New Zealand Law Society - Shifting the gears up: ‘new law’ firm’s new approach

Shifting the gears up: ‘new law’ firm’s new approach

Shifting the gears up: ‘new law’ firm’s new approach
Prue Tyler and Kate Watt

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Directors of Auckland ‘new law’ firm Shift Advisory, Prue Tyler and Kate Watt, are reluctant to call themselves ‘disrupters’, but Shift Advisory can be seen, at the least, as doing things differently.

Before I met the pair, I spent some time getting up to speed on ‘new law’ and Shift Advisory’s alternative business model, but what really intrigued me was online feedback, which suggested a fresh approach to running a law firm. I wanted to know: why start Shift Advisory?

“To make things better?” Ms Watt suggested.

“We were inspired by the exponential growth of ‘new law’ overseas” added Ms Tyler, “And mostly we were excited about this new way to practise law at a senior level.”

For those not familiar with the concept, ‘new law’ introduces innovation to the legal industry, covering remote legal servicing, secondments and legal tech, to name a few. New law responds to the different ways lawyers wish to work, creating opportunities to work flexibly. It also meets client demands for new and more efficient ways to access legal services. As a result, secondments, managed legal services, legal tech, virtual law firms, and full-time and part-time flexible working are all examples of the way in which new law is evolving. It has been successful in filling these gaps in overseas legal services markets.

The New Zealand market gap

Ms Tyler and Ms Watt recognised that, in New Zealand too, there was an obvious ‘gap’ in the market – corporates with a need for experienced lawyers to work ‘on the ground’ with their teams to execute projects or cover busy periods or absences, or to bridge a recruitment process.

They say that one of the biggest motivators was the possibility of finding a viable way for lawyers to stay in the law at a senior level while balancing time with their families or life outside of work.

The directors are both senior lawyers themselves, with experience in top-tier private practice and in-house.

“We looked at our friends who had become parents and had stepped out of law altogether because they were faced with this ‘all or nothing’ choice of working all the time, or not at all – and it just seemed like a waste of experience and talent,” says Ms Watt.

“We thought – for ourselves, for our friends and colleagues – it would be so great to provide this new pathway.”

Shift Advisory connects senior lawyers with clients who need them. All their lawyers are experienced, with a minimum of 10 years’ PQE, “but in fact most of our lawyers have 15, 20, even 30 years’ experience,” says Ms Watt.

“The point is that they can all hit the ground running and handle what needs to be handled from day one,” says Ms Tyler, “and our clients appreciate that.”

They say the response has been overwhelmingly positive – Shift Advisory offers a ‘third way’ to access top-quality legal advice – a kind of ‘middle ground’ between instructing a firm, on the one hand, and recruiting directly, on the other.

“We’re a blend of external and in-house legal support,” says Prue Tyler.

The benefit for clients is that bringing a Shift Advisory lawyer in-house is more cost-effective than instructing a traditional firm, but there’s none of the risk associated with hiring direct.

“We do the vetting, we know our lawyers and we know they’re excellent, and our services are completely ‘on-demand’,” says Kate Watt. “So if the project falls over or if it doesn’t work out for any other reason, the client can simply pull the pin – it de-risks it.”

Contracting flexibly

Shift Advisory see themselves as complementary to the traditional firms, not in competition with them.

“There will always be a need for external advice from a great firm,” says Ms Watt. “But sometimes, for corporates, the best way to get things done is to have an experienced senior lawyer on the ground, in the team, talking directly with the business and building those relationships. It’s harder to do so from the outside; you have a different perspective.”

The duo say the model is not new. “IT consultants and other industries have been working this way forever, but it’s new for law,” says Ms Tyler.

“Our lawyers are able to be involved in interesting, challenging projects – but on their terms,” says Ms Watt. “We’re always completely upfront about how many hours our lawyers can offer – we have lawyers working from two to five days a week and we agree up front any flexibility they need to make sure they’re able to fit work in with the rest of their lives.

“It’s about control, flexibility and empowering people – our lawyers set the boundaries themselves. Our clients are amazing and they get it,” says Ms Tyler. “It’s a relationship of trust. They’re happy to have these great people to take things off their hands and they accept the flex.”

The firm also seconds lawyers to other firms – but the same rules apply. Everyone is clear on the time a lawyer can offer from the outset. The directors say that approach makes it possible for their lawyers, particularly parents, to come back into the legal industry in a way which feels “safe” to them – “they know we have their back,” says Ms Watt. “We know all our lawyers well and we check in all the time.”

They say the law firms they deal with, which includes some of the country’s top firms, have been supportive of the model. “A law firm may not be able to spare a senior lawyer for a secondment to a client – so they’ll call us. Often we’ll even be able to second a lawyer who is an alumnus of that firm or who is otherwise known to them,” says Ms Tyler. “It’s a great solution for the client.”

