That cares about its people

This episode is part of our Next Normal leadership series featuring Elevate’s Chairman and CEO, Liam Brown, talking with Nick Humphrey, the Managing Partner at Hamilton Locke.

Hamilton Locke is an agile corporate law firm – with offices in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia. A firm established as an evolution of the legal industry focused on aligning its people with clients.  

Skeptical?  27 minutes from now – you won’t be.

  • [01:40] – Right place, right time
  • [02:25] – Nick interviews 100s of people on leadership and building teams
  • [05:50] – Dusting off a tested response plan
  • [11:17] – Ideas and problem solving – work completed by early-stage team members
  • [12:56] – Wellness and mental health – a study and report that lead to change and having an impact
  • [14:37] – Layers of complexity and creating a culture of trust
  • [16:19] – Smart, passionate people doing good work
  • [18:10] – How to help people work digitally
  • [19:10] – Dealing with every aspen of your life
  • [19:30] – A different MP approach, a mentor, a friend
  • [20:44] – Gratitude, mindfulness, and a positive mindset
  • [23:05] – How to find balance
  • [25:57] – 20 years from now, I will look back and 2020 and be proud of …

Enjoy!

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Podcast Transcript

Note: This transcript has been adjusted to improve readability. Transcripts are generated using speech recognition software and human transcribers. The context and more than 95% of the actual transcript have been preserved. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio file.

 

Nicole Giantonio: Hello, this is Nicole Giantonio, the Head of Global Marketing at Elevate. The podcast episode you’re about to hear is part of our Next Normal leadership series, featuring Elevate’s Chairman and CEO, Liam Brown, talking with Nick Humphrey, the Managing Partner at Hamilton Locke. Hamilton Locke is an agile corporate law firm with offices in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia. A firm established as an evolution of the legal industry focused on aligning the interest of its people with clients. Skeptical? 27 minutes from now, you won’t be.

Liam Brown: Well, why don’t we just start with me getting to know you a little bit. So the obvious first question is, how did you end up in the role you have today?

Nick Humphrey: A long torturous path. I never really knew what I wanted to do, but I studied commerce law, which seemed like a good, broad option. All through university, I tried different things. I worked night jobs and did tax returns at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and worked with a stockbroker doing night shifts, and worked on little law firms, and so on. I worked all through university and was very lucky to get a job with Mallesons, a very well-known Australian firm. I did the graduate program there and was very lucky to get a secondment to London when I was quite young to work with Clifford Chance. It was a very pivotal experience because big market private equity was not taking off in Australia when I went to London. When I came home, I was one of the only people that had had that experience. Private equity wasn’t sexy then; no one really knew how to do it. So the early stage of my career was just the right place, the right time, a bit of luck.

From there I was again placed to take leadership roles when I was quite young. I had some great mentors, had some less than great experiences with managing partners. I guess quite early in my career, I became fascinated with leadership and motivation and driving the right behaviors. I became academically interested in it as well, so I embarked on a strange journey where over ten years, I interviewed a couple of hundred people – coaches, elite soldiers, and officers, CEOs, entrepreneurs, Harvard professors, clinical psychologists – the whole thing. And lots of lawyers as well.  I asked them questions about leadership and building teams and so on. That’s part of my journey to where I am today, including a real frustration with how big law had run in the past and how our culture was just a postcard but not authentically held.  The mental health issues and churn issues, even pre-COVID, and the pressure in firms to perform and lots of stress. We obviously weren’t meeting our people’s career aspirations, whether they were a junior lawyer or a partner, or even a support person. That frames how I ended up where I am today.

LB: One of the things that came to mind was you were a junior lawyer once upon a time.

NH: Yes.

LB: Experiencing leadership, experiencing management. How did that then inform what you bring to being a leader today?

