McMillan&Co's Sally McMillan shows how good old-fashioned service can provide a new recipe for success.
At the core of McMillan&Co is people and the relationships between the firm and its clients. The firm was built on this foundation, which has been reinforced as the boutique rebranded earlier this month and continues to grow.
Sally McMillan meant it to be this way because she understands that one of the noblest parts of being a lawyer is being there for clients for better or for worse.
The most important thing
“What is the most important thing in the world? It is the people, it is the people, it is the people,” according to the Maori proverb.
That idea that has influenced Sally’s view of what it means to be a lawyer, evolved through a long and successful career. As a graduate, she worked at established firm Tonkinson Wood and Adams Bros, a firm which she says took great pride in carefully maintaining close and fruitful relationships with clients over several generations.
She later became a partner at Anderson Lloyd, a large firm with more than 30 partners which also had a long history, but where a significant part of her own work was for institutions, large corporates, or wealthy men arguing about money.
“I enjoyed the people and the work, but when I left there I wanted to establish a practice more similar to my first firm, where the focus was on working for individual private clients – helping real people with real problems to find real solutions. I wanted to have focus on Lawyers being genuinely well-connected with the clients who pay their salary. I wanted to have staff who could go home at the end of the day satisfied that they’d made a real difference for those people in what, especially for criminal, relationship property and immigration clients or for families who have just lost a loved one, is often the most difficult time in their lives,” she says.
Perhaps most lawyers would say that the idea of nurturing and maintaining client relationships is nothing new, but there is a difference between talking the talk and walking the walk.
“There’s nothing new about aspiring to give really good service – I’d like to think all lawyers want to do that - but in an age where everything is instant and a lot of business is done electronically and at a distance, it’s really easy to lose sight of the value of genuine human connection with people in their times of need,” she says.
“I’ve plugged away at achieving both objectives together – the service and the connection - and it seems to have worked. The business has been on a steady upward trajectory for a number of years now, and we get consistently great feedback from old and new clients alike who say that they feel really well-supported, and appreciate and value the bespoke approach that we take to their work. I think old-fashioned client service has a lot to recommend it.”
“Innovations such as automated interviews are great tools in some situations, but they just can’t come close to providing optimum client care in most of the areas of private client law that my firm practices,” McMillan says.
She's heard some practitioners say how great it is to be able to avoid sitting down with a client and interviewing them about their legal problems. She says that if that's the way a lawyer feels about their clients, then they are probably in the wrong profession.
“If you’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness and you need to update your will and powers of attorney, you probably don’t want to tell it to the screen. If you’ve just separated from your wife of 30 years who’s now decided she’s gay after all, you want to tell someone who cares. If you’re a Syrian refugee trying to bring your elderly parents to NZ, you need to be able to look your lawyer in the eye and see that they’re the right person with whom to entrust the future of your family. If you’ve been charged with a criminal offence, you want the comfort and understanding of someone who knows what they’re doing telling you they’ll do their best to keep you out of prison,” she says.
“I’m very proud of my talented team and their commitment to our clients, to the firm, and to each other. Nobody has abandoned ship over the years, and having such a stable workforce has been an important factor in developing strong relationships with clients, and in making McMillan&Co a great place to work,” McMillan says.
New, but old
While the name is new, the firm has its origins in the early 20th century and incorporates the practices of several well-known Otago practitioners, including David Polson, the late Roger Barrowclough, Gerald Wilson and Joss Miller. It was known as Polson McMillan for a decade, during which the firm tripled in size and significantly grew its client base. It became McMillan&Co from 1 November.
The firm also moved to new premises at Easter to start the rebranding process. She says moving into a new space in Dunedin’s Octagon has been an absolute highlight for the team and its clients.
“We are now in a much larger, lighter and more modern space, and as an employer it has been immensely satisfying to see everyone respond so positively. We spend a lot of our lives at work, so it’s important that my people are comfortable and want to be here. I was very keen to avoid the corporate-law-office-madeover-in-2018 look. Our new offices are the repository for my lifetime collection of mid-century furniture, which makes for an office environment that is professional but stylish, welcoming and colourful, and at the same time comfortingly familiar for those of us of a certain age,” she says.
Size doesn’t matter
“I think that until quite recently there has been a general perception that where law firms are concerned, bigger is better, so that clients wanting high quality advice and great service have routinely defaulted to large firms,” McMillan says. “At the other end of the scale there has been a perception that smaller firms are more 'low rent' – charge less, and do less complex work.”
“The advent of the boutique firm has gradually forced a change in those perceptions, so that clients are now recognising that smaller firms can be specialists that offer high level advice and service, and not necessarily at bargain-basement prices,” she says.
“I take the unapologetic approach that we provide a limited range of legal services, but we do those really well. The 'small = cheap and quick' mentality is prevalent and that plus the fact that we don’t do everything means that sometimes we have to turn clients away,” she says. “We put it out there, a bit tongue in cheek, that small = perfectly formed. We never apologise for the fact that we don’t offer every conceivable legal service and we will promptly and happily refer clients on to other colleagues if we can’t do the work they need. We don’t just take jobs that are outside our core skill set then work it out (at the client’s expense) as we go along. I think that clients appreciate and value candour and transparency, and see it as a strength. They come back.”
“The work that we do, and that many lawyers do, is deeply personal to our clients. They need and want to engage, face to face and on a personal level, with an actual person who actually cares. An old fashioned notion perhaps, but a human one.”