Q&A: Kate Marshall – “I can see the legal profession starting to really evolve and I want to be part of that. To be in a firm like Law Squared allows me to do so.”
Kate, you decided to take a ‘gap year’ in 2023 after leaving KPMG Law to travel and spend time with family and friends. What was the purpose of the break?
I didn’t take that gap year for granted. I took the opportunity to really think about what I was wanting out my next role, what I could give, what I was willing to give, and where I thought my strengths and weaknesses were. You don’t often get a chance to reflect like that, so I feel very lucky.
That period of reflection led to you joining Law Squared, a firm that prides itself on being a “human-centred” law leader. How difficult was the decision to move?
Ultimately, it wasn’t really a big decision – it just felt like the right move for me in my gut when I really reflected on what I was looking for and what I could bring to this role as Chief Legal Officer. For people who know me, it's not really a surprise. I’ve always been interested in innovation, looking at different ways of providing legal services, and pushing for change. I’m not the person who takes the approach that if it’s not broken, let’s not change it. I can see the legal profession starting to really evolve and I want to be part of that. To be in a firm like Law Squared allows me to do so.
Law Squared says it is on a mission to “reshape the legal profession”. Can you tell us more about that goal?
It’s a pretty bold ambition, but something we don’t shy away from. We genuinely want others to follow with this model, or similar models, that allow people to have meaningful careers without perhaps some of the negative impacts that the legal profession is so known for. For a start, we really do want to bring about change with the efficiency piece because in traditional law there’s not really a lot of motivation or incentive to change the way things are done to bring in efficiencies, to bring in technology and innovation, and to look at your processes. The other key factor is the way we treat people. I’ve noticed the team at Law Squared are happy. Sure, not everybody, every day, it’s not utopia, but people generally are happier than I am used to. That also flows through to our client relationships.
What is driving such happiness?
So many things – it’s certainly not one simple answer. It’s about culture. It’s about expectations. It’s about empowering people to have relationships and conversations with clients at an early stage to get them to understand the business of law and give them chances to move in different directions, rather than just purely being great technical lawyers. It’s also about having a collaborative and collegiate environment. The way that we deliver work to clients is a little different. We have a cluster model that supports each of the lawyers in the team to contribute to a piece of work. So, you might have three lawyers working on a piece of work for a client and, at the end of the day, that creates a better work product and a happier lawyer because they have the opportunity for greater balance in their life.
This approach fits into a theme that you have talked about in the past around value-based career choices. How does that work?
This is very personal to me. (Last year) when I was thinking about my next role, I looked at it from a values and a principles perspective, rather than trying to identify the exact role in the exact organisation with a particular title or position. Thinking of those values or principles, the first thing to mention is collaboration. I think it’s the holy grail within the legal industry. It’s often talked about, but not necessarily delivered. Then there’s innovation. It’s exciting to be somewhere where we are not afraid of things that are changing and, in fact, we’re embracing that change. Diversity was next. I’ve been an advocate for diversity all my career and I do believe in the benefits of diverse teams. I also really like building something, so I didn’t want to just go into a very established firm. I love working with people and helping them achieve their goals. So, they were the base principles or values that I was seeking, and they guided me through the process and allowed me to make a good decision in the end.
It sounds like a lot of thought went into the choice. Is that right?
Interestingly, I didn’t know about Law Squared before I went through this process, and it was a recruiter who I do have a lot of trust in who said, ‘Just have a conversation’. And I thought, ‘Well, there’s nothing to lose in having conversations’. So, my advice to others who are thinking about a move is just being open to having those conversations. You will only gain a greater understanding around what those options are out there.
In addition to value-based career choices, we know you also endorse value-based buying decisions. Are buyers of legal services really chasing value at the moment?
They are chasing value, but they don’t always know what that value is. We’ve got a role as a firm and as lawyers to continue to support the development around that. It’s interesting that for some buyers of legal services, there is still a little bit of distrust around value-based pricing. They think, ‘Hang on, there must be a trick to this. It sounds too good to be true’. It may be a case of living that experience and showing clients what we mean by providing value. But I also think that the buyers of legal services can play a greater role in influencing change in the profession. We see this in other parts of the economy. We see organisations looking at the decisions that they make, whether it’s investing, growing, or procuring services through an environmental, social and governance (ESG) lens, and I suppose I'm talking about the ‘S’ and the ‘G’ more than the ‘E’ here. We don’t see that too much in the legal profession. Buyers of legal services observe some of the challenging behaviours and work practices that we’re wanting to change, but still buy in the same way and accept that as if there is no alternative. Our role is to say that there is an alternative. Law Squared is just one example of that and we really hope that others will follow. But we do need the buyers of legal services to think about where they spend their dollars and how they can influence that change by putting some of those dollars towards firms that have different work practices who treat their people in a certain way, who value diversity, who are pushing the innovation efficiency piece. In-house legal teams have a great opportunity to think about that ESG lens when they’re procuring legal services.
