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Sean Larkan: Simple approach suceeds in law

ONE of the key measures for the success of a law firm is the level of motivation of its staff, says new Minter Ellison CEO Sean Larkan.

Mr Larkan, joining the firm after a period leading major New Zealand law firm Bell Gully, said it seemed a simplistic view.

“However, I have learnt from experience that if you get that right all things fall into place. Every project goes right,” he said.

“It is really the most difficult thing to achieve in a law firm because, traditionally, they do not take much interest in their staff.

“This can become a key differentiation. If you get it right it can be hard for other firms to match. We still have financial goals and productivity targets too.”

Mr Larkan said if staff felt their bosses were interested in them, they would “work their guts out for you”.

“The trick is to institutionalise a genuine interest in people. Coach, manage and support them,” he said.

“You can’t say to a person ‘be committed’. If people feel they are being used they will lose their commitment.

However, changing the culture of a legal practice even slightly can prove more difficult than in most other corporations.

“In a law firm the owners of the business are also the key workers,” Mr Larkan said.

“There needs to be a thoughtful balance. It’s not like a typical corporate model where you can be completely directive. You have to lead by persuasion.”

Mr Larkan said values were an important thing and Minters was on the verge of completing its values document. The document lays out a set of agreed values for the firm.

He said the challenge for Minters was to achieve pre-eminence in all its areas of practice.

“The strategic side of running a practice is becoming more and more important,” Mr Larkan said.

“In the old days you could plan three years ahead. These days you have to review your plans every six months.”

In fact, Minters is just about to strengthen its corporate and commercial division.

The new division will combine previously discrete industry sectors of government, environment and planning, projects and resources, banking and finance and corporate and commercial.

“One of the main things that convinced me to go ahead with the restructure were conversations I had with some of our young lawyers,” Mr Larkan said.

“Getting staff involved in decisions invariably pays off.”

Mr Larkan said he thought the incorporation of law firms was a good thing.

“It gives us more flexibility in how we compete and puts us into the normal business world,” he said.

“It’s something that’s way overdue. But then, the legal profession in most western countries does tend to lag behind.”

Mr Larkan also believes the days when multi-disciplinary firms such as Price-WaterhouseCoopers and Arthur Andersen merge with law firms is coming soon.

“Even so, we will always have some specialist law firms offering very high levels of specialist service,” he said.

“Multi-disciplinary firms won’t be able to compete with that.”

Mr Larkan said he had not practised law for twelve years, preferring instead to be on the business side.

“I completed a Masters of Business Administration and some tax courses in 1988,” he said.

“I was probably one of the first lawyers, in South Africa allowed to do that.”

When he was in his early thirties, Mr Larkan was offered the managing partner role in South African firm Werksmans.

“It was a very driven, very highly competitive firm operating in a very competitive arena,” he said. I was involved with the corporatisation of the firm from scratch.

“I think that sort of a role is a marvellous combination. I can look after both the business side and the professional side.

“I like the challenge of all the complex interacting forces within a large corporate law firm.”

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