Lawyers Weekly meets new Australian head of multinational law firm

Lawyers Weekly meets new Australian head of multinational law firm

20 September 2019

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Lawyers Weekly editor Emma Ryan asked DLA Piper's country managing partner for Australia, Amber Matthews, where she believes the legal market is tracking in terms of trends, challenges and opportunities.

DLA Piper, as a global law firm with offices in more than 40 countries, is a major player in the profession.

Lawyers Weekly editor Emma Ryan sat down with DLA Piper’s recently-appointed country managing partner for Australia, Amber Matthews, to ask about her goals for the firm and where she believes the legal market is tracking in terms of trends, challenges and opportunities.

Q. What are the biggest goals you have for DLA Piper in this new role and how do you intend on achieving them?

We’ve been strengthening our presence in the Australian market over the past few years, and our market share gains have been solid. I’m focused on building on that success, and we have an ambitious program for the year ahead. That program includes playing to our strengths in our chosen sectors, utilising our global footprint to help our clients succeed and being a great place to work, so we attract and retain great people.

As one of the only truly integrated international firms in this market, genuine collaboration and cross-border work go to our firm values and our culture. Our global footprint is a huge asset – and our US presence gives us a unique advantage – so a key priority is to continue to fully leverage the benefits of the firm globally, for the benefit of our clients. A good example of that over recent times has been our work with US-based technology companies raising capital on the ASX, like Life360 and Credible (who recently announced a merger with Fox Corporation). We also recently partnered with the ASX on a visit to the US to profile the opportunities that exist in Australia for US companies seeking to raise capital. We are perfectly positioned to help US clients in this way.

Building an even stronger firm culture is also a priority. We are still a fairly young firm in this market, and we have work to do on building our culture. The recent refresh of our values (Be supportive; be collaborative; be bold; and be exceptional) has been a great success and will assist us in this.

At the end of the day, to really succeed we need good people. When we work in a place where we believe in the values and we like the culture, we feel we belong, and our people can build sustainable and interesting careers in the law, like I have been lucky to have.

Q. What practice areas are most in-demand and how do you intend to capitalise on this demand?

We’re seeing a strong pipeline of growth in infrastructure investment, international arbitration, particularly in Asia, and also complex class actions and mass torts.

We are continuing to make significant investments in strategic areas, with a particular focus on our corporate and projects teams, to deepen our bench strength.

We’ve grown our partnership by over 20 per cent in recent months, with 13 new partners, including projects partners Tom Fotheringham from King & Wood Mallesons, Owen Hayford from PwC and Jonathan Stafford from Colin Biggers & Paisley, five M&A partners from Norton Rose Fulbright, and five partner promotions across multiple practice groups.

This is all part of an ambitious program of growth and expansion for DLA Piper in the Australian market, and we’re excited to be growing our team.

Q. What strategy/strategies do you have in place in terms of making sure you both attract and retain the best talent within Australia’s legal market?

All law firms are losing good people to in-house roles or other industries. My mantra is all about ensuring sustainable and interesting careers in law firms. This requires a combination of doing interesting work for interesting clients, having good personal and professional development opportunities and enjoying where you work.

We have an enviable client list and have been involved in some excellent work like Link Group’s acquisition of UK-based Capita plc; Webjet acquisitions; the ground-breaking Timor-Leste maritime boundary conciliation; JKC major construction disputes, to name a few. Our lawyers want to work for interesting clients like these and to help them succeed in their businesses.

We also offer great development opportunities for our people through client secondments, short- or long-term secondments to other international DLA Piper offices and excellent professional development courses which help our people grow as leaders. And our graduates attend their induction course in London – not a bad way to start your legal career!

Increasing flexibility in when and where we work is also a key tool in helping with sustainability of careers in the law.

Our traditional ways of working are long-standing and hard to shift, designed in a time when societal norms and technology were very different. The time sheet model also doesn’t help.

One of the things we’re currently focused on is embedding a culture of ad hoc flexibility, and moving toward a more output-driven culture. Earlier this year we launched our WorkSmart policy, which is all about informal flexible working, and enabling our people to manage their workloads and personal life in a way that works best for them.

This could be doing the school drop-off, working from home either side of a medical appointment, or starting early on a Friday morning to get away early for the weekend. For me, I work flexibly to participate in more of my sons’ school events, including reading sessions in the mornings, and I often come in to the office later after a night of calls at home with international colleagues, for example.

