Duncan Cotterill chair on what makes a successful modern law firm

Jonathan Scragg talks about the firm’s 21-year run in Wellington and positive COVID-19-driven changes

Duncan Cotterill chair on what makes a successful modern law firm
Jonathan Scragg

Jonathan Scragg may have stepped into the role of Duncan Cotterill’s chair of the partnership and board only recently, but the seasoned Wellington-based litigator has been with the firm for nearly two decades and has stood with the firm through many events.

Among these has been the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which turned the legal profession on its head as it did with many industries. As Duncan Cotterill celebrates 21 years in Wellington this year, Scragg highlights the importance of tech adoption, improved communication and a people focus.

In this interview, Scragg discusses the valuable role of diversity and inclusion initiatives in a modern law firms, getting feedback from employees, prioritising people’s wellbeing and cultivating an environment where “people can bring their whole selves to work.”

Duncan Cotterill has been operating in Wellington for over two decades now – what are some of the most significant changes you’ve observed in the legal industry during this time?

The impact of technology. We’ve seen firms (and clients) invest heavily in technology. For law firms, technology investment has enabled faster and the more efficient delivery of advice to clients. It has also enabled lawyers to embrace flexible working, and for firms to obtain and utilise higher quality data to enable more effective law firm management.

The desire for greater communication. We’ve seen clients and staff alike hungry for more communication from their law firms. We’ve seen through COVID-19 that in times of uncertainty, clients and staff want effective and efficient communication, delivered in real time and, ideally, offered across multiple platforms. Mail is dead and even e-mail can now seem slow and impersonal to some. Clients and staff are looking for meaningful direct engagement – video conferencing is now the norm. These trends were already happening before COVID struck, but the pace of change has accelerated and the changes made will be permanent.

The market for legal services is constantly evolving. Competition amongst law firms is strong but also healthy. In Wellington we’ve seen a range of law firms contract, down-size or merge. But we have also seen other firms prosper and grow – particularly with the emergence of new boutique firms, often focussed on particular market segments. Those firms in Wellington with a clear service line offering, value proposition, and which are led by subject-matter experts supported by great quality people have been successful. We are delighted that our own firm’s experience in Wellington has been one of continued growth and expansion. In 21 years, we have grown to have an on the ground team of eight partners and more than 50 staff, supported by the full resources of a national commercial law firm with more than 260 people. We aspire to continue to grow in Wellington.

An increase in specialisation. Law firms over the last 20 years have had to adapt to new legislation and an increasing diet of regulation, in meeting the changing needs of clients. That in turn has led to more lawyers specialising in niche practice areas. There has been strong growth in client demand for specialist legal services and practitioners – two such areas we have seen flourish in our Wellington office have been intellectual property law and health and safety law. More broadly, across the firm we have highly specialist teams offering services in areas as diverse as insurance law, property law and employment law.

The focus on people. Modern successful law firms are those that focus on the growth and development of their own people whilst providing the best quality service and advice to clients. Firms that develop an inclusive culture, that celebrate diversity, and create working environments where people can bring their whole selves to work, are the firms clients want to work with and staff want to work for.

COVID-19 changed the way law firms operate in a big way – what are some of the more positive changes this new climate has inspired in the legal profession?

COVID-19 has shown even the most sceptical users of technology that high-quality legal advice can be delivered in different ways, and through different channels, with no loss in quality. Video conferencing platforms, such as Zoom and MS Teams, are now used by us every day when communicating with clients and internally. These tools have enabled greater collaboration for our teams and enabled our people to draw more easily on specialist expertise, wherever they may be in New Zealand.

COVID-19 has helped to engender stronger client relationships. Although we may not have been able to meet with our clients in person as often as we may have liked, we have nevertheless engaged with them regularly and meaningfully. We are proud to say we have been able to support our clients through COVID-19 with almost seamless service delivery. That has been particularly appreciated and recognised by those clients who have faced very considerable challenges and pressures due to COVID-19.

An aspect of the people focus where COVID-19 has brought about long-lasting change has been an increased focus on people’s wellbeing. Clients and staff now want to have more conversations about their lives beyond work or the professional sphere. As a firm we recognise the stresses and strains that legal practice can create for people, especially in terms of their mental health. This is an area of focus for our firm and one where we want to offer better support for our people.

What were the most significant challenges the firm faced in adapting to this climate? How were these challenges overcome?

The greatest challenge initially was helping people deal with uncertainty.

COVID-19 for everyone was stressful so frequent communication, personal check-ins and giving everyone the technology and tools was vital. We wanted our people first and foremost to make sure they were ok, and to prioritise their well-being and that of their families. Then we wanted to equip our people as best we could to enable them to continue to meet the needs of our clients.

The challenges we faced as a firm, and indeed that everyone faced particularly during the level 3 and 4 lockdowns, were completely new and unprecedented. We found that it took time for everyone to adjust to new norms and ways of doing things. For many there were persistent and on-going challenges that did not abate over time in lockdown, such as juggling new ways of working with caring for children. We surveyed all of our people at the end of the lockdown period last year about what went well and what we could have done better. Although we weren’t perfect, we feel we did a pretty good job overall.

What does a modern law firm look like, and how should it behave?

A successful modern law firm is one that focuses on equipping its people, in all respects, to deliver high quality service and advice to clients. That means creating an environment where people can bring their whole selves to work. Successful firms are those that celebrate and embrace diversity and inclusion; that allow people to flourish and deploy their best efforts to meet client needs. Successful firms trust and empower their people; they facilitate people to work flexibly and in different locations; they embrace a greater choice of technology platforms and channels. They allow clients to access the best advice from the best people, no matter where they might be situated.

How important is diversity and inclusion in the current legal landscape?

Diversity and inclusion have always been important. Successful law firms are those that value and embrace these concepts and take tangible steps to live and breathe them in daily legal practice. As a firm, we strive to recognise everyone’s contribution, and as leaders, we listen and are accessible. We continue to work on ways to build diversity and inclusion into our daily work practices and are focused on this as a strategic priority for the firm.

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