Q&A: Trevor Withane – “What we’re trying to do is make the lives of our lawyers easier so they stay working for us.”

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Marketing & Business Development,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership] May 15, 2022

In the first of a two-part Q&A, Trevor Withane, founder and principal of Ironbridge Legal, explains how he has created a thriving boutique litigation and insolvency law firm in Australia and why people and culture are the keys to that success.

You’re a proud Briton running a young firm that is quickly making its mark in Australia. Can you tell us about Ironbridge Legal’s target market?

We’re a two-trick pony competing for top-end work in complex disputes and insolvencies. Our roster of clients is impressive. We are often instructed by liquidators, including from firms such as PwC, Deloitte and Grant Thornton, general counsel from listed entities, private companies and directors.  But, importantly, we are also a trusted referral partner to accountancy firms, so-called full-service BigLaw firms, and other boutique law firms which do not compete in our space.

Internationally, we get referrals from law firms who do not have an office in Australia.  The jurisdictions of interest to us are London, Singapore, Seoul, New York and, to a lesser extent, Hong Kong.

Quite often, we act for clients on large, complex and or high-stakes matters, so in order to win that work and then deliver on it we need the best horses in the stable. What can we do to stop our lawyers joining firms such as Gilbert + Tobin and my old shop, Allen & Overy? Well, the technology we use and the quality of work we offer comes into play. Our people are stimulated professionally and find themselves working on issues and workstreams which they probably wouldn’t be on at such an early stage of their career at larger firms. That means they can accelerate their careers.  Our investment in technology means that lawyers can focus on the law and solving legal issues, rather than being bogged down in admin and IT issues.

How many people do you have in your team at Ironbridge Legal?

We have seven people altogether and what we say to clients is that we’re like one matter team within a big firm. We’re not a volume-based firm with hundreds of matters, but what we do have is a small number of big, complex, and interesting matters. When we have a need to bolster our team at short notice, we have been able to access the best talent in the contract economy.

Of the five significant matters in the Australian insolvency arena last year, we had a role in three of them.  That’s why technology is so important because we can efficiently manage those matters using innovative approaches. We’ve also invested a lot of time into thought-leadership pieces that have created brand trust for us in the market, along with sponsoring The Legal 500 Disputes Summit. That’s all part of our plan to keep staff engaged and to progress the firm.

You’ve recently changed your name from Blackwattle Legal to Ironbridge Legal*. Have you changed much else at the firm during the pandemic?

COVID-19 has made us think about the way we use technology and further enhance remote learning and working. Before the pandemic, we already had an excellent ‘tech stack’ and we have since invested quite heavily in technology because it lets us do the simple things faster. Our lawyers can then spend more time on deep intellectual thinking, strategising and delivering great outcomes on client matters, rather than worrying about slow computers or spending inordinate amounts of time searching for documents or the law.

With regard to specific technology choices, what is working for your firm?

Of course, the very standard Zoom and Microsoft Teams setups have been critical for our communications. A more significant step is using a full cloud-based legal practice-management system called Actionstep and coupling it with NetDocuments, a document and email-management service. They’re highly advanced systems and there’s a lot of automation between those two platforms. Another positive is that they work on our mobile devices, so we can record timesheets and check matters on our phones regardless of where we are at any time. The artificial intelligence elements of the platforms take away the mundane work and let us focus on legal issues while working remotely. In terms of hardware, like most firms we have dock-based laptops, so we can just put our laptops on a docking station and then take them home to plug-and-play as required.

Is this emphasis on technology mainly designed to improve productivity?

What we’re trying to do is make the lives of our lawyers easier so they stay working for us and don’t feel as though their work is drudgery. They can focus on the things they went to university for – the law, the facts of a matter and how they can provide solutions for clients. The more time they spend doing that, the better. It’s not about squeezing more time out of our lawyers – we want them to be productive while at the same time improving their lives as lawyers.  This also means that we can respond to clients and deliver their work faster.

After a short stint in accounting, you started your legal career with Allen & Overy in the United Kingdom and worked in the UK before moving to Australia. Why did you pursue a career in law?

When I was growing up, I had a rules-based mind. I was always thinking about ‘what’s the rule here?’, ‘Has that person breached a rule?’ and ‘How can I evidence that?’ That was innate in me and as a grew older I had a deep sense of wanting to have a role in the administration of justice and seeing justice done.

After at first studying accountancy and working as an accountant, I soon worked out that I was better with words than I was with numbers. When I took two law modules in the accountancy course, contracts law and tort law, I topped the class and I realised that I might be better suited to the law. I’m glad I made the switch.

After Allen & Overy, you worked at Mishcon de Reya before becoming a barrister in London acting for corporations and high-net-worth individuals in complex commercial litigation and insolvency matters in the High Court. What was that like?

I was working at the Bar in London, wig and gown, robed and I absolutely loved it. With one of my last cases I was acting for a significant party and being instructed by a major law firm in front of the judge, Justice William Blair, the elder brother of former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Just before I moved to the Bar, I met a wonderful Australian woman in London and we now have two children together. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but like every good Australian woman my wife thought that there’s no place like Australia to raise children and that’s what brought us out here to Sydney.