And there are many examples of this ad hoc flexibility right across the firm, which has been evolving naturally over the past few years, but we introduced the policy because want to see more of it and make sure everyone felt able to work in this way.

Q. What are you most proud of having achieved for DLA Piper thus far?

I’ve been with the firm my whole career, but in the managing partner role only since May this year. Since then I’ve been proud to see our business grow and promote five of our top senior associates to partners. This speaks to the importance of showing our lawyers there is a path to partnership. We’ve also introduced a number of new initiatives to foster a safe and supportive workplace, and I’m proud of those changes.

We’ve launched new provisions and pathways to support those affected by domestic and family violence or sexual assault, under a new Domestic and Family Violence and Sexual Assault Policy. It aims to lift the stigma and increase the sense of safety our workplace can provide, particularly because we know that for many people experiencing violence or sexual assault, work is critical to their financial independence and is one of the few safe places they can access without causing suspicion or anger.

We’ve also enhanced our parental leave offering in Australia, increasing the paid leave, with flexibility in how this is taken, as well as continuing superannuation contributions during the unpaid component of parental leave up to 12 months.

Finally, the launch of our third Reconciliation Action Plan this month is one of my proudest moments since taking on the role of managing partner. I firmly believe that the more each of us learn and understand about the rich history of indigenous peoples and their cultures, the more we can contribute, in our own ways, to genuine reconciliation. DLA Piper has publicly supported the Uluru Statement from the Heart and with constitutional reform high on the government’s agenda, lawyers can play an important part in the public debate that will ensue over the coming months and years.

Q. What would you describe as some of the key emerging themes affecting the legal profession at present?

The business world is increasingly complex and many of our clients are facing a significant regulatory and compliance burden. This is certainly the case for our financial services clients following the banking royal commission, but it’s not limited to this sector. Navigating complex legal requirements with limited resources continues to present enormous challenges for our clients.

Directors are more concerned than ever about their personal duties, responsibilities and exposure and are looking to the legal profession for advice.

This is a global challenge and opportunity for the profession, and we have seen similar issues to those identified by the Hayne report emerge earlier in the UK and elsewhere.

Law firms have an opportunity to be true commercial partners to their clients, not only helping navigate what is likely to be a raft of additional regulatory imposition, litigation and restructuring, but also providing broader strategic advice. We need to become better at doing this, and not confining ourselves only to legal advice, so we remain relevant and helpful to our clients.

Innovation, technology and new regulation means the pace of change in the commercial world is incredibly quick. As lawyers, we should have the skills to help business and boards navigate a lot of this change, but we need to prove this to our clients. 

Q. Again, broadly speaking, what would you describe as the biggest challenges affecting the legal profession at present? How is DLA Piper likely to respond?

Disruption and innovation continue to place pressure on the traditional business model.

We pride ourselves on being dynamic, and continuous improvement and innovation in client service and delivery are a major focus of our global strategy.

A key part of that strategy – particularly in response both to the growing influence of accountancy firms and to the broader consulting industry taking on law and client demands – is to re-embrace our function as business partners, and not just legal advisers.

This is the real driver behind our radical change agenda, which features two phases.

The first phase has been focused on our internal innovation units. These include service delivery and quality (SDQ), which is focused on client-facing technology processes around legal project management, flexible lawyering and artificial intelligence; and our portfolio management office. We’ve invested significantly in this function, and our legal project managers, and will continue to do so.

For phase two, we have retained legal market expert and futurist, Professor Richard Susskind, as an independent adviser. We have established a Change Council to adapt and shape our innovation strategy. This team is chaired by our global co-CEO Simon Levine, and involves 13 members from DLA Piper offices around the world (including corporate partner Emma Kendall from our Brisbane office).

Below the council sit the change teams, which report to the council and are tasked with developing and implementing the solutions agreed by the council in relation to specific projects. The four priority areas being explored are data, design thinking, business advisory services and digital solutions.

Q. What is your advice to other legal professionals aspiring to reach a similar position such as yourself?

I’ve had a great career at DLA Piper in a range of different roles in London and Sydney. I started as a corporate lawyer before becoming the firm’s international general counsel for 10 years, and now managing partner, Australia.

I would never have predicted this, or could have planned it, so my advice is pretty simple – don’t overthink things and be patient in how your career develops. Absolutely make the most of all the opportunities you are presented with and make good connections across your firm so you are front of mind when those opportunities arise. And always be reliable, friendly and helpful – you shouldn’t underestimate how important it is for people to want to work with you, to be successful.