29 April 2017

Q&A: David Creais – “The mystique around what lawyers do has largely dissipated and people expect value for money”

This article was originally publish on Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Marketing & Business Development,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership April 29, 2017

 

In this Q&A, Bartier Perry chairman and acting CEO David Creais explains how consistency has helped the firm thrive for 75 years; why it plans to stick to its strengths in NSW; and how consumerism is changing the landscape for all lawyers.

Your firm has just celebrated its 75th anniversary. What is the key to such longevity?

“It comes back to culture and people and a conscious focus on continuous improvement. The culture here means that we support each other and we attract good people. With our employees we’re certainly looking for quality, but we also seek people who are a good cultural fit. Yet we also embrace diversity and we want people who are well rounded. This means they are hard-working, intelligent and insightful, plus with a personality and interests outside law. If our team has that combination, observing market trends and reacting to market trends by delivering on our clients’ wants and needs becomes something within our capability. That’s what we’ve done.”

Can you tell us more about what constitutes employees being a good cultural fit?

“We’re looking for the whole package. It’s pointless having someone who is hard-working and intelligent if all they do is come to work and sit at their work station and then go home. That is not helping the culture of the firm. By the same token, having someone who is very pleasant socially but who can’t provide the high performance that we require; that’s not going to work either. We hire and support people who can add to the performance of the firm by being able to consistently improve it. Improvement comes through genuine relationships internally and, of course, with our clients, along with legal expertise, efficient systems and industry knowledge.”

What’s your view on pursuing growth for Bartier Perry in a market where many firms are pushing the boundaries?

“We’ve grown in a very ordered and steady way. Perhaps that is a result of our focus on culture, people and continuous improvement. We need to be alert to the changes in the market, but we also want to be consistent in how we deliver our work to clients – and that’s something that we bear in mind all the time. That consistency has stood us well over the years. We know our market. We are a NSW-based firm servicing state, Commonwealth and international clients. We have some very longstanding clients with whom we have excellent business relationships. We are constantly building long-term alliances with new, quality clients through our quality people. That’s really what we’ve been doing throughout our history to date and what we intend to keep doing.”

Some people argue that state-based firms will come under pressure in an era of many new start-up firms and the arrival of multinational firms into Australia. What’s your view?

“We certainly believe there is a place for a firm like ours. Our clients report that they find us easy to deal with and don’t tend to focus on our locality. Technology has no border boundaries and, of course, we utilise this. We have observed the global firms coming into Sydney and NSW and we have observed firms going national. We’ve seen a lot of firms that have jumped in and done that and haven’t succeeded and have had to come back from their beachheads. Many firms have collapsed altogether and in a lot of cases they bit off more than they could chew. We will keep an eye on the market and react to our clients’ needs. If they tell us that we need to be in other states then that’s something that’s we’ll consider.”

It sounds as though this consistent approach is reassuring to your clients.

“That’s right – they know what they’re going to get at Bartier Perry, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not striving to improve the quality of our services and the quality of our offering. It just means that we don’t react in a kneejerk manner. We adapt in a measured way to make sure our clients get the service they need. Technology helps us, too, because with all this new technology there’s less of a reason to physically travel all the time. We have a very good IT team here and we can service our clients’ needs if they’re operating nationally or internationally.”

We’ve heard senior leaders of your firm refer to Bartier Perry as a ‘Goldilocks firm’. Is that correct?

“Not too big, not too small – yes it’s been said, but not just by us. When we ask our clients it is often how they describe us. This comes from both our corporate and medium- to small-sized clients. So it is likely an apt view. That isn’t to say that we are not about any growth at all; it’s about consistency, not absence of growth. Nonetheless, we are building quality teams to provide quality service and continually improving that service. We do this at our level very well – by being responsive to our clients and not treating them as faceless people – and we still charge reasonable fees because we don’t have massive overheads.”

What are the key challenges facing Bartier Perry and other firms?

“One of the challenges is consumerism. The public expects more for less. The mystique around what lawyers do has largely dissipated and people rightly expect value for money. The challenge is to provide value. There is also a challenge in terms of technology and the availability of resources. There are many resources out there on the net encouraging people to fill out legal forms themselves. Why get a lawyer for something you can do yourself? So the public needs education to understand that it’s not as simple as just plucking a document off the internet and writing the names and the dates in.”

What about marketing? As an established firm can you simply rely on your long-term networks?

“Our old ties and networks are very important to us – so are our newer clients and networks. It’s the flight-to-quality mantra. This is where the internet and technology is useful because people can see your history and can see that you’ve been there and done that and that you’re consistent and not fly-by-night. That’s a way of using the new technology and visibility. But we also realise that we can’t just sit back and expect clients to come to us. We have just revitalised our brand, including a new website and all that goes with it. It is very different to what we had previously and we have received many compliments on it. But the rebranding isn’t just cosmetic. We invest in educating our staff as to how to use social media and how to build strong networks. We use the internet to help inform our clients as well, using various methods such as webinars. It’s not just a case of having the business development department go out and do the marketing – everybody is involved. Most of our team are lawyers – we’re not natural marketers – so again we invest in our people by giving them education about how to go about marketing.”

Lawyers are more mobile and connected than ever before. Does that make communication easier or harder?

“You have to be very careful. It’s very easy for the communication to become muddled, whereby you start to rely too much on the technology and not enough on face-to- communication or even verbal communication over the phone. We are conscious about being balanced. We are lawyers and we know that words can be interpreted in all sorts of ways and, without seeing people’s body language, that use of technology can be dangerous. It really is about finding a happy medium.”

Can you give us an example?

“In terms of addressing the whole firm, having weekly face-to-face meetings would take up too much time. So we have quarterly ‘town hall’ meetings where the CEO addresses the whole firm and tells the whole firm what’s going on. But every Friday we send out an email to the whole firm notifying them of anything of special interest, informing them of any wins we’ve had, and letting them know about social activities going on in the firm. So it’s a dual strategy.”

Bartier Perry is an incorporated practice with a board of five, including you as chair. What management philosophies do you bring to the role?

“Our philosophy is that you do what you do and you do it well and then you find ways to do it better. The primary plank of management for me is clear communication, upstream and downstream. Without clear communication I don’t think you can fulfil your goals. Poor communication becomes a real distraction. We try to be as transparent as we can. The second plank is to set a strategy and focus on the strategy in everything you do, knowing that at times the plans will have to be adapted and varied. Thirdly, we must remember at all times that culture trumps strategy; it’s not just a cliché, it’s very true. So that means making sure we don’t sacrifice our culture for the sake of strategy.”

What does the future hold for Bartier Perry?

“First and always, we’re focused on building the quality of our services and that, in turn, will build the quality of our clients. To do that, we need to attract and retain the right people. Second, we’re building our services in our four key markets – private clients, private companies, insurers and government entities. The third thing we’re intending to do, which we’ve already started to do, is to become more visible. We’ve been quiet achievers and we do good work and we’ve been around for a long time and we’ve been growing, but we’ve been hiding our light under a bushel. Now we’re planning to achieve without being so quiet about it. And, of course, we intend to be around for another 75 years at least.”