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Q&A: Zinta Harris – "I want to live my life well, both inside and outside the law."

In this Q&A, Resolve Estate Law principal Zinta Harris explains how she is trying to change the approach to contested estates law, and why she renamed her successful former firm as part of a rebranding initiative.

You have been vocal in calling for a change to the traditional approach to contested estates law that can result in grieving families being further torn apart by financial disputes. What’s been the problem?

“After more than 20 years working as a specialist estates lawyer, I have seen too many grieving families ripped apart fighting over someone’s hard-earned inheritance, spending galling sums of money in legal costs doing so. I have always tried to resolve disputed matters wherever possible, but our litigation process meant that most mediations when held were very late stage ‘last-ditch’ horse-trade negotiations when the damage to family relationships had already been done in caustic correspondence, or worse still in publicly court-filed affidavit material. It was not until I came across the collaborative practice resolution model used widely and successfully in the Family Law context that it dawned on me that there could be a better way for families facing a dispute over inheritance.

“Offering an early-stage resolution pathway provides a more compassionate, holistic, less pressured way of reaching settlement to families who want to do what they can to keep the peace within the family, preserve the inheritance and stay out of court. Applying the model in the estate planning context (i.e. pre-death facilitated family discussions regarding the estate plan while the will-maker is still alive) has the benefit of preventing estate disputes from happening in the first place.

“The benefits are not limited to clients. I’m in a few online Facebook community groups where I hear about a lot of professionals, particularly women, who stop practising law because of its aggressive and gladiatorial approach. There are plenty of women, and men, who are tired of engaging in that aggressive fashion. They’d prefer to become positive problem-solvers and work in a collegiate environment, particularly because we are dealing with clients who are in grief over the loss of a loved one, which is hard enough without added conflict. Working as part of a multidisciplinary professional team (think lawyers, financial advisor and communications coach) for a constructive client-centred outcome is far more satisfying than fighting a battle that no one wins.”

You recently took out the honour of Sole Practitioner of the Year at the Women in Law Awards and gained recognition as Queensland Trailblazer of the Year through the Women Lawyers Association of Queensland. What does such recognition mean to your firm?

“It’s been really lovely. Never in my 20-plus years of working in the law have I ever received recognition like this. Only in the past couple of years have I started to talk about doing things differently in the contested estates space and bringing collaborative practice into that space. The awards mean that at least some of my well-respected peers don’t think I’m crazy. It also means I now get a chance to use my voice a bit more boldly and encourage other practitioners to consider the way they practice and change what they might be doing to provide a better and more personal and compassionate approach to contested estate matters.”

Was there a trigger behind the decision to focus on a more collaborative approach to estate law?

“As a woman and a mother, I’ve loved practising the law and I’ve had a small firm for many years. But until both of my young kids were at school, I hadn’t lifted my eyes to the next horizon of what I was wanting to do during what I’m somewhat jokingly calling my ‘twilight years’ in the profession. I figure that I have about 10 to 15 years left in my career and I’d really like to put my experience to practise in a way that might change the way things are done – not just for my clients, but also for other lawyers practising in this area.”

What’s been the result for you?

“I’ve been able to practise on my own terms, and while that presents its own set of challenges, it has given me the autonomy and freedom to practise the way I want to practise and make my firm fit around my life rather than the other way around. Doing what I can to bring change to the area of law that I love the most is enormously satisfying and has sparked in me a renewed energy and enthusiasm for the work I do every day.”

As part of your revamp, you have rebranded your firm and changed the name from Harris Law to Resolve Estate Law. Why?

“My firm that had been trading as Harris Law for almost 15 years was known for estate law and business law. When I decided to focus on contested estates and complex estate administration I needed to carve the business and commercial work away from my practice to niche into my chosen fields. So, I felt it was the right time to build a new brand and website that would speak to what we do. The look, the content and even the fonts for the Resolve Estate Law website have all been very carefully chosen. Brand is far more than a business name and a logo. Your brand represents who you are as a person and how you communicate to the clients you want to attract to your firm. Our font, colours, images and the whole website are based around the idea that the different stages of grief are like an ocean. We also feature a Japanese ‘kintsugi’ bowl. Gold is used to repair these ancient bowls when they are broken. It symbolises the fact that sometimes when things are broken they can be put back together again and be even more beautiful than ever. That sums up our whole approach as a firm – helping clients go through a difficult journey with dignity.”

