Michael Bradley has turned the business model of law firms on its head. Read on to hear about how thinking consciously about being a lawyer helped him to come up with something quite different.
This is the second in the series on lawyers and sustainability. The First part is about whether lawyers are different.
If you believe what I heard a lawyer say recently, “Lawyers suffer four times the mental health issues of the rest of the population”, then its hard to comprehend why lawyers do what they do. Even more so when happiness as a lawyer is (largely) inversely correlated with levels of pay. Yep, you read that right – the more lawyers get paid, the less happy they are.
Whether the mental health stats are true or not hardly matters – lawyers, as a profession, self-reportedly need to do more to tackle the issues with their culture and their business model.
If you think I’m being a bit harsh, then the story by The American Lawyer (one of the most commercial specialist lawyer publications) on life as a Lawyer in a Big Firm should set things straight.
One person who is doing more is Michael Bradley, of Marque Lawyers. No doubt he and the firm aren’t perfect, but they’ve gone a long way to reinventing culture and the business model of typical law firms. I met him on a sombre day in Sydney’s recent history and we discussed the successes and failures of law firms when it comes to CSR.
Michael Bradley, Marque Lawyers
Q. How is Marque Lawyers different to any other law firm?
We are one of very few law firms anywhere who genuinely offer value pricing instead of time costing, rather than just talk about doing it. However, the truly unique aspects of our business are deeper than that.
First, we are not motivated by money. We measure success by happiness, and our happiness comes from the quality of the work we do, how much we enjoy working with our clients and the degree of enrichment we each derive from spending every day together as a community of people with a common goal. Sounds fluffy, but it isn’t at all – maximising profits isn’t hard, maximising happiness is a genuine challenge.
Secondly, we accept, embrace and celebrate the fact that we are human and we don’t pretend to be anything else. There’s plenty special about the law; there’s nothing special about lawyers. So, we work very hard to ensure that every form of interaction you have with us is consistently and authentically ‘us’.
Lawyers and Sustainability – Think Differently
Q. How important is CSR/sustainability in being a different kind of law firm?
It’s a question of values and balance. I think that the corporate world’s approach to these questions has tended to place things the wrong way around – it’s a bit like the American approach to philanthropy which says that, first, you get rich, then you give it away.
Being socially responsible and sustainable, if it’s going to have any real meaning at all, can’t be something you treat as an aspiration which you’ll get to once you’ve achieved material success. It must be integral to success. For us, if we weren’t dedicating a significant proportion of our resources and energy to things about which we feel passionate, such as public interest work, then we wouldn’t feel balanced and we wouldn’t feel successful.
Q. Law firms were quick to embrace certain aspects of CSR, although are often slow to embrace others. What do you think are the drivers of that?
Same thing as above – they’re looking at it as a “nice to have” add-on to their business. The true test is what happens when things go bad – that’s when you see businesses quickly ditching the things they don’t really value (sadly, that often means people). Unless it’s embedded in the DNA of the organisation, CSR (or anything for that matter) will always be fragile and vulnerable.
Q. Gender equality is an issue that has kept many lawyers awake at night. What is Marque doing to tackle that? (and is it creating value for the business)
Such a ridiculous business that this is even still a question, particularly in the legal industry where women have outnumbered men as graduates for many years. In hiring, all you have to do is ignore gender and you won’t have a problem at that level. The same applies to progression. Retention is the tricky part – our solution has been to provide absolute flexibility to our staff and allow them to individually self-manage their careers with the firm’s full and trusting support. They have responded magnificently. Central to that is accepting and embracing the fact that people have lives, and families, and children, and that it can only all work if it’s in balance. What that means is different for each person and each circumstance. So you allow people to find their own balance, and support them.
Trust is the key.
Q. What have you learnt and/or taught through Conscious Capitalism?
I align myself with the basic tenets of Conscious Capitalism. The critical thing in my opinion is that there is a growing recognition that capitalism pursued for profit is devoid of meaning and is contributing to the decline of confidence in Western culture. People seek meaning from their lives, and the business world does not provide it. So, the movement towards finding a genuine purpose in work provides some hope of a better world in the future.
Q. Any tips for engaging with clients on CSR issues?
That’s feasible only if there’s a cultural and philosophical alignment between your business and the client’s business.
[Ed. My experience tells me that asking clients about CSR issues can pre-empt any shifts in procurement that might happen in relation to CSR, and give law firms reasons to be more proactive about their CSR and brand.]
