non-siloed culture. If lawyers from different practice areas are working jointly on projects they should understand the relevant division’s processes. We do a lot of training of that nature, and around sales and marketing and using our digital systems, too. I find that many firms say they do a lot of training, but because they’re focused on a traditional billable-hour model, they’re really not doing that much at all. I want our business to grow so that every person who starts with us today has an opportunity, if they so choose, to be a partner one day in the future.”

Away from day-to-day work, you are juggling many external roles, including being chair of the ACT Insolvency Committee for the Law Council of Australia; engaging as a board member with Adria, a not-for-profit retirement village provider; being on the regional executive committee of the Housing Industry Association; and acting as an associate adjunct professor at the University of Canberra. Why have you committed to so much?

“The opportunity to work with very accomplished lawyers and legal practitioners in Australia, or people who have achieved great things in the construction sector, which is very relevant to insolvency, is for me a blessing. You have to take all those learning opportunities in your stride.”

Tell us about your management style?

“Well, it’s still developing, but ultimately I’m a ‘hype’ guy. I’m just there to help other people get the best out of themselves at work, so that means for me high responsibility, high accountability, which equals high performance. I want to give people the structures to let them be successful and hold them accountable, but ultimately to stay out of their way.”

What do you love about your job?

“I really love going on an emotional journey with people. It’s why I was drawn to insolvency and reconstruction law. Before I ever wanted to run a law firm, I just wanted to help other people with their business issues. The Australian culture is hard on directors and entrepreneurs and individuals with respect to financial crises and distress. There’s a real stigma in Australia about business failure, so I love helping people overcome that stigma because sometimes in the restructuring of a business not all of it is rosy. There are negatives and scrutiny from the media, administrators, creditors, liquidators and society at large. Helping people to learn to be successful again after a business failure is something that drives me, and I take that similar empathetic approach to my managing director job where I like seeing people grow. That makes me really happy,”

Chamberlains has been in a mood for growth in the past year or so, making multiple acquisitions, opening new locations and setting up new practice areas. What’s the plan?

“We’ve always opted to keep growing until our clients tell us that they don’t want us anymore. I don’t think we have ever taken a decision to grow because of the bottom line; it’s been driven by client need. That’s something that a lot of professional services businesses don’t always appreciate. In the end, the most important thing is not the extra partner and extra practice you bring in, it’s the client. The client needs to be sitting there saying, ‘I really need more Chamberlains in my life right now. Why aren’t they looking after me in Perth?’ as an example. We don’t plan on taking on teams or divisions that don’t fit within our model of collaborative, non-siloed work. We have turned down acquisition opportunities and partnership opportunities on numerous occasions, despite revenue being there and those people’s clients being happy with a deal, purely because the mix of work and the way they work didn’t fit with our systems and culture. You have to put your culture and clients first.”

Do you have any other messages for your peers?

“I believe there is a reluctance by a lot of legal professionals to invest in deepening their understanding of some of the underlying issues that drive success in the legal sector. I’m always shocked, for example, to see ongoing media articles in industry publications about getting pricing right, or the innovative nature of fixed-price models, or why the hourly rate is dead. My view is that it’s all superficial and none of that really matters to the client. If you can develop relationships with your clients where you’re being truly adaptable to what they need, then it doesn’t matter how you engage with them because you’re engaging in a way that suits them, and that’s the most important thing. So some blanket assessment on what’s the best way to do something in such a personalised industry seems naïve.”

Does that mean Chamberlains has a flexible approach to pricing?

“Yes, absolutely. We are about to launch a subscription-based service so that, under our current stable of offerings, a client could engage with us through a completely online, digital engagement that is ultra-low-cost with high-speed work, and then they could engage with us through various tiers of Chamberlains and that would give them an introduction to the flexibility with which we could service them. And then they could graduate to being a traditional law firm client, and as a subset of that they could engage with us in the traditional way or on a fixed-fee basis. Just having the systems and flexibility to do the right thing by the client is key and I don’t think businesses should be stubborn about it.”