The death, or at least the struggle, of smaller firms has been predicted for a number of years now. How important has it been to practice in niche areas such as contested estates and complex estate administration work rather than trying to service all customers in estate law?

“Niching is absolutely the key. I’m a dual accredited specialist in business law and succession law, so I thought I was already quite niched. However, I was doing a lot of business succession work and other structuring work, and I was doing estate planning, estate administration and the contested estates work. So, when I stopped for long enough to really analyse what I wanted to do over the next 10 to 15 years of my working life, I asked myself, ‘What is it that I love, love, love? I may be good at the other stuff, but if I don’t really love it – why keep doing it?’ It takes an element of bravery to slice off big sections of your practice and start referring that work away, but I haven’t looked back. Once I came across the concept of collaborative practice and realised no one was bringing it into estate law or training others on how to do it, I decided, ‘Okay, that’s going to be my thing’. Even after letting the business law aspects go and focusing on the estates work, I have since let the estate planning part of my practice go, too. Niching allows me to focus on just the areas that I enjoy the most. So, I’m constantly niching down my practice.”

Your experience demonstrates the importance of having a business plan that evolves. Right?

“Yes, niching is one element, the other is pinpointing your favourite type of clients. There are some people who ring up who I can tell in the first 10 minutes of the call that they are not going to be the client for me. So, it’s about having courage and understanding in my gut that I don’t need every client in my practice. If I know what taking on the wrong client type is going to mean for my own stress and the stress of my team, it is easier to not take the client on at the outset and direct them to another firm that might be a better fit for them. My messaging on my website is very specifically speaking to a certain client type – those who want to resolve their estate issues, those who don’t want to put the boxing gloves on and head straight to court. I’m speaking to people who have a genuine interest in trying to keep a family relationship going, or at least don’t want to waste an inheritance fighting over it. Niching is one thing, but knowing who you like to work for and knowing how to address their needs is a key thing for any firm.”

You have spoken in the past about the importance of “approach, attitude and character”. Why are these qualities so important and how do you go about ensuring that you deliver on these fronts?

“They are intrinsically linked to my values. I want to live my life well, both inside and outside the law. For example, showing compassion to others is just as important in my personal life as it is in my law life. So the approach we take with our clients is first and foremost a compassionate one. Compassion is not just a word we put on our website, but our whole approach and attitude is to genuinely show clients compassion during their most difficult time. So, when we meet clients for the first time they receive a welcome care pack from us that includes a calming essential oil and a beautiful herbal tea. We give them a copy of my book, Rest in Peace: How to Manage an Estate Dispute Without Inheriting Heartache. It has a whole section on grief and explains how estates can be contested. Although we cover off on all of the things that are concerning our clients the most and what their expectations are, we also ask clients to consider what’s most important to them; what they value most in life. Getting them to focus on what’s most important to them drives them to a place where they can be more centred in making decisions. Then they’re not making decisions in a reactive way. And if we see clients struggling, we encourage them to work with grief counsellors or finance specialists who can help them better understand the impact of an estate settlement on their actual life rather than as a percentage slice of an estate. Coping generally after the loss of a loved one is hard enough, let alone coping with the overlay of family conflict, so ensuring clients are properly supported by counsellors and other professionals can make a huge difference. It’s like having a team of Sherpas who can help them navigate this really dark valley they are in to get them through to a point where they can actually see what their future might look like. It’s a completely different approach.”

Your firm consists of yourself, a solicitor and a jack-of-all-trades law student. What are the key challenges that you face as a smaller firm?

