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Q&A: Danielle Snell – “I’d like for Elit Lawyers to lead in the sector as a boutique law firm that is highly tech savvy and modern in its approach.”

Danielle, you and your business partner Robert McGirr co-founded Elit Lawyers by McGirr & Snell in 2020 after you had spent about 15 years in both top-tier and mid-tier firms. What do you love about the law, and what is your career motivation?

Litigation, I love the fight. What really drives me on a day-to-day basis now is creating a NewLaw firm with a modern approach to providing legal services and a client-centric model.

In litigation, there is so much focus on winning and losing – something that is obviously determined at the end of a case. What strikes me, though, is that for litigants there is a journey to reach the settlement stage and that we as a profession can be doing better at providing a model that is more efficient and more focused on the client experience, rather than our experience as lawyers, to reach an outcome.

Elit Lawyers prides itself on facilitating that client experience with bespoke technology solutions. Why were you so confident you could come into the market as a new firm and take on the bigger firms?

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, we know that client service can truly be provided remotely. The technological aspects of providing legal services mean we can drive client empowerment while enhancing employee empowerment through flexible workplace practices.

The pandemic was very much my turning point.  My experiences convinced me to co-found Elit Lawyers and provide a commercial litigation offering within a NewLaw model that is dedicated to stripping out those processes that I didn’t think were as beneficial and effective from the client perspective.

For example, I thought it was really important for increasingly more modern and sophisticated clients to have instantaneous, real-time access through a portal to their legal file and the documents such as billable information letters, communications from the court, communications from barristers regarding expert witness statements and the like. I thought, here is an opportunity to create a new model.  I also happened to be seven months’ pregnant at the time.

Setting up a new firm, while also preparing for the arrival of a baby, must have been daunting. How did you deal with the pressure and workload?

Well, for me there was an added element that I wanted to lead by example and show that it is possible to hold multiple roles in your life and that being a professional lawyer, a business owner, a mother and a wife is possible.

The positive aspects of flexible work that came out of the pandemic made it possible for me, particularly as a mother of a little baby, to be at home.  Due to the lockdowns in Victoria, there was no expectation to be in the office physically at that point in time. So, I seized the opportunity.  The firm is now three years old and so is my baby.

Now, I am often in the office and I very much enjoy in-person meetings with clients, but I also have partners who work remotely – one of whom is in Noosa for part of the year – and we have a diverse team that reflects the flexibility that comes with being able to operate within the NewLaw firm model, which I think was very much born out of lessons during COVID.

There seems to have been a trend in recent years for successful female lawyers who have worked for the major firms – in your case Moray & Agnew, and MinterEllison – to go it alone and enjoy the flexibility and empower themselves. Do you agree?

Yes, very much so. For me it was also an opportunity to create a firm built on my values, which are heavily focused on diversity and inclusion in the legal sector and adapting to change. There is often resistance because our industry is a traditional one and I saw an opportunity to rewrite the way in which legal services can be offered, but at the same time achieve personal satisfaction and professional satisfaction and gain that balance which comes with flexibility.

It also comes with lots of compromise and hard work.  Now looking back on the past three years, it’s been well worth it because I have never enjoyed practising the law more than I have since founding Elit.

I think it does have to do with the empowerment aspect and operating in a way that you truly believe in. That resonates with you and your clients, too, because it’s those clients who retain you. They ultimately are supporters and believe in the value, the vision and the service that we are providing them.

You have recently been named Managing Partner of the Year at the 2023 Australian Law Awards, and the firm won Boutique Law Firm of the Year at the same awards in 2022 on the back of your work in commercial disputes, insurance litigation and media and defamation law. What does the Managing Partner acknowledgement mean to you and what do you think are some of the factors that got you over the line for the award?

The award means a lot in terms of breaking down stereotypes and addressing gender imbalance issues. That’s first and foremost. In terms of the firm, it’s also wonderful because a managing partner award is very heavily focused on the team with whom you work. So, the award means a lot to our wider team as well, and I’m very grateful for their contribution. The key has been creating a diverse team of people. I wanted our team to represent a cross-section of the community, as a jury would really, which is true diversity.

We’re interested in finding out more about your management approach. How do you try to lead your team and what are some of your management characteristics?

For me, I really believe that listening is incredibly important. I go out of my way to engage with staff on a regular basis. With 13 on our team, we have a much smaller team than the bigger firms, which makes it possible for me to engage quite closely with each and every staff member. Rather than having a command-and-control style of leadership, I want to understand their position, what are they working on, what are they loving about it, what are they finding more challenging, talking through fun aspects of the job and talking through mundane aspects of the job to learn how we can improve, how we can develop, how we can grow.