Lawyers, Look Different
Q. Your offices look more like a creative / design hub than like a law firm; Open plan, very few offices and lots of breakout / creative spaces (not rooms). Why is it like that, and how do you reconcile that to a fleet of knowledge workers?
I don’t how you’d reconcile the alternative to knowledge workers. We prioritise communication of all kinds, and we don’t care what the subject matter is. The more people are engaging with each other, the better. Everyone knows that the most productive workforce is one which is happy, engaged and encouraged to be creative and imaginative. The conditions which support this are pretty obvious. However – an office fitout cannot create a positive culture. It can only either support it, or work against it. Ours is designed to support it.
Q. How much of your success is due to being a relatively small law firm? Or putting that another way, how scalable and/or replicable is your business model?
The short answer to this question is that it’s not my problem, but there’s a longer route to the same answer.
I agree with the view that there is a maximum functional size for social groupings – I think it’s around 60, but could be as much as 100 (sociologists come in at around 115). Above that number, communication becomes very difficult and it would be hard to maintain a unified culture. There are two things to say about this.
First, most organisations approach the management of their people from entirely the wrong perspective, so it doesn’t matter how large or small they are, it’s still going to be unpleasant.
Secondly, and most importantly, if you accept (as I do) that at some point it becomes practically impossible to treat employees as human beings, then that just begs the question – why, if your company has no choice but to deal with you as if you were a machine, would you want to work for it?
I simply don’t understand why that makes sense for anyone.
Lawyers, Be Different
Q. Is it true that you have abandoned the billable time model?
Yes. It’s an idiotic model for pricing services (or anything else) and it is demeaning and dehumanising for those who are subjected to it. It serves nobody’s interests.
Q. I rarely see law firms that understand brand in the same ways as their clients do. It looks like Marque Lawyers is all about the brand. How does that impact on what you do?
Actually we’re all about the experience. What we sell to our clients is an experience, the same as any other seller of a product or service. Our brand is designed and curated with the sole purpose of conveying what that experience will be like, and we work very hard to ensure that every aspect of the actual experience is consistent with the impression conveyed by the brand. If we didn’t get that right, the brand would be irrelevant
Q. One of your clients says that you give great non-legal advice. Is that true?
It’s nice to hear that! The greatest pleasure for us as lawyers is when we are able to become so embedded with a client’s business that they look to us for support and advice in a holistic sense, and don’t just see us as the people they call on when they have a problem. Our model of engagement has the purpose of enabling those kinds of relationships to develop.
Lawyers, Prove It
Q. Can you put any hard numbers on how the new approach has helped the bottom line?
Well, we are considerably more profitable than we would be if were doing business the old way. We’re also about 10 billion times more happy. [Ed. He was very happy when we spoke]
On hard numbers, I do understand the importance people place on objective proof (ie hard numbers) that this is a better way, but it would be inconsistent with our philosophy if we started providing that proof. We really don’t mind if others don’t believe us, and we don’t want to convince anyone with the “and it’s good for business too” type of approach you so often see.
It just takes you back then to the problem of seeing things like CSR, purpose and happiness as aspirational goals which are only worth pursuing if they won’t cost money. Therefore, I’ll graciously decline.
Q. Tell me what a Staff training event or presentation looks like at Marque?
- the genetic origins of domestic dogs,
- the odds of dying in a plane crash,
- how to do cryptic crosswords and
- the most ridiculous stage musicals of all time
Lawyers, Watch This
That heading is an imperative. No really, if you are a lawyer – Stop and watch it.
I know you aren’t sure about it, but it will make you smarter. Watch it NOW. (or at least leave it open in a browser, send it to yourself via snapchat, EverNote it or whatever the heck else you use OR send it to your support staff to summarise for you)
And in case you still think he is kidding, here is his email sign off:
We do not disclaim anything about this email. We’re quite proud of it, really.
If you are looking for more inspiration, check out this Washington(-ish) Law Firm started by women with child-friendliness in mind. And do read the New York Times article about a few universities that are providing career counselling for students in law school, including telling them about the happiness factors. Thanks also to Rob Powell of Wiel Gotshall, who told me about Obelisk – a law firm that actively promotes flexible working (it’s a low base – only 3% of jobs in the legal sector are advertised as flexible).
Next Part in this Series, I’ll look at the most relevant issues for law firms, particularly large ones.
This story has been updated to include additional links to relevant articles.