THE MANAGEMENT INTERVIEW Stephen Macliver – Manager in law

Heading Bell Gully is described as the plum job on New Zealand’s legal scene. It’s homegrown firm that not only boasts 160 years worth of local history but, according to its new CEO, an “enviable” reputation offshore.
And Stephen Macliver should know. As chair of the International Bar Association’s law firm management committee, he can also lay claim to high profile in offshore legal circles and was last year identified as one of 11 “leaders” on the Australasian scene in Asian Legal Business’ “top 40” list of hottest lawyers.
As the online legal journal notes, he “joins firm at the top of its game but will face the challenges of steering it through stagnant yet highly competitive market”. It’s task to which 47-year-old Macliver brings bunch of law management experience much of it garnered in the United Kingdom as well as his home country, Australia.
The challenges here, he says, are much the same as those faced by legal practices around the world. It’s just that some are “more acute”.
“There is limitation imposed by smaller market – it’s not London or New York in terms of the extent of investment banking and corporate activity. So it’s smaller space in which there are large number of law firms seeking to compete.”
Law firms face some common challenges around generating growth in saturated and price sensitive market, he notes. It’s matter of improving efficiency and productivity in the face of pressure on fees and increasing expenses – especially around talent.
“The other big issue that’s more acute in New Zealand is talent attraction and retention. I always thought it was very Australian thing to do the overseas travel – but in New Zealand that’s taken to new heights. And we’re not going to prevent that. In many ways it should be encouraged as part of person’s professional and personal development.
“What we have to be better about is doing the best we can while we’ve got those people for as long as they stay and being even better about managing their transition – which is predominantly into other firms in places like the UK.”
That means not fighting the inevitable but building lot of stretch into the Bell Gully umbilical cord.
“When we know that people want to work overseas for period, we’ll assist them in their planning and execution which often includes helping them into other firms where we have good connections in the UK, New York or Australia. Then we keep very much in touch with them.”
A lot of resource goes into alumni programmes including regular updates on what’s happening with the firm and functions in offshore centres with visiting Bell Gully partners.
“We actively encourage their return to the firm when they’re ready. By then they’ve had the benefits of offshore experience and exposure to different jurisdictions and are often ready to come back and settle. All of that is very important part of managing talent base.”
Macliver’s own career track has boom-eranged between southern and northern hemispheres. After qualifying in Australia he practised as barrister and solicitor in Southern Australia then moved into quasi government legal service and was appointed principal legal officer in state-wide legal aid service.
“From there I headed off to the northern hemisphere in 1986 for what was meant to be six months and ended up being 10 years.”
While in London he co-founded what was to become leading legal consultancy, the David Andrews Partnership.
“We grew the business exclusively focused on advising law firms and legal departments about organisational management and strategy. Our business was then merged into one of the leading accounting firms, Grant Thornton and I became team leader and manager of the combined legal consultancy group.”
While still in the UK he was approached to become the first fulltime managing partner of Minter Ellison back in Perth. Within couple of years, he was appointed an executive managing partner of the firm based in Melbourne.
“I did that for four years then retired to establish my own consultancy to the global legal profession.”
By then he’d become an active member of the International Bar Association holding number of officer positions in its law firm management committee culminating last year in his appointment as its worldwide chair.
It’s role that keeps him in touch with law management trends around the world – particularly in developing markets like China where he last year chaired what was IBA’s first ever law firm management conference held there. It was an exciting initiative in what is very new environment for private law practice, says Macliver.
“It’s only since the 1990s that lawyers there have been able to form private law practices as we know them. Before that, they were effectively employed by the state or local government. So they’re only just coming to terms with all the issues related to law firm management.”
Given China’s rapid growth, the offshore attention it’s receiving and competition from international firms, it’s dynamic environment for what is an emerging profession, says Macliver.
“But they are very eager to listen to the experience of others, very quick to adapt, or adopt best practice and in very short space of time have developed quite sophisticated practice management. So much so that the largest firm now has more than 100 partners.”
It is one of the realities of globalising world that knowledge of business law increasingly has to stretch across different jurisdictions. That’s challenge for law firms who advise multinational companies.
“It means not only being able to advise clients on delivering their strategic and business outcomes but being able to deliver them on jurisdiction by jurisdiction basis. It’s matter of understanding the environment – regulatory, political, economic – in which clients are operating internationally as well as being able to deliver the jurisdictional-specific advice,” says Macliver.
And what about the specific challenges of managing what has to be pretty sassy bunch of professionals?
“Well, you can’t run it like company or corporation where the chair or chief executive determines what will happen and everything follows. You have to bring everyone along with you and engage them in the process. That is what builds enduring successful business professional services,” says Macliver.
He reckons law management can be more readily translated into the corporate business sphere than vice versa because it does involve some very different challenges.
“You have people who are actively engaged in the business as partners, people who are very intellectually savvy and sharp in terms of being trained to ask questions and be challenging in terms of what’s happening. The concept of partnership as opposed to corporate entity encourages that.
“It’s one of the reasons why, around the world, there are very few chief executives leading law firms who are not legally qualified or who have come through the profession in some way. That’s because apart from understanding the particular environment and culture it’s knowing what will and will not be acceptable in partnership environment.
“Management by dictate is rarely successful. It’s more about persuading and engaging people, winning hearts and minds. That also makes it more powerful organisation because it is not just one person providing vision and impetus.”
At Bell Gully, Macliver leads more than 230 partners and lawyers in firm with long-established record in New Zealand – the firm’s Auckland antecedents date back to 1840 – and an increasing offshore profile. Last year it was named NZ Law Firm of the Year by the International Financial Law Review for the second consecutive year and also retained top New Zealand ranking in the Asia-Pacific Legal 500 Directory. It acts for seven of the top New Zealand-listed companies and five of the eight that are also listed in Australia.
It’s company that prefers to build its own talent base rather than hiring it in which helps in terms of cultural consistency,

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