The report by Ben Lewis a few weeks ago in Asia Law that Singapore law firms are being forced to offer unique employment benefits to retain lawyers as demand outstrips supply in this booming region got me thinking and pondering whether there is possibly a better way . . . .

Do lawyers really dress and party like this? Sean Larkan Photo

At top Singapore law firm Rajah & Tann, lawyers can let off some steam in lounges equipped with Nintendo Wii game consoles, pool and foosball tables, and electric massage chairs. Around the corner at rival Drew & Napier, a “Ministry of Fun” coordinates a social calendar that, according to the firm’s Web site, includes trips to Thailand as well as “glamorous dinners and crazy parties where everyone from directors to trainees, boogie. . . . . “

Factors at play seem to be:

  • Scarcity of jobs & high attrition to other countries and outside law
  • Fewer law graduate recruits
  • A drop of nearly 50%  in 7-12 year experienced lawyers in the region

Blamed (by lawyers) are:

  • Unpredictable, long hours, especially compared to in-house counsel
  • Remuneration lower than near-neighbours Hong Kong (despite 20% increases in recent years)

Blamed (by firms) are:

  • Unrealistic expectations (regarding work hours for instance) on the part of young lawyers

My thoughts for law firm leaders on these developments:

  • The legal profession around the world has a habit of getting itself into such tangles – as firms we tend to follow one another like sheep – if one firm (especially a brand name firm), does something, like offer particular employment benefits, we feel we have to follow in an identical or similar way.
  • And of course young lawyers don’t miss a trick – they use these developments to negotiate their version of the ‘ministry of fun’. And so the spiral continues.
  • It is sometimes wiser to quietly take stock, bite the bullet and work out an effective people strategy for the long term, which will counter whatever the future market throws at it.
  • The problem of course is that this is challenging, it takes time, and it also invariably requires changed behaviours by partners.
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Employees own shares in this dynamic 105 year old Australian law firm M+K Lawyers, headed up by National Managing Director Damian Paul. M+K has embarked on a remarkable growth strategy around a unique business model and culture. Damian agreed to answer some questions:

Sean: Your business model is unique and was the first of its kind in Australasia – how has the firm grown since this model was introduced?

Damian: Somewhat late in our over 100 year history, the new model took effect in July 2008! Since then, over the past 3 years, the firm has grown in revenue by 150% to A$50m, in staff by over 100% to just over 300 and from one office to locations in all key east coast centres; New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania.

Sean: How would you describe M+K Lawyers?

Damian: A national commercial law firm, operated in a corporate, businesslike structure.

Sean: How does it work?

Damian: An incorporated legal practice (ILP) in each of the 4 states in which we currently operate (News South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania and Victoria), each 100% owned by a parent company which, in turn, is owned by M+K directors and employees.

Sean: Why did you choose this model?

Damian: We saw it as the model most suited to helping us acheive our growth ambition to become the leading law firm in Australia for middle market clients.

Sean: What take up has there been – from other firms and from staff ?

Damian: In a relatively short time since July 2008, seven law firms have joined us (including the foundation firm, Macpherson+Kelley). Senior employees have the opportunity to invest in the firm by buying shares in our parent company, thereby acquiring a stake in the national firm.
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