K&L Gates’ Managing Partner Nick Nichola: Leading in a Changing Economy

Regional Managing Partner, Nick Nichola, has been leading K&L Gates since it first entered the Australian market in 2013.  He is also a member of the firm’s global management committee, Pay Equity Ambassador for Australia’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) and Vice Chair of AmCham Australia’s Victorian Council of Governors.

Nick talks to Thomson Reuters about guiding the global firm’s long-standing success in Australia, his talent-centric culture and walking in clients’ shoes in the face of rising economic uncertainty.

With outstanding legal talent based in offices in just about every major economic centre in the world, K&L Gates is a global titan. “We are a single integrated firm,” says Nick. “This means we can offer clients a seamless service no matter the jurisdiction in which we represent them.  They are going to get a consistently high level of service, one set of documents, one fee, one bill.”

“Leading a global firm requires a fair bit of agility from the global management committee to grapple with issues at both the mile-high view and on the ground,” says Nick.

Nick Nichola K&L Gates
Nick Nichola K&L Gates

The state of the legal market

“The biggest current issue for every organisation is economic uncertainty, fueled by rising interest rates, rising inflation, supply chain issues, geopolitical tensions and a raft of other factors,” says Nick. “These issues have impacted and will continue to impact business confidence.”

Nick believes that during times of uncertainty, the expertise of a corporate law firm is vital to both business and government. He anticipates the next 1-2 years will be about maximising opportunities by focusing resources in the appropriate areas of practice. He will continue to invest in people and the K&L Gates brand to “attract talented partners and lawyers in key areas of service to meet client demand”.

Growth opportunities in uncertain times

As the impact of higher inflation and rising interest rates emerge, Nick foresees an increase in businesses preparing for the changing conditions through capital raising, acquisitions, divestments and workforce management.

He anticipates more emphasis on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG), particularly as climate change gains further legislative momentum in Australia under the new federal government. Climate risk was identified by ASIC Commissioner Cathie Armour in 2021 as a ‘key director responsibility’.  K&L Gates will continue to prioritise ESG at both a local and global level, as businesses try to navigate compliance challenges amid developing regulatory frameworks.

Nick also signals recent government changes to aspects of workplace and industrial relations laws. The ‘Secure Jobs Better Pay’ Act changes “will require practical, commercially relevant legal advice to assist clients to navigate their way through the new workplace regime,” particularly around enterprise bargaining and contract work.

Diversity, inclusion and being an employer of choice

K&L Gates has been consistently recognised as an Employer of Choice, particularly around promoting gender equality, which Nick proudly advocates.  “Diversity and inclusion (D&I) is front and centre of our business objectives, as a diverse and inclusive organisation delivers better service to clients, lateral thinking in solving issues and better business outcomes.”

Nick is committed to fostering an equality culture that underpins the firm’s ethos and admits there is still work to do, particularly around increasing the number of women Partners at the firm. “We are currently reviewing our approach to developing our next generation of leaders and devising ways where we can provide the training and support for women at K&L Gates who want to make it to Partner.”

Developing future leaders

Nick is passionate about developing future leaders, by harnessing the exceptional talent within K&L Gates and providing opportunities for development and growth. The firm provides a learning and development platform for their people to help accelerate their commercial, legal and leadership skills. This includes access to opportunities in their overseas offices through secondments or short-term work assignments.

The firm has developed a formal partner sponsorship programme called Elevate, designed to create structure and clarity as lawyers progress towards partnership. “Elevate incorporates individual coaching and mentoring, as well as tailored sessions covering business development, communication, leadership, innovation and finance,” Nick said.

Mental wellbeing in the workplace

The pandemic highlighted the importance of mental wellbeing in the legal workplace, and Nick encourages open discussions to remove the stigma and create a culture where people feel supported,

“We acknowledge that each person’s mental health is personal to them and any support should be tailored to individual needs,” says Nick.

