Brenton Anderson - Marketing & Business Development Director, Dentons

Dentons is the world’s largest law firm, delivering quality and value to clients around the globe. In Australia, Dentons has offices in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, an associated office in Adelaide as well as offices in Port Moresby and Auckland.


Alistair:             Today we are with Brenton Anderson, Business Development and Marketing Director from Dentons. We might start off about why you ended up with a career in law, or what brought you to this position in the first place?

Brenton:           I think like a lot of people in professional services business development, it wasn't a plan – I’ve found myself here through a number of career choices. My background and education was in general marketing, but all of that focused on products. There was very little, if any, services marketing as a part of that. So I went through my professional education in marketing without even realizing that this was an industry. 

I spent some time in London in the early 2000s working for some telecommunications companies, some tech companies, during the tech boom. When I returned to Australia, the sort of roles that I'd been doing over there didn't exist because the market had largely disappeared.  I found a home in engineering as that was one of the closest industries that I could find and I spent a number of years working in engineering and I got to a point in my career where I started to really enjoy professional services marketing.  When I looked around at the market I saw what the accounting firms were doing and I saw what the law firms were doing, which at the time was a long way ahead of the engineering firms. I realized that if I wanted to make a career in this industry, I probably needed to make that move to grow my own skills. 

I’ve spent the past 15 years of my career since then working in a number of different law firms. I really enjoy working in law. It is a very high performance culture and you work with some very intelligent and driven people, and that drives me. I've always found that there's great satisfaction in working with people who are performing at that level.

Alistair:             So one of the questions here is about motivations and frustrations. The motivation piece, I guess to a certain extent you've just answered, but I'm guessing that on the other side it does bring some frustrations in some areas.

Brenton:           Every job, every industry brings some frustrations. A lot of the work that I do is with the partners of the firm who have all sorts of pressure on their time. Being able to get enough of that time to focus them around business development has always been a challenge.

One of the other frustrations that I sometimes feel is a lot of what I do can be described as ‘long tail’ sales, in that there's a long time between when we start thinking "there may be an opportunity here," to when we realise revenue from that opportunity. It can be 18 months, it can be three years, it can be longer. Trying to keep everyone’s attention on an opportunity through such a long period of time can be a real challenge.

Alistair:              You've been around law firms for quite some time. What would you sum up as the key ingredients for growing a successful practice? These partners you work with, hundreds probably over that length of time, why do some people win and some fail do you think?

Brenton:           Partners that I've seen be really successful, particularly in the last 10 years when we've had such significant change in the market, are those that have been able to recognize the need to do things in a different way. I like the phrase, "What has made us successful in the past isn’t necessarily what will make us successful in the future." It's those that are prepared to think outside of the box, that are prepared to engage the full resources of the firm – such as business development, IT, finance and other practice groups they're the ones that I see having success.

                        Of course, relationships are also vitally important. Relationships are always moving forward or backwards, they are rarely static.  Always investing in relationships, and adding value to those relationships is also a critical success factor.  

Alistair:             I think a lot of change in the law is driven by the client side. In 2019, what do you think the clients are looking for from their legal services provider?

Brenton:           Clients want value for money, they want excellent service, they want technical excellence. But all of these things are essentially hygiene factors. If you can't bring those, then you're just simply not in the game. What clients are looking for beyond that, are ideas and insights for their business. They're looking for ideas that they can use to grow their business. They're looking for ideas around where risk might exist in their business and how they can mitigate that. They're looking for insights on what lawyers are seeing in the market. 

Like all of us, clients are time poor.  For me, the days of entertaining as a way to generate work from clients are largely gone. A marketing budget will only take you so far these days. There's a time for socializing, but that can't be the extent of it. You've got to provide value.

Alistair:             What do you attribute your success to? You've been pretty successful in your career and advancement, big name firms. What's the secret?

Brenton:           At the end of the day, a key focus for business development has to be revenue growth and profitability. They’re ultimately the metrics that I've always tried to keep as a fundamental focus for what I'm trying to achieve for the firm.

I also try to help the partners differentiate between what they want, and what they need. They might ‘want’ a capability statement for a client, but if I can uncover the need of ‘win the client’, then I can advise them in a way that is going to help them achieve their objective. 

Alistair:             Can you share an example about some sort of entrepreneurial approach or think of an example where you've succeeded, where others may have failed?

Brenton:           For the past couple of years we have run a firm-wide, month long campaign with the objective of getting our partners and our lawyers to deepen their relationships with clients. Putting some focus and energy behind it, and a little bit competition, was a way to really create a lot of client facing BD activity in a short period of time. It’s important to articulate that we're not asking our partners and lawyers to just go out and meet with their clients for the sake of it. We're encouraging them to come up with ideas, insights and value that they can take to their clients. 