A lot of people have asked me why I didn’t join the Bar in New South Wales, but I felt that all the legal and soft skills that I had acquired during my career would give me a real advantage as a solicitor here, and that I could set up a successful disputes and insolvency law firm. We prefer to practice ‘solicitor-led’ litigation, rather than ‘barrister-led’ litigation, which means that we grapple directly with legal questions, rather than relying on counsel. It’s going well and I’ve found that our clients like what we offer.

As a small firm, you are handling high-profile, complex matters that are traditionally the preserve of larger firms. How have you done that?

It’s been very interesting here. In Australia, Ironbridge Legal has won work which it would have struggled to win in England. In England, there is quite frankly more snob value in a firm’s name, whereas Australia, true to its reputation, is a country that likes small business. People here are given a chance to showcase their skills and then win trust and confidence. It’s also deeply relationship based here and I like that.

One of the ways I first won work here was through creating a more even footing with the bigger firms. I said to prospective clients, ‘Let me prepare a strategy paper and then you can compare us against the other firms.’ I did that and we got matters largely based on the strength of the strategy papers, whereas we might not have even been given the opportunity in England because our name is not Allen & Overy or Herbert Smith Freehills.

That was an eyeopener for me because I realised that I could develop a first-class firm here. We can get referrals from big law firms who feel confident in working with us because they know when their clients are referred to us they’ll get a similar intellectual product to what they would produce, that their clients will be well looked after and that we won’t be stealing their client relationship. That’s critical to our offering with our referrers – we don’t steal the relationship. We don’t ‘cut their grass’.

When you require additional lawyers for big matters, what do you do?

What has really been an enabling factor is the gig economy and the rise of some of the outsourced service providers. If I’ve got a big document review exercise, I can quickly get in paralegals to review documents while maintaining in-house quality control. If we need more senior lawyers, there are companies who can provide us with high-calibre lawyers who can quickly integrate into our team. Many of the perceived handicaps of a small firm’s capacity are not really there. We invest a lot of time on our service-provider relationships because if we do need to get some external support, we want to be favoured among the service providers.

You now have to juggle your roles as a lawyer and principal. How would you describe your management and leadership approach?

My management style continues to evolve. I try to be as hands-off as possible and allow people to flourish and think for themselves. Everyone who we employ has got something valuable to add to a matter and I don’t want anyone feeling that they can’t make a contribution because that would deny the firm what could be a pearl of wisdom and hinder someone’s growth and confidence. We often debate issues as a team and I don’t have a monopoly on the way forward or the right answers. People have ownership of the issues and they drive matters forward and want to do well. I have found this approach allows staff to grow their competencies very rapidly, as well as helping them feel intellectually challenged and satisfied with their work. They want to get it right and grow and they like the fact that they have a degree of autonomy, but with support and supervision.

So you empower your lawyers and staff.

That’s right. The thing that makes my heart sing is when a client calls one of the associates and says ‘I’ve got a question for you’, or even a new matter. I want people to go out and develop their own careers and practice because that will be good for them and it helps them not to be a backroom lawyer just grinding away doing the production work. I want people to be fully rounded lawyers. I want an environment where people feel absolutely free to share their intellectual and strategic ideas on matters. It’s critical that they’re not shot down, or feel as though they’re too junior to make a valuable contribution. Ironbridge Legal employs bright people, so why not capitalise on that?

What else do you do on the management front to make the firm an employer of choice?

I try to check in with all employees regularly so that I’m involved with them professionally. I ensure I check in with all employees at least weekly, and we also have an appraisal process that is best seen as a career-development tool. So while we reflect on the past 12 months of work, we intend for it to be a forward-looking career development plan. Lots of smaller firms don’t do this – they just bumble along. We want to be investing in the development of our staff and thinking about where they’re going in the next 12 months and how they can get there. I think we have fostered an enjoyable and supportive workplace, where employees form relationships, not only within the firm, but also more broadly.

Finally, what advice would you give to other boutique firms seeking to succeed in the Australian market?

Well, I feel unqualified to give advice to other law firms, having made many mistakes myself! However, and this may sound cliched, my big focus is on people and culture. If you have excellent people and you treat them well, they will sell the merits of your firm to others. Make sure your people have a great experience and feel intrinsically valued. They’re not a tin of beans on a supermarket shelf just there to generate revenue. At Ironbridge Legal, we invest in our employees and that makes them great, happy lawyers and staff. Clients also recognise that cultural approach of our firm and it endears us to them, too.  Happy lawyers generally will always do a better job for the firm’s clients.

Don’t neglect your external partners either. We go to great lengths to nurture strong relationships with external parties such as our barristers. We also invest heavily in relationships with our clients, getting to know the people, their commercial drivers and how the business works.  This helps us to provide commercially sound legal advice tailored to the needs of the business.

The last point I’d make is to encourage smaller firms to just go out there and try to get work that others might not feel they can win because they’re a boutique firm. A big part of our success has been through targeting high-profile matters. I have conversations with potential clients and say, ‘Give us an opportunity. We just want to showcase what we can do.’ Lawyers don’t do enough of that, which is why there are loads of sole practitioners and small firms out there who would like to be doing what we’re doing but they just don’t have the confidence to pitch for more complex work. If that’s where your appetite lies, which is by no means for everyone, give it a go.

* In part two of this Q&A in our next edition, Trevor Withane will explain why the firm has changed its name – and how his team has handled this big branding switch.