K&L Gates offers training to all staff on how best to assist colleagues (or themselves) when mental health issues arise. At a personal level, Nick often checks in with people to see how they are doing. “It’s important that as a leader I demonstrate the value of taking a genuine interest in people’s mental health.”

Rebalancing the great resignation

Roughly one third of Associates (32%) have left their firms in the past 12 months and almost half (46%) are at risk of leaving their jobs in the next two years. Therefore, it is crucial that firms have a clear value proposition supporting talent attraction and retention.

Nick views the great resignation as a result of pent-up demand emerging from the restrictions created by the pandemic, combined with a tight job market that has created higher wages in the sector. He predicts this will rebalance over the coming year with the changing economic conditions.

“A culture in which people feel supported is a culture in which people can thrive.”

Nick Nichola

Global leadership with local expertise

The rapid advancements we have seen in technology have connected the business and legal world more than ever before, propelling globalisation to a seemingly borderless state.  As businesses continue to expand operations into other countries, it’s no surprise that the most recent Thomson Reuters data on the legal market ranked ‘international reach’ as a main driver of clients’ legal spend.

Nick leverages the firm’s extensive global reach by connecting clients with the firm’s international resources. “We recently had two of our US partners talk to the AFR [Australian Financial Review] about the US mid-term elections and how the outcome of those elections would impact on Australia and Australian businesses. That is a great example of how we leverage the global platform and provide something to clients that other firms cannot.”

Clients also increasingly want to work with firms with in-depth local knowledge and expertise, who understand their industry, business goals and the regulatory environment in which they operate. “As a global firm, we are in a great position to provide not only practice area expertise, but also industry and geographic expertise,” says Nick. “This specialist knowledge will continue to be a driver during this time of economic uncertainty.”

Hybrid work is reshaping client connection

While in-person client meetings and events are on the rise, the hybrid working model has found permanency in the global workplace, with more than half (55%) of the legal workforce in APAC working hybrid or remote. Some of the remote client communications developed through the pandemic, such as webinars, will continue to be an important way of connecting with clients.

The pandemic fast tracked digital capabilities like this to deliver timely, seamless and engaging webinars where “our clients can access great insights and connect with our people from their office or homes”.

Digitisation is the new standard

Nick is committed to developing digital literacy as a core skill for legal talent, as the sector is becoming increasingly digitized and successful implementation is dependent on lawyer engagement.

Document automation and assembly is having a significant impact at K&L Gates, enabling the business to create documents faster. In some cases, efficiency is being improved by as much as 90-95%.

“The net effect is that our clients win,” says Nick. “Not only do our clients benefit from the cost savings that come from document automation, but it frees up our lawyers to focus on more complex legal issues.”

Integrated technology solutions are the future

The use of integrated technology for artificial intelligence, collaboration and advanced automation will continue to play a crucial role at K&L Gates to ensure the firm remains high functioning and efficient.

“As a fully integrated global law firm, having solutions and systems that are truly integrated will be crucial. Integrated systems will enable us to understand the connections between data points, so we can better leverage our collective knowledge on behalf of our clients.”

Australian innovation defining global culture

K&L Gates has an Australian Innovation Committee, which has led the way for the firm globally when it comes to creating an innovation culture and “taking ideas from the back of the napkin to a real outcome.”

The Committee comprises partners, lawyers and allied professionals who drive the innovation strategy for their Australian offices. They feed into the firm’s global IDEA Group, which was created to replicate the success of the Australian committee across the firm’s platform.

“Importantly, we capture the ideas and enthusiasm of our young lawyers through our Law Reimagined group. This group is represented in each office and reports into the Australian Innovation Committee with ideas with a remit to challenge the firm on its innovation thinking.”

Advice for new lawyers?

With a legal background spanning over 30 years, Nick has valued wisdom to share with new graduates currently in their first year of practising law: “Be curious,” he says.  “Be curious about your clients, your team, your firm, and your profession. That curiosity will lead to opportunities for you to have an impact beyond the core responsibilities of being a lawyer.”

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