Over the course of the month we see a significant amount of activity, hundreds and hundreds of value-add meetings, so it’s certainly a program that encourages the right behaviour. We strategically time this in November because it's a great time to start that sort of conversation with clients which runs us into the more social Christmas period, and then gives you an opportunity to pick those conversations up in January and February to give the firm a good launch into the New Year.

Alistair:             Next question's a tough one, and I spend many hours with firms discussing it, which is really, what do you think are your points of difference that differentiate Dentons from anywhere else, apart from the fact you've got probably more partners, the biggest law firm on the planet? But what does the business stand for? How would you verbalize how you stand out versus others?

Brenton:           To pick up on your point, Dentons is the largest law firm in the world. That's really important to us in terms of how we help and add value to our clients in Australia. For example if we have a client that is looking to do business in South America, we can connect them with the right team on the ground there. That's a really big value-add we can offer to our clients.

Globally, innovation is something that Dentons are very well known for and that we are pushing very hard on. The decision was made very early in the Dentons journey that legal disruption was something that we wanted to be part of rather than something that we would be subjected to. An example of this is the Nextlaw Group of Companies, such as Nextlaw Ventures, which is focused on early stage investment in legal tech startups, such as Nextlaw Labs, the industry’s first and leading legal technology and innovation advisory and such as Nextlaw In-house, a global strategic consultancy whichbrings together more than 50 former General Counsels and legal counsel across the globe to providing integrated, multi-disciplinary advisory services to our clients.

In Australia, innovation is also something that's at our core. We have been innovating for as long as this firm has been around. We have some amazing market leading technologies in the lending and recovery markets. More recently we've launched Dentons Virtual Counsel, an online platform providing clients and in-house legal teams with 24 hour access to legal experts. 

We're constantly focused on how we can better assist our clients. There's no point coming up with innovations in a vacuum – it comes from listening to our clients, understanding what's important to them, where they are going, and then thinking, "How can we best assist with that?"

Alistair:             Have you got what you might consider your greatest achievement? Is there one sort of project that you're particularly proud of?

Brenton:           Two-and-a-half years ago this firm was part of a national joint venture.  We are now part of the largest law firm in the world.  That change was a really significant move for the firm, and one of the things that I am most proud of is that we were able to articulate and communicate a value proposition that appealed to our clients and bring all of them along that journey.  We have also grown the firm significantly since combining with Dentons, having opened new offices in Melbourne, Brisbane and Auckland, and later this year we will complete our combination with our Adelaide associate firm Fisher Jeffries.   

Alistair:             That's excellent. Inevitably, sometimes there are things that you might've done differently. Is there anything that comes to mind?

Brenton:           I think at times I've probably tried to do too much too fast. When you have limited resources and a highly ambitious partnership, you can end up taking on too much and at times that has put the team under too much pressure.  That's been an important lesson – of all the things that we need to achieve, what are the priorities? 

Alistair:             Who inspires you as you move along this journey. Have you had any mentors, or are there any particular people who you find inspirational in the field?

Brenton:           I’m really fortunate to have worked with some incredible mentors over my career. Wayne Stewart was the Marketing Director when I was at Corrs Chambers Westgarth. I think Wayne is one of the most forward thinking business developers that we have in the market and his approach to BD has had a significant influence on my own.  James Bacon is another former Corrs colleague who I also think brings a really innovative approach to business development. 

                        I’m also really fortunate to have some excellent global colleagues in Dentons.  This network is invaluable in being able to share and develop ideas with.  People like Judith Prime our Global Director of Client Development who is absolutely first rate in terms of the way she thinks about business development, and the way she's able to get partners to engage.

                        I’ve also worked with some fabulous partners in my career, who value and challenge BD Partners such as Robert Regan, Andrew Lumsden, Louise Massey and Anthony Walsh.  Partners like these are real motivators who have pushed me to be the best that I can.  

Alistair:             In terms of investing in training and skills development, what does that look like in this organization? Either in terms of for partners or for people within your own team?

Brenton:           Our business development team spend time one-on-one with our partners helping them focus on who their win, grow and retain clients are, and the strategies and tactics they can use to realise those opportunities.  It is also important to focus on the next generation and we have a comprehensive training program to help develop the right BD skills in lawyers at all levels, from the moment they join the firm.     

It's also really important to think about what training for BD professionals looks like. The skills in this area are never static and you need to be consistently investing. There is no shortage of ideas in this space and a myriad of resources – Harvard Business Review, Forbes, McKinsey – the key is being able to filter through that information, find the good ideas that resonate, and then being able to apply it in your own environment.

Alistair:             One of the buzzwords when you read all these pieces is culture. Everyone's talking about it. How, in an organization of this size, do you spread a culture across such a vast network? Is there any particular way that you share culture across what is 6000 plus partners across the globe? How would you describe culture, or how does it get spread across the organization?

