LB: I think it’s a real challenge now, Danny. We are navigating the healthcare crisis. We’re navigating the economic crisis, social justice problems, and crises associated with inequities. As a leader, I am thinking about how we do this sustainably, pointing towards something that people can choose to be part of? And I try not to be drawn on picking sides in these issues. I’ve got my personal views, strong personal beliefs about these issues. Going back to society’s institutions and the versions of that inside a firm or an organization or a company, I think it’s healthy to have tensions and a kind of interlocking system of policy leadership or even different points of view. That energy needs to be managed in some way to lead towards a shared future that people choose.
DG: I suppose people would be surprised if they thought that I agreed with what you said. I’d have some empathy with that view. Still, I think it is the role of a leader to have a view and express their view and have clarity about where they want the business to be or look like, how people are to behave in it, and the issues of concern. There’s probably some tension between the two and timing is everything when you bring these views to the table, but I think you need to have them. People here expect that I’ll have views about things, that I’ll have clarity. If you don’t, I think you risk not seen to be a strong leader. In uncertain times, you want your people to feel that you are a strong, if not visionary leader.
LB: I think that’s interesting because leaders are always questioning their development and progress and the impostor syndrome. And how did I end up here? If you look at your firms’ future, with the benefit and legacy of that history, how prepared do you feel and what kinds of things you think we should be preparing for this next normal, and what the future of a firm can be?
DG: Well, I feel pretty prepared and very optimistic. I’m an optimistic person by nature, but it is highly, if not completely, dependent for the immediate term on the economy. How we will fare and the decisions we will have to make will depend on the economy and how that part of the market that we serve thrives. If there is going to be great economic damage to the Australian economy and the international economy. You think about the future, that has to factor into your thinking. It’s the overwhelming anxiety or challenges any firm is wondering about – is that going to kick in, how are we going to cope with it, how are we going to look after our people? Is there going to be enough work coming from our clients, etcetera?
If we had this interview this time last year, I would have felt very confident about the future and our capacity to meet those challenges. Many observers say that the challenges presented by this pandemic is simply to bring forward challenges that you would have had to meet anyway: challenges around flexible working, people working from home, the challenge of technology, how do you empower people in the new world, how do you meet the more diverse needs of your workforce, how do you meet the demands of clients at that part of the market who still demand seven days a week attention to their affairs and transactions. We do complex work in everything we do, which is very time-consuming and demanding of consistent hours, and technology is simply an enabler of that. Technology doesn’t reduce that pressure; if anything, it creates more because the expectations around capacity and delivery are simply escalated by whatever technology facilitates.
LB: I see that. I had an interesting experiment with two of our financial services customers. We ran a program where we agreed on some guidelines with our customers – I know we’re in a slightly different business. We agreed with one of those financial institutions that if you send your team messages after, I think, 6:00 PM, we would not respond to them until 8 o’clock or 9 o’clock the following morning as a kind of guideline between us unless there was a kind of asterisk of, “This is urgent.” With the other financial institution, we didn’t do that.
What was fascinating was that by actively engaging in that conversation with the customer, they were more mindful and didn’t just assume that we were on 24/7. I bring this up because I was in a meeting with the managing partners in New York, considered to be peers, and one of the conversations was that this is not just a problem for law firm managing partners to solve. And it’s also not appropriate for the general counsel to make this be a problem only for managing partners to solve. It is a shared responsibility that we need to agree on. The point that you’re making is that in the advice of law, it is a 24/7 world, and some demands are real that are around the clock, and unless you’re mindful and have some shared agreement with clients on it, you could end up just working all the time with the technologies that we have available.
DG: You make a good point; maybe the future will see one of those conversations with your clients and some better understanding. We’re struggling to see it; you’d have to have a similar understanding with the regulators when we receive notice to reduce thousands if not millions of documents within short order. You’d have to have a similar conversation with the courts, and you’d have to have similar conversations with the bankers who aren’t really built that way. It depends on your clients’ nature, and where you sit in the ecosystem. We have positioned the firm, addressing those things that you just mentioned, as something that perhaps could be done. If you overlay that with intense competition, there’d be many firms that would be very worried about having that conversation with a client because the people down the road would say, “Well, that’s absolute rubbish, we’ll deliver what you want when you want it, no matter what.” And the clients are always going to like that.
LB: I tell you, Danny, it was interesting between the financial institution clients and the managing partners, and it was quite clear that I touched the third rail.
If you could speak to the 20-year younger version of yourself, and you think about the leaders that you work with now, what would be the advice that you would give the 20-year younger, Danny, that perhaps you might share with the next level of leaders coming through in your firm?
DG: You have to be on top of the technological changes and the new software systems that will become available across everything we do. There’s probably very little that we do that can’t be automated. And if that automation will mean taking expense out of business, clients will expect that you do that. Large law firms won’t have the same number of people doing the same jobs, and they will have different expertise. Some of those people will be as important to the firm as the best partners, that you’ll have you change the partners and the firm’s thinking and build that into the psyche of the organization to be flexible and adaptable. In 10 years, these firms won’t look a lot like they do now, and how do you transition to your new normal and treat people properly and give people the opportunity to be a part of that?
I think that’s quite a challenge; of being aligned with the lifestyle expectations of people wanting to work from home and the expectations of clients – that you’re going to be culturally aligned with them, have the same views about the communities and environment you work in. In that case, it’s a number of different challenges that we need to think about that one time we would not have had to. And you have to be running a business on top of all of that. I think that profitability and financial strength is incredibly important and will become more so. You can’t meet all of those challenges, attract the best people, get the best partners and pay them what they can get in the market unless you are a very profitable, fairly reasonably hard-nosed kind of organization. Managing all of those things and talking to people about them, communicating about them, and bringing everybody with you, is a big challenge for the future.
LB: That really resonates with me. When you talk to the owner about your own personal style, Danny, about having a point of view about the future, it’s very important to face reality. It’s almost de rigueur right now to sweep that away. For any of us who have lived through multiple recessions, I think the economic environment has really shone a spotlight on – that as the oil in our company.
DG: It’s the number one priority is to keep the business strong and safe.
LB: Interesting answers. Thank you very much.
DG: Thank you very much, always.