NH: I think a critical thing for me is understanding that the old playbook doesn’t work as much anymore. In the old days, managing partners were like police officers. They pull you over for a timesheet violation or give you demerit points for not recovering your debts or whatever. They were very much about financial hygiene and the levers that were utilization, realization, and rates. I am simplifying, but in the good old days – and I include myself in this – all I had to do was put rates up. Utilization kept booming, and the firms were profitable. So the toolbox we had was pretty small; it was probably just a sledgehammer. Someone underperformed, and you donked ’em on the head. We did not have a toolbox around leadership purpose, values, culture. The three very different, complex things that we never got to learn about as a lawyer. We were technically brilliant, we loved our job, but no one ever taught us about those things.

I’ve worked with some wonderful leaders in my time, and I’ve learned some very valuable lessons about what to do and what not to do.  I think one little example would be working through the Global Financial Crisis and Tech Rec. I was not in a leadership role in the GFC. I was a lot younger, but I was running a team, and I was a partner, and I think I might have been head of a big group. We didn’t have the skills to deal with the GFC. We knew we had to cut costs, but we didn’t have a plan. We were caught unprepared, so our approach was to randomly make people redundant. It was awful, and it was stressful. It didn’t seem well-planned and didn’t seem well executed. And I think on the receiving end of that, we were all waiting to get the tap on the shoulder to be moved on.

I think that was an example of poor leadership in a time of crisis, and I’ve always remembered that. I think the outcome of that was first, I was very deliberate about learning from those experiences in crisis. Three years ago, I sat down with my senior leadership team and said, “Okay, guys, it’s the GFC. Revenues are down 30%, and profits are down 20%, let’s go.” And everyone was laughing at me, saying, “But business is great. Let’s have some fun, let’s do a fire drill, let’s just muck around. I’m locking you in for a couple of hours.” We ended up being there for a lot longer than that. It was a great process just to be clear-headed, not under pressure, to figure out what was important, what wasn’t important. And that became the foundation of a plan that we had sitting in the bottom drawer so that when COVID hit, we could calmly get the plan out and re-look at it, and part of it was a plan that had to be implemented over a long period.

Luckily for us, we were a very long way through implementing the plan. It’s little things like making fixed costs, variable costs; having practice groups that would counter-sue in court; giving M&A lawyers skills to pivot and move into other practice groups like restructuring; building a brand that wasn’t so centered on M&A or private equity; having a brand that was starting to push into restructuring litigation. Things like that. It was a 20-point plan that we were around 90% of the way through. So that was a takeaway from the pool management: that when trouble comes, you need to have a plan that you can execute under the fire of stress.

“A critical thing for me is understanding that the old playbook doesn’t work as much anymore.”

– Nick Humphrey

LB: And it gives real confidence. We live through a lot of business continuity planning that’s tested just by the nature of the customers we work with. They’ll test you with pretty obvious conditions of testing electricity or internet connectivity. But the discipline of running those drills is something that I haven’t seen on an executive team-wide basis. You move from, you’ve got the point of view about what the answers are, to you have a shared point of view.

NH: It’s the subtlety because when the crisis came, I got the plan out and said, “Okay, we’ve already talked about this, and we’ve already agreed, ABCD.” And they all went, “Yeah, we did.” It was very calming, reassuring, and then to some extent, it minimized push-back around key decisions. In the traditional partnership model, you’re in trouble, right? Because every partner thinks they’re a leader and an owner and a decision-maker, so you have to run everything past everyone.

And it’s impossible to move quickly. We were able to move quickly because I am the CEO and managing partner, and I can execute based on the plan and report to my board. I didn’t have to go back and ask for permission. I’d already said to them, “Here’s the plan, here’s the playbook. If something happens, this is what we’re going to have to do.” So I think, yes, it was good that everyone already knew that that was the plan, so there were no surprises and no push-back.

LB: Did you find that going through a process like the one that you had, caused you to think about, “Okay, does that strategy currently address these challenges, or issues, or opportunities?