Brenton:           I guess the first point I'd make in response is that at Dentons we use the phrase, "In and of the community", and that's really important in that we don't have a single culture that we try and impose on every corner of the world that is part of Dentons. Each region has their own unique culture that is relevant to its own market, under a shared global vision, purpose and strategy. 

                        Ultimately, I see culture as dependent upon every person within the firm. For every person who joins the firm, the culture is going to change a little bit. For every person who leaves the firm, the culture is going to change a little bit. It's really important for the senior people within the firm to set the culture example. People take their cue from their leaders, and I'm not just referring to the managing partner or the chair. We're all ultimately responsible for culture. At the end of the day, organizations get the culture that they deserve and I think it's something that organizations always need to be thinking about and investing in.

Alistair:             How do you see technology assisting business development moving forward?

Brenton:           It's a really interesting point. I see a lot of firms still subscribing to the idea of mass marketing and I don't see a huge amount of value in that.  We all get hundreds of emails daily and anything that doesn't immediately speak to us ends up in the recycling bin. It’s important to be able to target clients with the information that they need, when they need it, in a personalized one-to-one scenario. 

If a lawyer writes a piece of content, sure you could send that out to a thousand people, but I subscribe to the idea that you are better off sending it to five or ten people with a tailored reason as to why you're sending it to them. To be able to effectively do that firms need really good information about clients and their preferences, and that requires an investment in the quality of the data in the CRM. 

Alistair:             You have obviously been through quite a change process here over two-and-a-half years, what advice might you give to all the firms who are looking to bring about change, and change things in the way things are done within their own firms?

Brenton:           I think you've got to be open to ideas. I mentioned earlier, what made you successful in the past is not going to be what makes you successful in the future. 

As an example, I think it's really interesting to see what the Big 4 are doing with their legal teams at the moment. They're not trying to build another big law firm. They're approaching it in a very different way, looking at legal operations, at legal technology. They're doing things in a different way than they have in the past, and I think that's what we're going to see more and more firms do – as some already are.

Ultimately I think if firms are not looking at how they can shape themselves around a rapidly evolving market, the market will shape them. 

Alistair:             We opened the conversation touching on the phrase value for money. Could we just expand on that? What are your views on the way services are currently charged for? Is the billable hour a cockroach that won't die?

Brenton:           A cockroach that won't die, I hadn't heard that before. I like it! Yeah, I think it maybe is a cockroach that won't die. Most people recognize that charging by the hourly rate is not the best way to create value for the client. But I think both firms and clients are challenged by it. We've been talking about the death of the hourly rate for 15 or more years now and it's still here. We've made incredible progress but I do wonder whether we will ever see a time where there are no hourly rates in the market. 

Alistair:             What do you think the future holds for the profession, not just for BD but the law and the challenges going forward? I guess there's two sides of the coin. Some people would see them as challenges, the positive amongst us might view it as opportunities. But how do you see the changing platform for delivering legal services look like in the coming years?

Brenton:           I see technology and alternative business models driving a lot of change. I attended the Legal Innovation and Tech Festival a couple of weeks ago and heard Eric Chin from Alpha Creates present there.  One of the stats that he presented was that only 9% of corporate counsel legal spend is currently going to what we'd call new law firms. 9% is such a small percentage, I think we will just see that accelerate over the next three to five years and it will be the firms that can respond to that, that can be part of that change, they're going to be the ones that will be successful in the future.

Alistair:             As we come to a close here, you've had a very successful career in the business development area. What advice would you offer to people or younger people who are just starting out in this profession?

Brenton:           I feel very lucky to have found this profession – it’s a great profession. For people in the early phases of their career, I would encourage them to think about how they're developing their skills and knowledge within this area, how they're learning all of the different aspects that go into business development in professional services. It's very important to ensure you've got mentors and managers who are also focused on your development, that are helping you develop, but you need to maintain control of and be responsible for your career. 

One of the traps people fall into is trying to climb the ladder or hierarchy really quickly. I would encourage people to take their time in working through that and make sure that they've got all of the base skills before they move to the next level. Too often people chase titles and salaries, and I understand the desire to do that, but my advice is to build your career on solid foundations. The rest will absolutely take care of itself.

Alistair:             Wise words indeed. Finally, away from work, what do you do when you're not working?

Brenton:           Well, I have a young family. I have two children, eleven and seven, so they take up a lot of any spare time with various sport and music activities – but nothing is more satisfying that seeing your own kids grow and develop.  I'm also a keen runner. I run a lot which gives me some fantastic free thinking time completely disconnected from technology. No one can contact me while I'm out running, so I really enjoy the freedom that running gives me from the modern world.  

Alistair:             Awesome. Thank you very much for your time today.

Brenton:           Thank you, Alistair.