Drawing on key values

The directors say their aim is to build a community of lawyers and clients based on their key values – authenticity, flexibility, freedom, collaboration, trust and respect.

“We have no hierarchy – we’re a flat structure and we respect the needs and boundaries of everyone who joins the team,” says Ms Watt. “We’re really proud to have helped lots of parents come back into the workforce on their own terms, but many of our lawyers have decided to join us for other reasons and many choose to work full-time.”

They say Shift Advisory offers a way for lawyers returning from overseas to re-enter the New Zealand market, when finding a permanent role might be more challenging, “Particularly when they’ve been away a long time and don’t have recent New Zealand experience,” says Ms Tyler. “Which can be a bit of a barrier here.”

The Shift Advisory team includes a number of flexible-working senior lawyers. “At this stage in their career they may not want to jump straight into a permanent role unless it’s absolutely perfect and those great, challenging, senior leadership-type roles don’t come up all the time,” says Ms Watt. “In the meantime, Shift secondments are a great way to test out a new role or industry without that full commitment and often, when it’s a great match, they’ll lead to the perfect permanent role.”

The two women also work this way – they second themselves to Shift’s clients from time to time. “We really enjoy it, we have great clients,” says Ms Watt.

“It takes courage to work like this,” says Ms Tyler, “But it’s a totally viable option now”. “I don’t know if the tolerance or support for this kind of flexible working would have been there five years ago, let alone 10.”

The human element

Most of Shift Advisory’s business is in Auckland and “growing organically” the directors explain. There is potential for operations to spread nationwide, but the focus remains on getting the best match for the clients and the lawyers.

“What we take very seriously is getting to know our clients and lawyers well, which is a bit more difficult when they’re not in Auckland,” says Kate Watt.

Prue Tyler says that’s important for two reasons: “We need to match a client’s needs with the lawyer with the perfect skill-set. But just as important is a great cultural fit.”

As Shift Advisory’s directors are practising lawyers themselves, they understand what their clients are after. “We get it.” says Ms Watt, “We’ve done the jobs our lawyers are doing, and we still do – we’re not going to send a litigator to do the job of a corporate lawyer. We’d rather not send anyone than the wrong person.”

But figuring out people is “what we enjoy and love most about it,” adds Ms Watt, “and we love it when we make the perfect match.”

The future of CPD

When I ask about their own work/life balance both directors say the dial is turning in the right direction. “We have great people around us – our bookkeepers, business advisors and IT people in particular – and our new business manager Arna, who is just phenomenal. Again, we run a flat structure – we engage great people and trust that they’re nailing it. I think because of that everyone is always going above and beyond.”

Their own desire to have that balance led to their incorporating a wellness element into the CPD sessions and events they run for their lawyers.

“Right from the beginning we were aware that we were going to need to find a way to make our lawyers, who are working disparately, feel part of the Shift Advisory community and the Shift team,” says Ms Watt. They say they focus hard on doing just that, and their quarterly CPD events are part of that community building.

“We felt that boozy lunches had been done enough and corporate clients – our clients – can get a lot of that. We decided to do a meditation afternoon with great food and some Ecology [non-alcoholic gin] cocktails for some quiet time, it’s what we needed, too!

“We thought, it’s actually what we’d like to do – so let’s just run with that.” They say it was a novel format in the Christmas lead-up but well-received. “We invited both lawyers and clients to the same event, which we’ve continued to do since – it was really collegial.”

This month, Shift Advisory will host a session based on executive culture and healthy mindful leadership.

“The people we have on board are so senior, some are leaning towards leadership and governance roles,” says Ms Tyler. “They’re possibly using us as a stepping-stone to a leadership role. We want to offer them the relevant training, because they’re at that level in their careers.”

The future of law

The proudest part they both note has been empowering people to stay in the law, or return to it, in a way which works with the rest of their lives.

“We’ve found two, three day a week-secondments for women who’d been out of the workforce for six, seven years, who were struggling to find a part-time permanent role and who’d lost their confidence a bit – that makes us happy,” says Ms Tyler. “We have a dad on the team who is doing some part-time work on the side, from where and when he wants, while setting up his own business. There’s no limit to the ways in which this can work.”

The pair themselves might not always get away from work, but as directors they aren’t restricted to offices or desks.

“The joy of having your own business is that, despite having to work reasonably hard, you can do it from where and when you want,” says Ms Watt. “We can go home and see our kids early and work at night if we want to.”

Both directors believe the rest of the profession isn’t being complacent about the significant changes needed to address an increasing demand for work/life balance.

“It’s sort of been thrust upon them. People are coming in and are not willing to work the way that we did,” says Ms Tyler. “It will be interesting to see how things change.”

“Making things better,” as Ms Watt so simply put it, isn’t about promising disruption, it’s about committing to difference. Prue Tyler and Kate Watt have simply shifted the definition of what makes a successful law firm.

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