Leadership is more than 'fees and expertise,' iCLAW managing partner says

Owen Culliney believes that the legal profession needs to "think beyond ladder-climbing"

Leadership is more than 'fees and expertise,' iCLAW managing partner says
Owen Culliney

Owen Culliney’s goal was always to make life better and happier for people, and in his leadership role as managing partner at iCLAW, he has endeavoured to maintain a people-first focus at the firm.

While the legal profession has placed much value on technical expertise and earnings when it comes to candidates for partnership promotion, Culliney believes that community leaders, changemakers and mentors are the “truly remarkable” members of the industry.

In this interview, Culliney talks how his 25-year-old self needed leadership, seeking a different perspective on life and iCLAW’s successful (and adorable) April Fool’s joke.

What made you choose a career in law, and what's your favourite part of the job?

My parents were immigrants of sorts. They ran out of money in Wellington while on a tour around the world and decided to stay. As Brits, they saw New Zealand as a blank canvas and a place where their kids could do the sorts of things they couldn't do in a more classist society. They must have believed that lawyers and doctors were the epitome of success because they told me and my sisters that we could choose one or the other.

I chose law, and I turned out to be good at it. At first, I didn't love it, and I thought perhaps I had made the wrong choice. I wanted to make people happy and better off (something I still love to do), and for a while, I thought medicine might have been a better avenue to do this. However, I stuck at it and discovered that the law could be a tool for improving the lives of my clients and community, and that's where my focus lies now. Helping families buy homes, developers build homes, and businesspeople earn money to feed their families and, themselves, create improvements to the lives of others is something I can do.

I am proud of the amazing work our team at iCLAW do every day for our clients. My role as a leader is to develop and grow our people. This means I can help many more clients than I could help on my own, and that, is my favourite part of the job.

What is going on at the firm? Are there any new programs and initiatives that you're particularly interested in?

We believe that good people make good advisers, so we have spent the last 12-months focusing on soft skills training to develop our team. We have observed that successful people – those that have a positive impact on the people around them – understand how to communicate, remain present and engaged and most importantly understand themselves and who they are, what drives them and why. So, we've been learning that stuff. The outcomes are great. The team is forming meaningful relationships with each other, and our clients and the feedback is that they are taking these skills and tools home with them as well. Our team is more cohesive, higher-performing and more engaged. They are also happier. This training is now embedded into the firm and part of what we offer to all new team members when they join us.

What tech-related initiatives adopted by the firm, if any, are you most excited about?

We are always looking for new ways to make things easier for our clients. For example, we have been trialling a booking add-on to Outlook to allow clients to book meetings with our team as/when they realise they need to chat with us – which is almost never between 8am and 6pm when they can call up and book in. It is a small thing and not necessarily the most epic tech case study around, but feedback from our clients has been positive.

Overall, tech is a great way to find new efficiencies. Although, I must say that nothing beats a clean whiteboard!

What has been your proudest accomplishment in the last year or so?

I received a Christmas card from our team. All the partners did. The messages in the card were moving and I was left with the feeling that our investment in this group of professionals was appreciated and valued.

Our focus has always been on our people first and it's the little things like this help us know we are on the right track. We also moved into our new premises prior to Christmas, and it was an excellent opportunity for us to reflect on our growth over the last five years.

What should the profession focus more on?

Our industry tends to promote rainmakers and technical experts into partnership roles and I'm not sure that's always a good thing. We are huge believers in finding opportunities for our people to grow, but I think we need to think beyond ladder-climbing and consider where our people can shine the brightest.

The skills of a leader are more than fees and expertise. We certainly need great technicians in positions where they can teach and give great advice, but applying the law is not simply about fees and good drafting/mooting. The truly remarkable members of our profession are community leaders, changemakers, and mentors. More of that please.

What are the challenges you expect in your practice, and in the business of law in general, going forward? What challenges are particularly pressing in the country's legal industry?

Technology will have an impact, but that's a good thing. Our role is to facilitate transactions, resolutions, and succession. If technology assists us to do that and make our services more accessible, we should embrace it. Not every firm will do so, and that's OK – horses for courses. Certain clients will never embrace it either. Our mission has always been to see the law differently and as a tool that helps people succeed. I think technology can only be a positive force for that.

What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year?

We're welcoming back five team members from maternity leave (including one of our founding partners) and that's exciting. It's like the Beatles are getting back together. Our recent iCRAWL Junior Suits Academy April Fool's joke was something of a homage to this group as well as the many other parents in the office. It's a quintessentially iCLAW way of celebrating that our team members aren't only lawyers but also mums, dads, friends, karaoke lovers and bad golfers.

If you haven't seen the video yet, check it out. As you will see, we don't take ourselves too seriously (and our team loved bringing their kids into the office to make this happen). The team is so tight knit and love to celebrate each other's success, so I know we're going to have a great year.

If you were given an opportunity to spend a day with anyone (living or dead), who would it be and why?

I'd like to stand 25-year-old me up and give him a piece of my mind. He was useless and needed leadership. Aside from that (as that chat would get weird pretty quickly), I'd enjoy spending a day with a poet. Someone like Wordsworth or Keats. Even one of the more modern poets like Kurt Cobain, Post Malone.

I guess what I'm after is a different perspective. How does one get the space and freedom to ponder and record life like a poet does it? I want to do a bit more of that.

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