NH: Strategy is a longer-term thing that guides us through. I have seen some clients and competitors whose strategies are fairly broken in the current climate. If you’re in the travel or hospitality industry, you’re in serious trouble. And if you’re a law firm, if you’re ever exposed to M&A or capital markets, you’re in trouble. If you’re a lawyer to a sector that’s in a down round, you’re in trouble. I think those clients and law firms with a strategy to go a certain direction need to have the discipline to stop and pivot and change direction and have a new strategy. We know from past behavior that the stress will be busy. We know restructuring will be busy. We know everyone’s going to sue everyone. Most of the deals we’ve recently completed, whether it’s a banking deal or a corporate deal, or a private equity deal, you’re going to get buyer’s remorse. So they’re going to sue the sellers for a warranty claim or a burnout problem, or whatever. We know all that. Over time, let’s get those skill sets into the group; let’s train partners to have that deeper skill set.

It was a shared journey of discovery. It took some complex, nuanced discussions around markets playing to our strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities. That was a collective effort, not just by the head office and the board, but the partner group as well. That was an important part of creating space in our busy diaries every six months to regroup for a whole day. Many elements of the strategy didn’t pan out, and I think you need a much different toolbox now. The amplification of technology is mind-blowing. One of my things is just the velocity of change that throws everything up for grabs.

LB: The velocity is hard to adjust to when your tool kit involves meeting people and management by walking around in the kind of physical sense.

NH: One of my mentors took me aside a few years ago and said, “You know, it’s really important that you know everyone’s name and you walk around, and you have a coffee with them, and you pat them on the back, and you say, “Good day.” And I thought, “What a great way to do it, just wonderful.” So that’s what I became. I became the kind of guy that just walks around. I knew everyone. It gets harder and harder as you get bigger.  I’ve lost that ability to have my informal bump into someone in the coffee room and have a chat, “How are you? How is it going?” Whether it was with a partner or a junior lawyer. Part of our strategy and approach was very open, very frank, sometimes too frank, but we’ve erred on the side of saying, “Guys, this is an honest and full and frank assessment of the market and where we stand, but this is our plan, this is how I think we’re getting through it.” And I think that openness has earned loyalty and trust.

Some of the most exciting things that have happened in our firm weren’t driven by the leadership; our most junior people drove it. I believe a problem shared is a problem solved. I’ve hired brilliant, articulate, ambitious, young people. Why not kind of put them in the salt mines and say, “Go and do that. I know you’ve only just been out of law school for one year, but here’s an interesting, complex problem. Why don’t you run the program?” A great example of that was our community program. We already did all these different pro bono programs, and we acted for all these major charities, which was great and authentic. We weren’t changing the dial for the charity because we were just giving them free legal work. So I sat down with one of our graduates who’s passionate about community and said, “What I want you to do is find three charities where what they’re doing is important, and mirror to what we’re trying to achieve, which is empowering people and leadership and being the change. Go and find me some pro bono charities that we can help them because our input will make a difference, and what they’re doing resonates with what we’re doing.” And she said, “Well, who’s the partner on the project?” And I said, “Well, you are, you’re the boss, you got a direct line to me. Whatever resources you need, go. Go, do it.”

And it was wonderful because she went away, came up with ten different programs, and we short-listed two or three of them. One of them is Youth Insearch, which helps young people to be the change in crisis by giving them leadership skills.  I thought, “Fantastic because that’s how our mantra is, we want our lawyers to become leaders and be much more multi-dimensional.” But I think the beautiful part of that program was we had an impact, and it was something she was passionate about. Another example is wellness and mental health issues. I’ve struggled to help my partners and people to deal with the issue. It’s very complex. I’ve read every article I can find on the topic. Once again, one of our junior people took over the problem and did extensive research, including a survey of lawyers in New South Wales. There’s now a published report with some quite complex confronting findings. But again, the solution didn’t come from Head Office, the problem did. I said, “Hey guys, we’ve gotta be really careful here. I can see the mood. I can read how’s they’re reacting.” And fair enough, it’s been a pretty unusual time, and all aspects of our lives have been affected. We had an impact. We were scientific about it, and the results which have come out are practical and can be implemented. I really like that.