“Resourcing is always an issue, although I’ve been very lucky because I’ve had a solid team for eight years. You need to work out who in your team can do what and how best to share tasks so that we are being efficient at what we do, while at the same time trying to improve how we do what we do. With our law student, for example, she is keen to try anything and everything. We call her our social media manager, too, because she enjoys that side of the business – she puts together blog posts for the website, has worked up our e-book resources and implements the social media plan that promotes our resources to potential clients and tells other estate lawyers, financial advisors and communications coaches about our upcoming collaborative practice training. We also outsource to other people who help us with things like email nurturing, managing the back end of my website, and building out our professional services products. This means my solicitor and I can stick to doing the ‘lawyering’, looking after our clients and expanding the collaborative practice training. The only thing is admin – if only I could work out how to run a firm without any admin!”

Can you tell us about the culture of your firm and your leadership style?

“I’ve always tried to not have a hierarchy. For example, it makes sense for me to hop up and do my own photocopying because I’m two seconds away from the copier. I don’t have an us-and-them thing going on, but I think my team still respect me as their boss and leader. We work from my home office, three days a week, and we spend the lunch hour together around the table. We operate almost like a family in that sense, and we laugh a lot together. We get along well and everyone is open to throwing ideas around. My very first boss made the point that people are at work for eight hours a day. His attitude was that if you’re not loving what you’re doing, then let the firm help you find a way out that leads to a better job or career. I have to agree – life is just too short to work hard at something that you don’t love.”

Not everyone can work efficiently from a home office. How do you do it?

“When I first started Harris Law I used to have physical offices at Christie Spaces in the city, but after starting a family I moved the office home, so now I am a ‘virtual tenant’ at Christies and I just book rooms there when I need to see clients. In terms of home offices, a lot of other lawyers from larger firms looking to strike out on their own ask me how I do it. The one tip I have, if you can do it, is to have a home office that has no internal connection to the house. I have to physically walk out my front door, go down my steps and then unlock my office door to work. It also means that I am not easily distracted by home life, when I am at work, or by work when I am at home. Setting up this way means I can switch on and switch off.”

What do you do on the marketing front that has allowed you to build your new brand and business?

“Taking the opportunity to talk about what I do and how I do it differently through forums such as interviews, podcasts and speaking engagements has been very effective. Most importantly, my book  Rest in Peace is something I worked hard on and it’s now a crucial part of my bid to bring collaborative law into the contested estates space in a two-pronged way. First, I need to get the word out to the general public – to let them know there are out-of-court pathways available to them to resolve disputes over inheritance. Second, I have to train professionals about this innovative approach, so that clients can engage lawyers who will help them stay out of court. The book is also the ultimate business card because I can pass it around to prospective clients who are facing a family dispute over inheritance. It’s not a legal text; it’s written for the layperson in an easy to understand way. With other marketing efforts, it may sound ho-hum but I’m quite active on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. I want to make sure that my profile on those platforms speaks not only of my law firm, but also the person I am and what my life looks like. Some law firms really worry that posting on social media will come across as unprofessional, but the key is to put up content that is helpful to your clients or referrers and that shows who you are as a person. That’s important because clients these days are choosing lawyers by asking for recommendations and then googling you as a firm and a person before they pick up the phone or write you an email. They have to make a choice between you and someone else who may not have a profile beyond a stiff CV on a firm’s website. If we can show clients we are human, too, we will become more approachable to them. It doesn’t matter to me if I’m not everyone’s cup of tea; in fact, that’s another way of making sure I am not attracting clients who won’t be a good fit.”

Do you have any other advice for law firm leaders?

“I’d encourage lawyers, even those who are very experienced, to not forget your ‘why’ in the law. Make sure you really know why you are doing what you are doing because that is what’s going to give the purpose to everything you do. It’s also important to back yourself. I wish I had backed myself when I was starting out at 30 rather than doing it now pushing 50! Don’t be afraid to reach out to mentors and join communities of like-minded lawyers who will be a positive influence and a place where you can get support when you need it. Finally, if you think there is a better way to do something, then challenge the status quo. Be a change-maker – because if you don’t, who will?”