Warrick McLean - CEO, Coleman Greig Lawyers

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Greater Western Sydney's leading law firm, Coleman Greig offers award winning  legal expertise with offices in Parramatta, Norwest & Penrith.

In the heart of one of Australia’s most dynamic and largest economic regions, Coleman Greig boasts a level of growth and success that has mirrored that of the business community in which they are based.

They offer a genuinely flexible work environment that caters for the needs of their employees – part time roles, flexible work hours, enabling technology, and a culture that supports a healthy work/life balance.

So, Warrick, you end up with a career in the law. How did you find your way here?

I started in professional services, twenty two years ago, working for an accounting firm which was the largest in the region. I'm from country New South Wales and that firm ultimately was sold to what is now known as Crowe Horwath or Findex. 

We ended up moving to Sydney and then I worked for Carroll O’Dea and Brydens and then the opportunity here at Coleman Greig came up and the rest is history. I've been here for about 12 years.

You have been very successful here in growing this practice, so what do you think the key ingredients are of running a successful practice in 2019?

I think probably the key to all of it is people, talent ... and that's not only about the lawyers. It's about the team that I have all around me. I also think keeping an eye on the prize and having that strategic focus is key. We've always had one vision internally and that's been about being Western Sydney's leading law firm and I think whenever we had a difficult decision to make, I'd always ask the question what would Western Sydney's leading law firm do? And the answer was always really easy once I asked that question, but I think sometimes people over complicate stuff. 

We now find ourselves in a modern era where clients want or expect more for less. What do you think a business client expects from a legal provider in the modern world?

Our commercial clients, whether they be large family-owned businesses, larger private businesses or multinationals headquartered here in Sydney, just want to know how much it's going to cost. The whole concept of doing the work and then springing a bill on a client at the backend of the matter just doesn't cut it anymore. Probably 70 percent of our commercial advice and property work is now fixed fee.

I think it gets back to managing expectations. Here in the business, I've got a board to report to. I've got a chairperson to report to. I need to manage their expectations and so my suppliers need to be upfront with me in terms of how much their services or products are going to be. When we're dealing with clients, it's really that simple. 

The other piece is the ability to value- add. We're really big on being part of the community here and being part of all our clients' lives. For many of our clients, they don't want to have to travel into town, so we provide a lot of networking opportunities, a lot of education opportunities and our clients have really enjoyed that. So not just being a transaction provider, but being part of their business is important.

The goal is to be seen as that whole strategic advisor. That’s a challenge we all face on a daily basis, but I think it is key.

Can you think of anything that might be considered particularly entrepreneurial or things you do here at Coleman Greig that you think aren't particularly mirrored by other competing firms?

We've always had a good marketing machine here. Liz and the team do an amazing job and we've always been really good at that whole positioning piece. I think what we've done in recent years is translate that marketing piece into BD. Early on here in my career at Coleman Greig it was a bit like beating my head against a brick wall. I remember having a conversation with the managing partner back then, saying to me, "Well you're really good at this stuff. How about you just do that full time?"

I said to him "Look, Paul, you didn't employ me to do this. I didn't sign up to do this. Someone needs to do it and we need to get better at it." I am fortunate that my guys are actually really good at the sell. It's just creating that opportunity for them to sell. Seven years ago we went down the path of an appointment set up system. We've got a pretty extensive data base and have up to 140 business development appointments a year. 

What we find is that, even cold prospects love the fact that we're coming out and saying hello to them. Getting on our hard hat, getting on high vis and wandering around the factory floor and engaging. I think that whole ability to relate to your client and get yourself out of your comfort zone is really positive in the eyes of the prospect.

So,we have a cut through of between one in four and one in five clients give us work there on the spot. Once we touch those prospects, they go into our database. We're continually communicating with them and the amount of prospects that haven't used us immediately, but then have come out of the woodwork three years later. "Oh, I remember when you came out and saw us and spoke to us about a, b, and c. Been happy with my local lawyer but I've got this large litigation matter. Can you guys please look after us?"

How do you do differentiate yourselves? Because, differentiation is difficult for a lot of law firms. There's a lot of vanilla offerings in the market. You've already talked in one way about geographically focusing on Western Sydney. Is there anything else you'd like to throw in in there about why Coleman Greig might be slightly different to other firms in the area?

The key to that is really about being part of the community. We do things differently out here and we've always made a point of trying to differentiate ourselves. We have the luxury of being in a market where we are the largest commercial law firm in the region. And, whilst we're not big compared to our CBD cousins in the city, we still are large for the region.

The region is quite parochial and people will support locals. We run a series called Women in Business and that has just been a runaway success since we started 12 years ago. For International Women's' Day, we had Julie Bishop MP and we had over 550 delegates at that particular lunch. Now some of those are clients, some of those referral points, some of those are friends of the firm. But the vast majority of those people who paid good money to be at that event are not clients of Coleman Greig. But they'll go into our database now and we will mine those prospects.

