Fundamentals make a law firm flourish

by Sol Dolor01 Sep 2018

Andrew Poole’s leadership experience in the world of large law firms spans more than a decade. Now that he’s at MinterEllisonRuddWatts as the new chief executive, he says that the key to having a law firm flourish remains in the fundamentals of the organisation.

Technology has had and will continue to have a major impact on the business of law, but firms that succeed do not lose sight of two basic focus points, he says.

In this interview, the senior lawyer also discusses what made him return to a leadership role in a large law firm after moving to the not-for-profit sector. He also talks about what attracted him to MinterEllisonRuddWatts, and what his short-term and long-term goals for the top-tier firm are.

What is special or different about law firms that has attracted you back into a leadership role?

I often describe law firms to those in the corporate world as being like a jigsaw; every partner, and every person in a firm, is a separate piece in the jigsaw. The challenge is in ensuring that everyone feels like – and is – a unique piece in the jigsaw while the world sees a joined up, coherent picture.

In my mind, law firms combine the rigour and discipline of the corporate model with the joint ownership and commitment, as well as the sense of being trustees for a time, that you might more readily associate with a co-operative or iwi.

I also like that we are in the business of law. Law firms are a great combination of a profession bound by a code of ethics and a group of people working collectively for a common commercial aim, operating very much on business principles. 

Andrew Poole

What attracted you back to the law and to MinterEllisonRuddWatts?  

I’ve never really left the law or the law firm world. After leaving my last law firm leadership role, I spent two years working in the not-for-profit sector, as well as corporate advisory work where I advised a range of law firms and other corporates. That varied mix has, I think, given me a better and broader insight into what it takes to lead a successful enterprise. 

I was attracted to the MinterEllisonRuddWatts role by a number of things. It was clear to me from the outside that the firm has real momentum in the market and a lot of ambition. The firm also has a number of key distinguishing features which help it stand out in a crowded and competitive market. The firm’s culture – in particular its obvious commitment to diversity – as well as truly being part of an international network are both very attractive features. 

What are your thoughts on the New Zealand legal market?

It’s a highly competitive market which is continuing to be impacted by features that are common to firms around the world.

Technology has already had a significant impact – and there is no doubt more to come – on the way firms operate and how advice is delivered to our clients. Client buying power has increased hugely. Firms have had to adjust to the client being at the centre of their world, as has been the case in a number of other sectors for years. Also, what excites and motivates millennials is in many cases quite different from what excited those of us who came into practice some time ago.

The firms that succeed are those with an acute focus on clients, who understand their clients’ businesses, their sectors and how to deliver commercial advice, as well as being tech savvy. Even more fundamental, as has always been the case, is having great people.  While technology is playing a greater role, I believe law firms will always want to attract, retain and promote outstanding people.

What are your short-term goals for MinterEllisonRuddWatts?

It is very early days, and I’m only a few weeks in to the chief executive role. Our board has asked me, alongside our management team, to take a fresh look at our strategy. I want to ensure we have a very clear, well-understood and widely accepted vision, purpose and strategy for moving the firm forward. 

I’m also very keen to ensure that where we make change, we preserve that fundamental DNA that has made the firm successful to date and in particular has seen significant growth over the last several years.

What about in five years’ time?  Where would you like to see the firm?

I think it is easy to get overly complicated in setting a firm’s vision. I’m sure that every firm wants to have the best people doing the best work for the best clients. In simple terms, that is where I would love to see our firm in five years’ time.

I also want to ensure the firm continues to be progressive, to innovate and to be a leader in the adoption of technology for our and our clients’ benefit.

Are there lessons that our sector can learn from the big accounting firms? 

We can probably learn lessons from each other actually. For a range of reasons, I think it is easier for the big accounting firms to offer a consistency of client experience and to focus more easily on processes and project management. These things are all within the ability of law firms to demonstrate also.

How important is it to be able to offer global services?

I think it is very important, and it’s an obvious differentiator for our firm. Not every client will be conducting business internationally, but almost every client’s business has been impacted by increasing globalisation. The ability to offer seamless service across a network comprising 15 offices is of huge significance and benefit to our clients.

Any closing comments or thoughts about your new role?

It is great to be back in the large law firm world. To some degree, all firms share a common thread of DNA, but all remain different from each other. I am relishing the challenge of getting to understand our firm’s DNA better and working with our partners and staff to ensure we have the best people providing the best advice for the best clients over the coming years.