 

“Some of the most exciting things that have happened in our firm weren’t driven by the leadership; our most junior people drove it.”

– Nick Humphrey

LB: With this approach to managing, you’re identifying a problem and you’re not only empowering but also expecting impact from people. How much does this help people with working remotely? The teams are distributed, but we’re already used to autonomy. I don’t mean autonomy in the sense if someone gives me instruction in my office. It is, “I’m part of a team, but more importantly, I’m actually part of a team of teams.” How has that helped you? How does that help the firm address or respond to working remotely?

 

“With this approach to managing, you’re identifying a problem and you’re not only empowering but also expecting impact from people.”

– Liam Brown

NH: I was pleased and surprised at how quickly we adapted to working from home. It hasn’t been perfect, but the technology is great compared to other firms that have really struggled with it. If you don’t have the technology, you’re really in trouble. But there are layers of complexity to this issue. One is, culturally, if you’re not in the office, then you must be goofing off.  Part of it is not fully trusting the team unless you can see them and touch them and look at their timesheet. So culturally, there’s a lot of problems around tracking people in six-minute increments and holding them accountable to timesheets, who’s the last person out of the office, and all those sorts of things.

I think there’s an interaction of a few different factors here that allowed us to move to the new environment. It hasn’t been painless, but it’s been a positive experience. I think part of that was having a culture of trusting people. Over the last many years, one of my programs has been taking people away and building blocks around non-negotiable behaviors. One of the big problems in law firms is gossip and rumors. It’s a huge problem, not just in law, but in businesses generally, not having all the facts or not knowing what the other person is doing. If you’re not in the office, you’re obviously not working.

I think in a way, it was lucky that over the last few years, we had a series of workshops where I said, “You don’t know what people are doing. Some people prefer to work at home. Some people have kids, and they are doing kids drop up. You didn’t have the facts. We don’t care about inputs, which are timesheets. We care about outputs. We care about impact.” I’m pretty pleased that culturally we’d started to work on that. And I think the other great thing was our whole business is really breaking the habits of big law. I’m not bashing up big law because I’ve been in it my whole life, and I love it, and a lot of my friends are in it, and there are many great things about smart, passionate people doing great work. What I’m trying to do is break the bad habits, the bad aspects of it.

Already we were in habit-breaking mode. We were already in open-plan, not big offices. As you know, we’ve outsourced our back office. We’d gone digital, and we were trying to be paperless. We were trying to adopt process map systems. All these radical changes were breaking these habits of a lifetime. That sort of fluidity and not getting ready to sort of settle down in a new pattern, we had already been doing that. So if you can imagine, I’m bringing in a new person every couple of days – we’ve hired 20 or 30 people in the last quarter, – and I’m taking them out of an existing law firm where they’ve got a huge office, and there are one-on-one secretaries, and they tell their secretary to go and get their cup of coffee and their dry cleaning.

There are layers of habits that they would need to break. We’d already started going down that pathway. I think when we had to move to remote working full-time, we were already in this mode of, well, everything’s up for grabs culturally, because of the non-negotiable stuff. Also, this feeling that “Let’s work together to be open to change.” Which is one of our core values – openness to change and agility. Those two things were quite helpful.

LB: You touched on digital working, which is how you work and the tools, environment, etcetera. But then there’s this is part that you’ve also covered, which I call digital workers. And it’s how do we actually work and manage digitally. It’s everything from that kind of micro-expression, that email, or that IM that says, “Just checking if you were around” kind of thing. Which sends the signal to the other person, “Well, I’m not really sure I can trust you.” So you have to train managers on how to manage remotely. The other piece is you have to train people how to work remotely, not being “on” all the time. I know you’ve done a lot of work underlying the building blocks of work. How do you help the digital workers orient themselves differently when they join your firm?

