Q&A – Joshua Michaels: “There’s something romantic about our courts and legal judgments and I strongly believe they should never be replaced by anything that is automated like ChatGPT.”
On your website, you make the point that NDA Law is a great place to work. What makes it so good and how do you ensure it stays that way?
As a small firm of six people, we’re able to be flexible with working arrangements because everyone pretty much knows what’s going on with everybody’s else’s work. So, about four months ago, I introduced a nine-day working fortnight. I know it's not an original idea, but it’s one that employees have welcomed and adopted. We have limited data for now, but it seems to be working very, very well in so much as staff across the board, not just lawyers, are able to have that extra day off a fortnight to go and do normal things during normal working hours in the real world. That’s a great benefit. If people need time to go and do anything at all for personal reasons, there are no questions asked. It's just blocked out in the diary and everyone goes about their business. We’re pretty strict with the solicitors, too – they work 8.30am to 5.30pm unless the particular demands of a case require them to work longer hours.
With a flexible approach, how do you ensure the work still gets done?
That’s a good question. It’s probably because there's such a close working relationship between each of us, so if a particular matter requires more than one person to deal with it then it just gets done. During interlocutory stages, for example, my senior associate can step up and step in. If the matter needs more than one pair of hands on it at any time, we’re easily able to sub in and sub out as required.
Many firms talk about being nimble – I guess such flexibility is a good example of that being put into practice.
That's right. It’s about being able to jump on core opportunities when you get a chance to compete against firms, or in matters, where you wouldn't ordinarily be expected to. The key is knowing the personalities within the firm and understanding that you can rely on each other.
NDA Law handles everything from corporate, commercial, tax, business succession, estate planning, litigation, building and construction law and corporate governance to restructuring and contracts. How is the market for your firm?
Business is strong. We’re actively looking for senior solicitors at the moment because of the quality and volume of work we’ve got presently. So that’s a good sign. However, it’s very much an employee’s market out there at the moment.
That must make recruitment tough, but I suspect that you still have to be conscious of only bringing in new staff who fit the culture of the firm. Is that right?
Correct – and that’s always the challenge. Finding the right people and ensuring you still have the right mix of employees is crucial. That means being choosy, which obviously works out better in the long run.
Your wife Andrea Michaels established the firm in 2015, but has now relinquished her duties after being elected as the State MP for Enfield in South Australia and subsequently becoming Minister for Small and Family Business, Minister for Consumer and Business Affairs and Minister for Arts in the Malinauskas Government. What impact has she had on the firm’s path to success?
Her vision, morals, ethics and values have really set the firm on the right course. In her absence, there’s no intention to deviate from that ethos. You may have heard on the grapevine that the true meaning of NDA is ‘no d***heads allowed’. Maintaining that policy in terms of who we are and what we're trying to do is really important.
While the appointment of Andrea to ministerial roles must be exciting, her exit from the firm must have been a conundrum. How has that changed the direction of NDA Law?
Well, she can't work here anymore, obviously, but the firm is still her baby and she keeps an eye on us from a distance! The good thing is that she laid such strong foundations for the firm and the staff seem to be in a really good spot.
Can you tell us about your own management approach?
I'm pretty relaxed. I am certain that nobody's afraid of me and, obviously, I have an open-door policy. There’s often a lot of discussion about where you draw the line between being an employer and a friend. It can be a really tricky thing to navigate because, inherently in a small firm, you've got to develop friendships. The key as a managing partner is being able to assert yourself properly when you need to – it’s a thin line sometimes.
What else defines your management style?
Delegating management tasks to other staff members is super important, so they feel like they've got some say in what's going on within the firm. Giving people some autonomy and authority goes a long way.
What special challenges have you faced as a firm?
I stepped in when Andrea went into politics, so the challenges in terms of my experience are probably personal to me, as opposed to the firm generally. For me, the priority is to not let Andrea or the team down. I was a sole practitioner for seven years prior to coming here, so it’s fair to say that working with other people has sometimes required an adjustment for me. However, because of the ethos at NDA Law, and on the back of the respect between all employees, it’s been incredibly easy to step into the MD role.
In smaller firms, doing legal work and simultaneously taking care of managing partner responsibilities can be a real juggling act. How do you handle this challenge?
It can be a tricky juggling act. I’ve found that drawing on other resources and other knowledgeable people is a much better approach than always trying to fix things myself.
There’s a lot of talk at the moment about the role of technology within firms, including whether generative AI tools such as ChatGPT could take over legal work. What is your view?
I have a strong view that things like ChatGPT will never be able to replace good lawyers. The law requires different ways of thinking about legal problems and interpreting them and developing a strategic response. I hope AI never does take over because I think the law is a personal thing – there’s something romantic about our courts and legal judgments and I strongly believe they should never be replaced by anything that is automated like ChatGPT.”
Does technology still have a place, though?
Of course, yes, technology advancements are inescapable and technology is very, very useful in terms of providing tools and streamlining our work, including giving us the ability to work from anywhere and having access to everything on a laptop if we need to run a trial, for example, rather than having to carry 17 lever arch volumes for one witness. We invest reasonably heavily in various bits of software to help us manage our case management workload and billing and all of those types of things. So, I’m a big believer in technology in that sense.
With regard to the future of NDA Law, what is the firm’s goal, and I guess you must be hoping that Andrea won’t be back for at least a couple of electoral terms and stays on board as a minister.
That’s the best-case scenario in a way, but maybe not for the firm! We certainly miss her, but I think the state is grateful to benefit from her intelligence and empathy. As for NDA Law, we're positive and looking forward to expanding as soon as we can. It’s happy days at our end. I know it probably all seems to be unusual, but we're not a miserable bunch of lawyers – we’re rather happy to be here and I know I confidently say that on behalf of the rest of the team.