Why Wilson Harle keeps winning

by Edward Cranswick06 Apr 2019

For five years in a row, Wilson Harle has picked up the Litigation and Dispute Resolution Specialist Law Firm of the Year award at the annual New Zealand Law Awards.

We interviewed Wilson Harle’s four partners – Ian Denton, Allison Ferguson, Felicity Monteiro, and Chris Browne – recently so we could get a sense of what makes Wilson Harle stand out from the crowd.

Partly it’s culture, partly it’s market niche. Because of their smaller size, they have fewer conflicts of interest than bigger firms, and so this allows them to fill a space that might otherwise be unavailable.

But it’s the culture they’ve developed over the years which brings clients to their firm rather than a similar sized competitor.

That culture actually began at another firm, where the founders of Wilson Harle worked as a team that was somewhat separate from the rest of the firm. When the cultures of the team and that of the firm started to go in different directions, nineteen of them split off and formed Wilson Harle. Having a core culture and a core direction from the outset meant that Wilson Harle didn’t have to implement over-the-top strategies to foster a culture from the top down. Rather – the culture was just a natural expression of the tribe.

Felicity Monteiro wasn’t there at the founding, but actually worked up through the ranks at Wilson Harle. She says there isn’t a formal ‘mentoring’ program at the firm, but that mentoring is implicit at every stage. She fondly remembers receiving feedback – criticism, actually – from a senior associate in her first year “just for the sake of giving me feedback”, not because it would make any material difference to the matter, but just for the sake of helping her to improve.

For Ian Denton, when he started out with Wilson Harle, he was juggling a family with a six month old baby, but he “had no hesitation in taking this financial risk in going to this fleeting firm” which was “an obvious candidate for success”. It was a confidence borne of “working with people I respected and enjoy working with”.

We asked Denton for his predictions of where the legal profession was heading in the years to come:

“I think that there will be a continued pressure on firms to adopt flexible working practices and support of health which enables people to work flexibly … I think the other thing that they’d be pressured to do is continuously finding a way to reduce the cost in the legal firm. I think we’d be winding up with more streamlining and less formality in many things. Anything in the next few years is going to be how to get out that cost of litigation and stop doing things that don’t really provide value to the thing we’re trying to achieve.”

To that end, technology has a significant role. But technology is important for Wilson Harle, Denton says, to the extent that it “reflects our collaborative approach to practice.”

“It’s actually the basis for people to discuss things face-to-face or over the phone, including with clients. So, the technology that we use has helped … Everybody has tablets, whether it be an iPad or else, but that’s sort of helped us to live around and work and plan in the office. That means people can go to their quiet rooms and think over the phone.”

Given this is a firm known for – and prides itself on – its culture, it would be remiss of us if we didn’t ask the partners for their career advice for younger lawyers.

Chris Browne says:

“To just push yourself. To get uncomfortable. Push on and strive for something more difficult than you’re doing now. So, I think one of the enemies of career growth would be kind of settling and not pushing yourself into something more uncomfortable and striving for more. And I think the other thing that goes with that is patience – it’s priceless. You’ll always have to wait [for the new opportunities] to be in view.”

Allison Ferguson adds that you need to have the confidence to make the difficult career choices – and not waste away pursuing something stagnant or unfulfilling: “That confidence in making the right decisions and then everything will actually come right in the end – because if it feels wrong, then it probably is.”