NH: The always-on culture, always responding to messages via multiple platforms –WhatsApp and text and now I’ve got Teams Messages. For me, the issue of mental health was never talked about. We’re alpha partners, whether they’re male or female. You know, we’re the Vikings. We always work 80 hours a week, and nothing’s going to get in our way. I have found the sheer complexity of what we’re dealing with, and the uncertainty and ambiguity, has been confronting.

My partners, who are the mini-Vikings out there, they’re brilliant, smart, whatever. They found it tough too, right? Suddenly every part of your life is challenged – your health, your family’s health, your job security, your financial security. The blurred boundaries between work and home and family, being socially isolated. You’d have to be fairly naive to think that people won’t break, and you won’t break. The normal managing partner’s agenda is timesheets and financial hygiene and stuff like that. My agenda is, how is everyone feeling? Are we having open and regular conversations? When I say open conversations, I mean open conversation. My job is not the policeman anymore.  I’m your mentor, your friend. Unload, vent on me. My role is very different and very nuanced in that respect. I think having mental health and well-being on the agenda is a good start. We’ve had multiple town halls for the entire firm, partly trying to eliminate the stigma. It’s a topic that you don’t hide away anymore. We can have open conversations around it, we can share openly what works and what doesn’t work, and that requires vulnerability.

Even the most senior people can open up and share experiences and say, “Well, yes, it’s tough, but this is how I’m dealing with it.” By having these shared experiences, people realize they’re not alone. Being practical about it is useful as well, so we’ve done a series of training sessions where I gathered all the research in one place to share it with everyone. We get this rhythm of talking about gratitude and mindfulness and a positive mindset. You have to start at some stage. As they say, the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the second-best time is today. So, if you haven’t been having these conversations with your people, start today. It’s really tough, right? You’re the boss, and you’re meant to have all the answers. So don’t be afraid to show some vulnerability. I think a lot of it is one-on-ones where there’s no objective of a call other than just to reach out. Start to get it on the agenda.

We’re having regular conversations about it. I could get rid of some of the myths about it, oh meditation is for hippies. I don’t know which particular aspect of it works for me, and it’s such a personal thing. But I wake up very early every day, and I have one hour of sacred time when my phone is off. I don’t even look at it. I don’t check emails or read the news or anything. I just have this hour of digital-free time to journal or meditate, create, and solve problems. That’s the best part of my day. When I’ve done that little bit of me-time, clear thinking and reflection and whatever, then when I turn my phone on and the normal day starts, but I think this is a really powerful kind of ritual and routine that just gets my head straight. Mental health and well-being is such an important topic. We’ve hidden it away in the closet for a long time. Still, the survey of some of our young lawyers ran in New South Wales found 55% of young lawyers have trouble sleeping, 75% of them felt that they couldn’t focus due to worrying either about job security, financial security, and the blurring of work.

LB: You need to find a way to be able to not only have boundaries from work seeping into your home, but you also need to find a way to actually have boundaries. It almost sounds hard to say, but boundaries where you actually say to your family, “This is the ritual.” I don’t know whether or not it’s the lemon on the table when I’m actually working in my corner in my shared apartment with my flatmate. You’ve gotta find a way to be able to agree so that you can say, “Now I’m in work mode.” You talked about something very interesting to me. I imagine that you’ll share the experience I have of a lot of people who need or want a piece of you. How do you find balance, or how do you think about that?

