The Challenges Facing Lawyers on the Journey from Graduate to Partnership (Q&A with Tim Perry)

Tim Perry -Practical Law AustraliaTim Perry is the head of corporate at Practical Law Australia and has more than 12 years’ experience practising at leading law firms in Australia, including Gilbert + Tobin and DLA Piper. Tim is passionate about innovation in the law, and his expertise includes advising on public and private mergers and acquisitions, private equity transactions, joint ventures, restructures, capital raisings, privatisations and other government transactions, corporate governance, directors’ duties and commercial contracts.

We recently caught up with Tim to learn more about his transition from law school to law firm, to his current role as head of the Practical Law Australia Corporate team.

Q: Tim, you started as a law graduate at Mallesons. What was it like to transition from law school to your first role in a large law firm? What were the demands put on you and what did it feel like?

A: The transition from university to working in a firm was just like the transition from high school to university! After five years at law school – studying hard for exams, writing quality assignments and reading the case law – I felt like I knew what I was doing and how to succeed. Then I started working in the corporate team of Mallesons Stephen Jaques (now King & Wood Mallesons), and realised I had no idea what legal practice was all about. All the partners and senior lawyers spoke this bizarre commercial language full of unfamiliar acronyms, and everything was about deals, not cases. No one wanted my essay-quality advices about the ins and outs of a particular transaction. They wanted short, sharp, practical advices that could be put in front of clients. I had to take feedback on board very quickly.

Q: Was that important to your career progression?

 Seeing less red pen on your drafts is a visible form of validation and a sign that you can be trusted

A: Absolutely! The amount of red pen on your drafts becomes a real barometer of how you are going. The juniors who get noticed and who start getting the better work are those who learn from the red pen and start producing work that needs less correction. Seeing less red pen on your drafts is a visible form of validation and a sign that you can be trusted to get work done with less support.

Q: Next you progressed to senior associate at Gilbert + Tobin. Tell me what that was like…

A: It was a crash course in project management. Part of being a senior lawyer is taking more responsibility for running deals, and that means that you need to manage work streams and teams. You can’t do all the work yourself. You need to manage junior lawyers, who do the frontline research and first drafts of some documents. You now wield the red pen. The goal is to have the juniors handling the basics so you can be spend your time on more of the value-add thinking.

As a senior associate in a large commercial law firm, you are expected to train your junior team. This is seen as a long-term investment for the firm, and it is necessary for their development, but does not contribute to your billable hours. If you want your juniors to work more efficiently to help you bill more, the onus is on you to train them. It’s hard to find a balance. You are expected to delegate efficiently so the juniors get the work done. You are also trying to build up your career at the same time, which means (at least in part) racking up your own billable hours. Training juniors is something you can’t bill for. Clients won’t pay for juniors to learn on the job and won’t pay for senior lawyers to teach them. Training comes out of admin time.

Q: That sounds like a lot to juggle… how do you manage to do it all?

A: The only answer is to work longer hours. But if you want to move up and advance your career, the expectation is you can balance all this and you will bill as much as possible while doing so. That’s the reality of commercial legal practice.

Q: After this role, you moved to DLA Piper. Tell me what your role was like at this level.

You need to position yourself as a leader in your field

A: I moved to DLA Piper as a very senior lawyer. At this level, or at the level of special counsel or partner, you are running matters. You need to manage the team of senior associates and junior lawyers doing the work. You also need to manage the relationship with the client.

The emphasis of your time-spend changes. It is less about the nuts and bolts of the deal mechanics – although you review all the work and remain responsible for it – and more about helping the client to achieve their commercial objectives. You need to understand their industry and the challenges they face in their day-to-day work.

You also need to be thinking about things strategically from the perspective of the firm. The market for legal services in Australia, let alone Sydney, is very small, and there are only so many clients to go around. Many of the larger clients use a panel, and being on the panel is no guarantee that you will get work. You need to position yourself as a leader in your field, to be able to show that you are on top of the latest developments, and you need to be proactive about informing your clients. You need to think constantly about how you can build the client relationship. It’s not enough anymore to just take your client to lunch (although lunch is always nice). You need to bring value back to them – alerting them to problems coming their way and offering solutions.

Q: And if you don’t do this?

A: You lose, because all your competitors are doing this. They are always trying to woo your clients away with their fancy insights and new-fangled solutions.

Q: Do law firms face increasing pressure from clients too?

Lawyers are always facing internal pressure to do things faster,

A: So much pressure! It’s a buyer’s market for legal services. Clients no longer call you up, ask a question, and happily pay your rack rate invoice at the end of the month. If a client calls with a quick question, it’s expected to be a freebie – the cost to the firm is an investment in the relationship so that you stand a better chance of getting the bigger jobs.

Even on the bigger jobs, there is pressure to move towards alternative fee arrangements and fixed or capped fee structures. This can lead to a lot of scrutiny of what was “in-scope” versus what was “out of scope.” It’s not uncommon for partners or senior lawyers to spend a huge amount of time reviewing bills so as to justify the time on the clock to in-house counsel. This type of bill analysis has a huge opportunity cost – that’s time that could be spent doing other recoverable work!

Lawyers are always facing internal pressure to do things faster, to bill more and to reduce write-off time, client pressure to deliver more value for less cost, and competitive pressure to retain clients.

Q: What made you decide to join the Practical Law Australia team?

A: I could see the need for a know-how solution that would help lawyers access targeted, practical information quickly. At DLA Piper, I had access to Practical Law UK, and I saw firsthand how Practical Law could help lawyers of all levels of experience here in Australia. Practical Law:

  • Allows junior lawyers to get up to speed more quickly.
  • Reduces training wheels ‘red penning’ because everyone within the firm has access to the same bank of best-practice precedents.
  • Increases project efficiency – a benefit that rolls up to senior associate and partner level.
  • Helps firms reduce write-off time in answering the more basic questions that take up time, but don’t require value-added thinking.
  • Gives partners and senior lawyers talking points on new developments that they can bring to clients to help build the relationship.

I loved the idea of being part of Practical Law Australia and developing a resource that would help lawyers do their jobs more efficiently. Clients expect that their lawyers will get the law right as a minimum. Practical Law Australia’s resources are there to reduce time spent on doing that, so that lawyers are able to spend more time doing the high-value thinking that really differentiates them as trusted advisers.

To find out more about Practical Law Australia or to request a demo, visit the website.

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