We are interested, given your experience at KPMG Law and other major law firms, if there are particular lessons you have taken from those jobs that you can now apply in your new role, or in smaller firms more generally.
It’s an interesting question. When I think about my role at KPMG Law and my role here, they’re actually not dissimilar and the challenges that we have, the opportunities we have are not that dissimilar. I think when you are looking to do something different in the legal market, it's never going to be straightforward. My experience at KPMG Law was trying to push something a little different in the legal market, as it is with Law Squared.
I was talking about creating a balanced legal panel when I was at KPMG and I still believe it. Many large corporates now think a balanced legal panel means having a mix of top-tier and mid-tier firms, or top-tier, a couple of mid-tiers and a boutique. I would really challenge that thinking. Perhaps it is one of the big four professional services firms that should have a role on that panel. Perhaps it is a firm like Law Squared that should have a role on that panel, as well as your top-tier firms for the right work, the mid-tiers for the right work. I'd really like to keep pushing in-house teams to think more broadly about that concept of finding the right person or the right firm for the right job.
You have been quoted as saying that there are better ways to provide legal services, yet few firms “move the needle on innovation, lawyer wellbeing or true client centricity”. How can Law Squared make a difference in this sense?
The legal profession is well known for being slow to change. At Law Squared, we really challenge that and push for change. What are we doing well around innovation? We have a Digital and Innovation team to help us with our processes, our technology, our data to do things better, to do things more efficiently, to do things in a smarter way. That team also take those learnings and help clients in that Legal Ops + Technology space. We have also invested in the right platform. Most firms don't get the chance, but we built the technology, the processes and the platform to be larger and more sophisticated than we need, and we get the chance to grow into it. That is an exceptional opportunity. It's quite surprising to come into a firm like Law Squared and have such high quality processes, technology that save me time and save our lawyers’ time. That's pretty unusual in my experience.
On the client side, it’s interesting how the billing structures can really influence this. Unfortunately, not at the partner level, but at the lawyer level. It's so ingrained in most of us to focus on what is billable because that’s the metric of success. When you move away from that model and you start thinking about what’s right for the client, it’s quite liberating. We often talk with the lawyers here about giving the client what they need and having those deeper conversations up front where we can probe and understand this. If the client needs two pages, don’t give them 30 pages. That is not helpful.
Finally, on the people side, I think if we can empower our people to have those relationships with clients, to be curious, to ask those questions and to develop the broader skills that lawyers need to be effective, they will be happier with what they do. And, if they have a reasonable work-life balance, they’re also going to bring that broader attitude to work where they are happier to come in and roll up their sleeves to do a great job.
You have worked with many law firm and business leaders throughout your career. What are some of the leadership traits that you really value?
I’ve been lucky to work with so many great leaders. I would make two comments. First, I think great leaders see the bigger picture and can help you see the bigger picture when you’re not necessarily seeing it at the time. They’re looking beyond just the immediate, smaller things that many of us are focused on and they show a willingness to lead, even if that might involve hard decisions. Second, there’s an inspirational piece that great leaders have. They’re not just managing, they’re not just doing – they’re showing that pathway ahead and bringing people along. Great leaders do that so well.
In your own roles, what sort of leadership style do you bring to the table?
Well, I don't see myself as a great leader in the way I was describing some of those people I've worked with. However, I think listening is incredibly important and that’s one that I still struggle with. It’s definitely a work in progress for me – taking the time to truly listen. But my style is honest and open. It’s taken me very few years to get to this point, but I'm very comfortable in showing who I am. I’m a mother, I'm a daughter, a wife, a lawyer and I'm imperfect in many ways, but I feel like I can show all of those sides of myself, rather than when I first started where I felt that there was pressure to emulate the senior male partners that I was surrounded by. I’m much more comfortable in being myself.
You have been a strong advocate for diversity and inclusion in the law. Why is it so crucial for firms to get it right on this front?
Well, I have been in the legal profession for a long time now and I have seen a lot of change. But there is more to come, more that we need to do.
I’ve seen the real benefits in having diverse teams, and I’m a strong believer that that is great for clients and great for organisations. It is very easy to recruit people who come from a similar background, who think the same way that we do. So, we need to continually challenge our unconscious bias, our ways of recruiting, our ways of supporting people because it's not just a matter of recruiting somebody who works a little differently from the way I work. We’ve also got to support them and make sure that they feel comfortable within the team environment. The benefit of having those different backgrounds, approaches, ways of thinking is that we can create something pretty special.
Looking at 2024 and beyond, what are the big challenges for law firms?
Attracting and retaining talent! That has been a constant in terms of the big challenge that we all face across the law. Perhaps the changes that I’ve been talking about will help us all attract and retain people within the legal profession, which would be a positive.
There’s more pressure on margins. Certainly, the in-house teams we work with are being asked to do more with less and really look at the way they are spending their legal dollars.
Finally, there is change ahead. Many of those changes will be incredibly positive for us all, but adapting to that change will be a challenge for all of us.