Alternative model firms turning to Kiwi company for trendsetting technology

by Sophie Schroder06 Aug 2014
Kiwi company Actionstep has been given the highest praise by an Australian firm that uses the company’s technology to deliver its “dispersed” model successfully to the market.

Marcus McCarthy, the founder of Nexus Law Group, told NZ Lawyer that after a global search for the kind of technology he needed to run his firm, Actionstep was the only one he found that offered it.

“I have spent a lot of time over the past three years on the back end…the software wasn’t really there and practice management software wasn’t resolved enough,” he says. “Actionstep was the first I saw with the capability to run something like this.”

McCarthy says Nexus Law Group is one of only two genuine dispersed firms in Australia. The model is still a unique concept on this side of the world, but sees its lawyers work under a hybrid structure that allows for the flexibility of sole practice, while giving the benefits of traditional firms.

Although lawyers work from their own offices for day-to-day work, they are supported by a central hub that meets back office demands like PI insurance and invoicing.

They are able to choose how much or how little they want to work, and what they’d like to charge for their services.

At McCarthy’s firm, the lawyers get paid 70% of the fees they generate.

A true dispersed firm has to have proper firm-like structure behind it – you could call it a remote chamber practice.

On a global scale, dispersed firms are rapidly growing in importance, partly thanks to the success of their two forefather giants: Keystone Law in the UK and US firm Axiom.

But to deliver a successful and truly dispersed model, you need the right software, says McCarthy.

Actionstep is unique because it’s completely customisable, he says.

“I’ve investigated everyone globally and this is the best I’ve seen…New Zealand seems to be becoming the centre of the universe in terms of all things innovative.”

NZ Lawyer spoke to Actionstep CEO Ted Jordan about the company and its journey.

The South African-born entrepreneur wrote the software for the company just over ten years ago, soon after he moved to New Zealand. Before that, he’d enjoyed a 15-year career in the US in the software industry.

At the beginning, the idea was to provide business solutions for smaller businesses.

“I thought, there has got to be a way to take the 80% of what all businesses do and provide a platform for that,” he says. “That’s the key to Actionstep. It’s a full business system but allows individual businesses to tailor the content. We’re probably one of the first true web-based products on the market. It was way ahead of the curb – cloud hadn’t even been invented as a term.”

But something that Jordan didn’t predict was that lawyers would be the group of professionals to pick up on and embrace the software right from the start.

They kept coming back, so the company adapted the technology more and more for the legal community.

The cloud-based software (which allows you to access it from anywhere) is unique because it’s the users who tell it what they do, not the other way round.

This “workflow” method lets lawyer define the way they want different project types to be handled, including the steps involved in each project and the associated tasks that need to be completed at each step.
Last week the very latest version, Actionstep 14, was launched. An exhaustive process of interviewing clients was undertaken, which included videotaping them using the software to pick up on facial clues about usability of features.

The client-driven changes have been included in the new version.

One, a scratch pad that supplants easy-to-misplace handwritten sticky notes, allows lawyers to electronically “dump” any observations they have throughout the working day and come back to them later.

The other key feature is a social media-type programme; similar to a Facebook “wall”, but that is work specific.

“The first thing people want to do when they come into the office is see what’s happened since they were last there,” says Jordan. “[With this] you can see commentary of what’s been happening in the firm on an [online] timeline. This one was really created by our clients…I don’t know anyone else who has done it.”

Although the majority of Actionstep clients are still in NZ, the fastest growing sectors are abroad - mainly in the US, and more recently, Australia.

Jordan says firms using a dispersed model like McCarthy’s Nexus Law Group is another growth market for the company within the legal sector.

“A lot of firms are trying to create themselves by bringing in talent dispersed by specialty, geography or both,” he says, using one of his clients who runs a dispersed firm as an example. “He’s attracting people who’ve been in the bigger law firms working hideous hours for not a lot of pay back, and they’re now getting to their 40s. These people can just jump out of the corporate and sign on with him.”

He hasn’t heard of firms of this type in New Zealand yet, although Actionstep does have many Kiwi clients with multiple offices that find the software helpful.

“Our first Kiwi firm came on board in 2005 and we’ve been growing steadily since. We do everything by what clients want.”