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.