Phillip Salem, national managing partner at Sparke Helmore, talks to Sasha Borissenko about his plans to drive the “world-class independent Australian law firm”
Before joining Sparke Helmore in 1998, Salem was a deputy director and senior government solicitor with the NSW Office of Australian Government Solicitor, where he headed the business and commercial team. He was in the government sector for 13 years.
Taking the plunge
It was his privatisation work on several airports that meant he got to interact with a lot of the bigger private firms, and with the prospect of setting up a government practice at Sparke Helmore, he decided it was time for a change in scene, he says.
“I thought to myself, well I’ve done quite a lot in government and I was enthused by the prospect of building a government practice from scratch at the firm.
“It was certainly daunting and exciting but it was a huge challenge because I was given a blank canvas. It was wonderful to be given a lot of freedom to do what needed to be done. It’s so exciting to see a practice grow.
“I was quite surprised to find that other than my ability to be a lawyer, I have quite an entrepreneurial side to my personality. I would have never found that out about myself otherwise.”
While the managing partner role requires different skills, management is nothing new for Salem who held a number of managerial positions during his 18 years at the firm, including being a member of the board, a national practice group leader, and a national service line leader in the government and commercial team.
“Now it’s a very different dynamic insofar as you’re seeking to make sense of many moving parts all at the same time. I’ll be having to make calls for the benefit of the entire firm as opposed to clients on a particular matter. It’s a very different skillset. To do that well I think you need good communication skills, good listening skills and decisiveness.”
With just a few weeks under his belt, Salem has enjoyed getting to know staff around the country. He hopes to visit all nine offices in the country in the first three months of his tenure.
“I would have never been able to do that otherwise. I’m really enjoying sinking my teeth into the role. It’s still early days. Maybe ask me in six months’ time and the story might be different.
“It’s certainly challenging and but I’m finding it also very exciting that I have an opportunity to help shape the organisation into the future.”
Salem plans to do “a lot of listening, rather than talking” to ensure he’s across the business and the firm’s aspirations are as good as possible before any strategy is implemented, he says.
“Without a solid understanding of the firm and its people I certainly won’t be productive in the decision making process.”
In his capacity as managing partner, he hopes to make sure the firm is value driven. “I want to ensure our organisation has a culture where our values guide everything that we do. That’s something important to me. Client-focus, integrity, honesty, agility, positive change and collaborative responses should be the heart of this firm. We want to continue to walk the talk.”
What he does hope to implement is a new growth strategy that will see the company into the next five years or so.
“With over 600 people in the firm we have to focus on growth and growing well in a competitive market is critical.”
What’s more their “working smarter initiative” similarly recognises the competitive market, he says. The firm has recently signed off on a big IT capital expenditure that aims to upskill staff while focusing on cost efficiencies.
“Having talented lawyers isn’t enough these days; the initiative hopes to ensure our lawyers are skilled up in other areas such as technology, various tools and processes, project management, for example.”
Meanwhile, his appointment has coincided with the move to the new Sydney office, which is a great start, he says. “I’m passionate about the need for us to be innovative and for us to develop in a way that is exciting. I want this not for me but for our clients and every person who works here.
“Sparke Helmore is in a very good place at the moment. We have a very solid foundation in terms of financial wellbeing with its blue chip client base. What I’m hoping to achieve is a “pre-eminent national law firm of Australia and that’s something I’m passionate about and unconditionally committed to. It aligns with the firm’s vision, which is to be a world class independent Australian law firm valued by our clients for our people and