NH: There’s an interesting issue about the lemon on the desk example, which was, I’m here to work. I think the reverse is really true as well, which is when are you not here to work, particularly when you’re working at home. Even before COVID, I worked very long hours. I’m running a big, fascinating, wonderful business that could be all-consuming if I let it. Everyone wants a piece of time, and I love that. I could easily work seven days a week till 10 o’clock at night, and I’m hard-wired to do that. The people that I hire are ambitious, driven, and they want to go places. So, I think it’s the reverse issue in some ways, which was, how do you as a husband or wife, or a parent and a friend, and an individual create all this time where you’re not on, you’re not working, and really interact with your wife or your husband or your kids? That kind of mindfulness tool of saying, “When I’m on, I’m on, and when I’m with you, I’m with you.” So when I’m with my kids, I’m with my kids. I wish I’d know this 20 years ago. I didn’t know that, and I regret that as well. I was always on, and I never had the right boundaries. But I guess that’s life, right? You grow and learn and evolve. The tools that you have around your work life are powerful in your private life. Carving out time with your family and your friends and yourself is really critical, and you’ll be better at work.

LB: This stuff is really hard because the only way to get good at it is to do it. In doing it, it’s very open; you’re in front of everyone, whether or not you are a first-time supervisor or a first-time leader, a manager, or you’re a managing partner or a CEO. You’re getting better by occasionally falling over, stubbing your toe, and having people see that. And I know that is scary for people. I can run an economically successful business, but it’s very hard to run an agile business or a business that can solve different problems that appear or that can solve them quickly that can put themselves in the shoes of people around them. Increasingly, when I think about the optimism of what our future will look like, one of the fabulous things that are coming out of this period is that we are starting to be self-aware of how this affects us. Suddenly we realize that we aren’t superhuman, we’re talking about the fact that we’re not superhuman, and then we realize, well, guess what, that probably means that you might be thinking that you’re not superhuman, so we can now start to have a conversation about that.

Whereas in the past, there was a little bit of like, you turn up at the office in your armor, and I turn up at the office my office in armor. I’m quite optimistic that this is going to lead to a sort of awareness, a consciousness of, we are not machines, we’re not economic engines. It’s not just about being really smart or really working hard, and I get a sense from you that that optimism is something that you bring to the organization and the team around you. As we close, I’m going to ask you to finish this sentence. And maybe think about this through this lens of optimism that you’ve been talking about. If we have this conversation in 20 years and we say, “Do you remember that time we spoke back in 2020 when we were talking about what’s coming down the pike?” With that, how would you complete this sentence: “When I look back on the leader that I was back in 2020, the thing or a few things that I really felt proudest of were… Dot, dot, dot.”

NH: That’s easy for me in a way because that hasn’t changed. I’d be proudest of building this wonderful firm where everyone had a clear sense of purpose, and the values were authentic and deeply held. Because I reckon it just becomes this simplicity and a toolbox or framework to solve any problem. You know, COVID’s been awful, but we had this set of values and a clear purpose. When it all went wrong, we were stunned, and we were on the back foot, but we came out calmly and logically together and navigated our way through these terrible times. I’m very proud of the culture we’ve built and the layers of the right behaviors and non-negotiable behaviors, the shared authenticity of the purpose. In 20 years’ time, I’ll look back and say “Can you build a high-performing firm that’s not just about money but its people and its culture?” I feel like we’re already doing that. And the irony, of course, is that the stronger the culture, the better people perform, the less likely they are to leave, and you probably make more money anyway, right? If you just spend 99% of your time facing the market and having an impact where we can really have an impact, not trying to chase down clients and opportunities that aren’t well-suited to us and protecting our people, the two things marry quite nicely.

LB: You talked about your purpose, the idea of being able to distill these complicated things into elevator moments is very, very hard. Nick, this has been fabulous. You have real intentionality about what you’re building. It’s really, really fascinating.

NH: No one’s got the answers, right? But if you’re intentional and deliberate in saying, “Let’s put aside what we tried before and try some new stuff,” and people trust you, that’s powerful.

About the Author(s)

The host of this interview is Elevate’s Chairman and CEO, Liam Brown, talking with Nick Humphrey, the Managing Partner at Hamilton Locke.

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