The other event that we run is the Coleman Greig challenge, that was born out of a concept where we used to run a golf day, and I'm sure many firms used to do that. The golf day was kind of a bit old, and I'll be honest, none of us younger principals played golf so we were kind of stuck, what do we do? We supported a local charity here in the region for many years, raising over a million dollars for that particular charity. But we wanted to expand the reach and really try and engage our staff. In the old golf days, only about three or four staff participated and that was it. Now we've got over 550 participants. We engage 85 percent of our staff for that particular event. 

Do you think you have a culture here? What does the Coleman Greig brand stand for? And if you do have such a thing, how do you put that across multiple offices and different geographies?

The multiple offices are a relatively new incarnation for Coleman Greig. We opened an office at Norwest about three years ago. We're just about to move into our brand new office in Penrith. In the next 12, 18 months, we're certainly focused on opening an office in the MacArthur area. Part of the luxury that we have here in Western Sydney is it's a pretty big region, one in eleven Australians live in Western Sydney and by 2036, 70 percent of Sydney will live west of Parramatta. That's a pretty mind-boggling number when you think about it.

Many of our staff still commute to Parramatta. So being able to maintain that culture and style has really been through breallocating staff from Parramatta to an office that is actually closer to home for them. So someone's going to get super excited. We've got one of our support staff at Penrith who used to travel an hour and 15 minutes every day to get to work. Now, she's got a 25 minute commute. She's in seventh heaven. 

Someone asked me recently to come and present to a group about our flexible work arrangements. 74 percent of our staff are female, we've always had to be flexible in order to retain talent. A lot of the females that work with us, and now even males, have had their families whilst working at Coleman Greig.

But I think that in professional service organizations ... And you know, we're just over a 100 staff, we're still at that size where we do know everyone. If someone comes down from the Norwest office or someone's coming in from Penrith everyone still knows everyone. And I'm sure as we get larger, those challenges will be there.

I think the other key thing that we've tried to leverage has been the use of technology. And, when over 15 percent of our staff are millennials, technology has got to be key to maintaining and growing that culture.

To expand on that, how do you see AI and robots replacing lawyers? How do you see it all playing out and to what extent do you think it's a requirement of the modern partnership, to understand that there is a requirement to continue to invest to up to date systems and technology to maintain your competitiveness.

I have a real luxury here at Coleman Greig. The guys have always been focused on the whole concept of continuous improvement. So if I pitch a concept that's going to require investment, as long as we can show an ROI and an outcome that's either going to benefit the client, improve cashflow, deliver a better service internally, my guys are really onboard. We're not a firm that is leading edge, and I wouldn't even say we're cutting edge. We enjoy technology, we love technology and I think in terms of when you're working with millennials, to keep them engaged, you've got to be all over that stuff.

We're not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly some of our suppliers and some of my colleagues in industry certainly say, "With what you guys do and how you do it compared to a lot of firms, you are a cut above." And again, that's not necessarily going out and reinventing the wheel. I think we have so much technology that we don't actually use to its fullest potential. It's a bit like practice management systems. I've always been big on this ... wring the last amount of productivity that you can out of your practice management systems before you go changing. I think many firms don't utilize what they actually have. We've got Microsoft 365 in the cloud now, and there's so much functionality out there that it's really just understanding what's available, what you can do, and what you can do at very little cost.

Any mentors along the way? Often, successful people have had people who've helped them in their career journey, or people who've mentored them. Even down to skills training and things. Are there any particular people you've learned from on the journey?

Well I've never strategically targeted anyone individually as a mentor. There are certainly people that I've looked up to over the years and followed. Certainly my involvement with ALPMA (Australasian Legal Practice Management Association) has been part of that journey. I find people in the legal profession very collaborative. I am a big believer in giving and the universe will give back. My principals here have always been very supportive of my engagement with ALPMA, and it has been fantastic. When I've needed to pick up the phone and ask a difficult question of another firm and someone else in a similar role, everyone's always been very giving of their intellectual property and time.

On a more structured note, particularly around the area of the business development culture that you say is quite alive and accessible here, could you perhaps touch on how much you've invested in training and skills development for the teams here?

I think it's changed over time as the lawyers have evolved, and now we're dealing with that millennial generation. I think in this day and age they want everything served up to them on a silver platter, and you need to highlight from one to fifteen, this is what you need to do. Whereas probably back in our day, you kind of just learned from those people around you.

In this day and age you've got to be very structured and continually feed the machine. We don't have any natural rainmakers internally. We don't have people who just go out for lunch and bring back a gazillion dollars worth of work. That's becoming more and more of a rarity. But what our guys are really good at is building relationships. I think you've got to build up their confidence, you've got to create an environment where they can fail but still succeed, if that makes sense.

It does.

You don't necessarily need to be an expert at building relationships face to face. But we always encourage those more introverted lawyers that, guys, you don't necessarily need to get out and press the flesh these days. There are plenty of other ways to build a profile online. So, we've always been really big on content, we've always been really big on social media channels. It's surprised me, the amount of work that we now get via social media channels or via the web in commercial, it still surprises me to this day. As millennials go into decision making roles into our prospective client firms, that's the way they do their research.