You seem confident that technology will be a tool that helps lawyers, rather than taking their jobs. Is that right?

Absolutely, hence the business name ‘Elit’, as in e-litigation. Technology is already transforming the way we provide litigation services to our clients because, with many of our cases, we could be dealing with half a million documents that we need to review. The e-technology programs allow us to quickly do keyword searches and filter for items. Back when I was an article clerk, it was all hard-copy files which we would cart up to court. We would be going through discovery phases and reviewing each and every document manually. Now, with technology, we’re able to do things in an efficient and time-effective manner, which benefits the client because it’s less costly as well.

What I’m also proud of is that we are also often opposed to the bigger firms.  This is because we can compete in the sense of the discovery tasks and the technology, value and ability that we bring. We don’t need huge teams to be filtering through files because AI is doing that for us. Having said that, there are also risks and limitations that come with technology products. My business partner and I used to do a lot of work for the Legal Practitioners’ Liability Committee from a professional risk-negligence perspective, so we are very conscious of limitations and training our staff in a manner that’s truly going to develop them as lawyers coming up through the profession. One of the limitations that we've been discussing in recent times is that with the emergence of AI, what does that mean for the development and training of junior staff within the firm? If a document can be automatically generated, rather than having to be drafted, what does that mean? We believe it’s still going to be of utmost importance to train lawyers as to the underlying purpose for which a particular document is being generated, the context upon which it’s being prepared, the dynamics of the case, the personalities in the case, and all of these sorts of factors that I think will still allow our junior lawyers to grow. However, they’ll be doing a lot less administrative work. Ultimately, that sort of work will be eliminated, which will be a positive for all.

Let’s go back to client service. Can you tell us more about your firm’s approach to this critical issue?

Authenticity and transparency is the key. Client service is based on a mutual relationship of trust. Our mindset is very heavily focused on how each and every task that we are doing within a piece of litigation will best serve the client. It’s not just about serving the client from a strategy liability exposure perspective, but also best serving the client with regard to their own commercial realities and circumstances. Often, we’re acting for businesses that are dealing with lots of other commercial considerations which are quite separate and distinct from a piece of litigation that we are handling for them. So, there are raft of factors that need to be considered in terms of our service, including costs and time management. In litigation, we often need to liaise with our client, often working within hours that suit the clients. My business partner often says that “people’s problems don't just happen between nine and five”. We accept that and our clients can feel free to contact us outside regular hours. In our experience, we've really never come across any client that’s abused that offering.

We also work with litigation clients through scenario-based planning, providing a journey map to illustrate the various ways in which their matter may unfold, and outline the steps required to achieve their stated objective, while managing the risks involved.

What else is important?

Communication. In litigation, legal costs are a big issue, so there needs to be absolute transparency in accordance with our obligations under the Legal Profession Act and Civil Proceedings Act. We give clients constant updates to advise them as to what steps we are taking on their behalf, what the costs are estimated to be, and give them access to the data behind that even before invoices are generated.

We speak to our clients from the outset about what is going to be involved and set their expectations before they even issue a legal proceeding.  We do this because you don’t want the client to issue a legal proceeding from which they can’t remove themselves unless they’re completely aware as to what it's going to look like. Some pieces of litigation might go for two or three or four years. It’s a big commitment to make, so we talk to them about what that's going to look like and we tailor the journey according to what will work for them, rather than what will work for us.

When we have a client who wants to be part of meetings and day-to-day activities, we don’t shut them out. We really do see the client as being a part of the team and effectively the leader of the team. Having said that, the King's Council will be the true leader from a legal perspective, but we don't ever want a situation where the client feels isolated from the process. That’s the best way to describe our service offering.

Where do you think Elit Lawyers will be in three to five years?

I have a vision. I'd love to see the firm grow to the next level from a staff numbers perspective, and I'd like to see the firm doubling growth. More importantly, though, I’d like for Elit Lawyers to lead in the sector as a boutique law firm that is highly tech-savvy and modern in its approach, and really at the forefront of leading technologies and strategies that, as I say, can best serve the clients. That’s part of my role at the moment – to focus on research, discussion and development around people and culture, technology, billables within the law firm environment, sustainability, diversity and culture – all of the sorts of issues that will allow our firm to grow as a leading litigation practice.