Modelled on a start-up business: Unusual law firm finalist for major award

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A law firm that has modelled itself on a start-up business is a finalist in the 2014 Telstra Business Awards in the start-up category: A first for any legal company in Australia.

KWS Legal, founded by senior partner Michael Kadoury and managing partner Harriet Warlow-Shill, opened its doors in July 2011 and was moulded around the concept of a start-up business.

In three years it has grown from just the two lawyers to a staff list of 33 with offices in Sydney, Melbourne and Jerusalem.

“I’ve had my own start-ups from early on so we’re treating the law firm very much like a start-up rather than a traditional firm,” Kadoury, told Australasian Lawyer from his office in Jerusalem. “It brings a new energy – it’s the kind of thing you would see in a software company.”

KWS’ point of difference comes from the workplace culture and approach to clients and employees – add into that that each and every one of the staff in the practice comes from an entrepreneurial background.
The firm is also built around a concept of family values that always comes first.

There are six female lawyers on board who are all working mums, including mum-of-four Warlow-Shill. They are able to make use of the flexible working hours, the use of remote technology, and a child-friendly space in the office.

“I was in a firm before where every day I was told female lawyers are not as good as male lawyers because they have to take time out [for children]. The repetition really affected me and got me down for a while,” Warlow-Shill says. “But it really is easy – you can manage a commercial operation with good juniors and good support and you can pick your kids up from school every day.”

Kadoury agrees and says he can’t understand why women who have kids should have to be stifled in terms of where they can go within a firm.

On the contrary, having working mums on board has actually been advantageous from a commercial perspective for KWS, he says.

“As a start-up you’re not able to hire someone full time from day one. We’re able to say, ‘come on board, start part time’, and then they build up a client base so when they are ready to move into full time we can accommodate that.”

But it’s not just the flexibility that gives KWS a distinctive start-up feel. It is also the use of the latest technology to connect clients and staff from different corners of the globe, and its alternative fee arrangements.

Wherever possible the firm uses a fixed price model, with the exception of litigation.

But in this case, instead of working from a traditional one minute unit method whereby one minute is usually charged at six minutes of time, KWS charges one minute for one minute.

“We’ve actually had some trouble with our software in doing that because it’s used to six minute units,” laughs Warlow-Shill. “We say to our staff we want them to be productive for 75% of the time they’re working rather than saying to them they have to achieve a certain amount of units. We don’t put them under as much pressure as a commercial law firm.”

KWS also believes in investing a significant amount of money into each lawyer and supporting them to partake in higher studies.

Having highly skilled lawyers is obviously a win/win she says, and it also means the firm has impressive retention rates.

“Clients stay around when the lawyers do. It makes a lot of commercial sense for us, even though there is resistance in the industry to spend a lot of money on training…the result has been huge growth. We’re able to invest more and grow more and it’s been a fantastic story of growth just by starting from basic principles of thinking about the client and staff in a creative way.”  

Putting into practice outsourcing wherever appropriate, which includes utilising the skills of the highly qualified lawyers from the Israeli office to do work on Australian cases; helps keep overheads down and profitability up.

And technology – all the staff are given iPad and use voice-based systems – ensures that the globally diverse team is always connected.

“Before the iPhone I couldn’t have started a law firm,” insists Warlow-Shill. “As much as we all moan about them, it’s been the key to stay on top of an information heavy business. Technology offers opportunities to mothers who would otherwise be shut out of the market.”

Using a start-up model to build up the firm has had some unexpected and far reaching advantages, says Kadoury.

Several of their clients were also start-ups when KWS took them on, and are now “very” large companies, he says. Being with them as trusted advisors from day one has made all the difference.

Both Warlow-Shill and Kadoury say being finalists in the 2014 Telstra Business Awards in the start-up category is a good validation.

“We really do feel like we’re a start-up philosophically, technologically and from a legal business point of view,” says Warlow-Shill. “I feel like it’s well deserved: We’re seriously accommodating new concepts. A lot of the core of what we are is that as much as we strive to be commercial it’s in an impeccably ethical way. The fact we’re reaching commercial recognition is a wonderful feeling because it validates so many things that lawyers want out of their work that they’re not getting.”

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