Can I take you back to something you touched on earlier around pricing? Because, it's a very evocative topic. Your suggestion was that about 70 percent of the commercial work here is done on fixed fee. I would suggest that's way beyond what most firms would do. I still suspect that probably 80 percent of the work in most firms goes out the door on a billable hour. The billable hour to me, is like a cockroach. It refuses to die. Is that because that's what the clients want? I mean ultimately I guess you're driven by what the client wants from a pricing perspective.

We operate here in the mid- market. They're family businesses, it's smaller multinationals who ultimately remain sticky if they're serviced well. For some of our larger clients, we don't necessarily do all their work. We still record time, don't get me wrong. We still work with a billable hour, but our guys have got a whole lot better at managing expectation at the front end and also following up the client to say, "Okay, this has gone outside scope. It's now A, B, and C."

We've had a really big push internally about lock up. Interestingly, when you talk about lock up, you think that that's purely a financial aspect to the business. But if you've got a really healthy lockup, generally, that means your clients are well engaged. I always talk about this: manage the clients for five minutes at the front end rather than trying to manage the clients for five hours at the back end trying to collect the cash.

The other thing that we've done is given our lawyers permission to say "no". Lawyers want to take the work and please clients.  "We'll do that. Yes. We'll do that." Some clients are not for us. You don't have to take everything that comes through the door. Whilst our guys rarely actually say no, there's lots of tips and tricks that you can actually use to weed out clients that you may not want.

For many years when I first started here, we had a lot of good clients. Okay. How come that 'good client' takes 18 months to pay their bill. Is that really a good client? That whole education piece about understanding what a good client looks like and giving them permission to say no. As simple as all that sounds, that combined with the lockup piece has really been effective in terms of bringing the lawyers along on a bit of a journey.

We talked about changing attitudes and behaviours, mindsets, whatever you like to call it. What advice would you give the people in similar roles as yourself who really need to start this change process in their own firm? Where do you start?

None of this stuff is easy and you've got to bring people along for the ride. If you want instant gratification and instant results, it isn't going to happen. But, if you're persistent and you've got a vision, I think you can achieve quality outcomes. You've got to pick your champions internally. If you're trying to do this on your own, I think you're on a hiding to nothing. But if you've got principals or partners internally who get where you're coming from, I think you've got the opportunity to succeed.

Going back more specifically on the BD perspective, you're very good at attracting good young talent to come and work here. What advice do you give those guys around the fact that there's two brands to support, their own and the corporate Coleman Greig one. What type of activities would you advise some of your younger lawyers to undertake to start building their own brand or practice for the future?

In terms of the younger ones we tend to focus on a couple of things. Social media is a big thing. We're quite strategic in how we manage our professional's profiles on social media channels, we control that pretty well. That's not to say that individuals can't get active on social media, and we encourage them to do so, but again, when you're trying to develop a bit of a standard look and feel, it's important that that's managed centrally.

We provide a whole heap of training in relation to that social media piece. Occasionally, we'll get experts in, but what we tend to do around that social media piece is to collaborate and bring them all together. Some of them are just naturally good. Others are a bit more hesitant. So it's really about learning from one another. And also, making it slightly competitive.

I think law firms are not great about celebrating success. And success comes in many forms and looks very different, depending what lens you're looking through. The one thing I always try and do ... Back in the bad old days, it was through email and then it was through our intranet and nowadays, it's through Yammer ... really celebrating the success in the wins. And it might not necessarily be a client win, but, "So and so did an article and we've got 10,000 views and 450 pieces of engagement on that particular article on Linkedin."

Again, highlighting and reinforcing what's positive. When you start articulating that and communicating that internally, others look at that and go, "Oh actually, I need to replicate that." So trying to continually communicate what success looks like is key.

The other thing in terms of BD is, if we're going out to a prospective meeting, bringing them along. Because the younger lawyers are a bit like sponges, they just want to absorb information. I've had a couple say to me, "Warrick, I just sit down and listen to you, and you just rattle off all these stats and your one liners time and time again. How do you do that?" And I kind of go, "Well guys, I've just modelled that over time. " But they want to soak all that in, giving them as much exposure that you can to you when you're out performing is really important, because they will copy and replicate you.

Okay. All positives. And I don't wish to finish on a negative by any stretch, but I'm guessing that there are odd things that, if you went back over time, you might do slightly differently. Is there anything that comes to mind?

I think probably in regard to BD, that call setter that we use, I probably should have introduced that earlier rather than later. Ten years ago, I wouldn't have been able to mention the word "sales", because "sales" was a dirty word. But nowadays, where I've had a really good sales meeting ...Now, to hear that in 2019, that tells me the path we've been on and the journey we've been on is the right one.

Well that's an awesome positive way to draw the business questions to a close. But I must give you the opportunity to not sound like all work and no play. So what does Warrick do when he's not building Western Sydney's primary legal practice?

I love to travel. My wife and I, we don't have kids, so we get away at every opportunity that we can. I'm on a plane to Broome tonight for ten days. Love my wine, and have managed to have the ability to maintain a lot of connections and relationships over the years. So whether it's school friends, whether it's university friends, whether it's friends from industry, always connecting and always socializing.

Thanks for sharing your time today. Cheers.

My pleasure. Thanks, Alistair.