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Q&A with Catherine Henry: "The senior leadership team agrees that we are not a law firm that employs people. We are a people firm that employs lawyers."

In our Q&A, Catherine Henry, founder of Catherine Henry Lawyers, explains the satisfaction she gets from assisting clients in the health and aged care space, why it is so crucial to provide outstanding legal services to regional areas, and how bringing in a CEO and advisory board has transformed her firm.

How did you get started in the law and what do you love about it?

I have been involved in the law for 30-plus years. I wanted to be a music teacher, but my father encouraged me to do law.

Before I entered private practice I worked as a senior solicitor at the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission. Still in Sydney, I went on to become a partner and run the health litigation practice at Craddock Murray & Neumann. Moving home to Newcastle in 2002, I established a successful Newcastle branch office of that firm before merging it with, and becoming co-owner of, personal injury firm, King Street Lawyers. In 2009, I took over the practice and created Catherine Henry Lawyers.

I love helping people to deservedly get justice. It is not always about compensation – some people want answers or an apology to be able to move forward. Litigation is a powerful tool in forcing systemic change to professional standards of care. It is satisfying when you see health and aged care practitioners and organisations make changes so other people don’t suffer or experience the same issue.

Your firm has won the accolade as Regional/Suburban Law Firm of the Year at the Australian Law Awards. What’s driving such success and why do you think the firm has performed so well?

The award is a credit to our passionate and experienced team of lawyers and lots of hard work. Behind the scenes our leadership team has done a lot of work getting the right team, and on our values and systems to realise our mantra of putting people first.

Over many years we brought legal services usually only available in capital cities to people in regional areas, particularly in health law and elder law. We’ve recently expanded health law services to include contracts for assisted reproduction and medical device litigation. Expanded elder law services include accommodation disputes and challenging and negotiating aged care contracts, as well as the growing issue of financial elder abuse. The firm now offers criminal law, superannuation and insurance dispute services, and institutional abuse litigation. Not many regional law firms  tackle institutional abuse or aged care negligence.

We don’t shy away from complex or difficult cases or those of low quantum. Despite being a medium-sized firm, we‘ve represented or are representing more than 180 women from across NSW who fell victim to disgraced cosmetic surgeon Dr Les Blackstock. We are pursuing compensation and justice for these women, without resorting to a class action, too, because we believe that better serves those clients.

What else do you do differently?

One reason we have maintained our 100 per cent success rate in medical negligence cases is that we employ a clinical nurse consultant – who also works in the sector – as well as lawyers with midwifery and nursing experience. Because they understand the health and aged care systems, they better understand our clients’ medical issues, know the right questions to ask, and help the team quickly determine if there is a negligence claim.

My team and I also advocate on important issues, particularly for vulnerable people, and get involved in legal and community organisations, and charity support. It is important to be involved in your community. You get back what you put in.

Most importantly, we do great work and get results for our clients. Both the firm and I have been recognised in Doyles Guide lists of NSW’s top medical negligence compensation lawyers and law firms over a number of years.

You specialise in medical and aged care law at a time when COVID-19 has arguably made those areas of practice more important than ever? Can you tell us about the satisfaction you gain from assisting clients and communities in these areas? 

On one level, it is disappointing and heart-breaking to see the deaths in aged care during the pandemic. In my role as national spokesperson on aged care for the Australian Lawyers Alliance and personally, I’ve been critical of the government’s response to and support for the aged care sector.

It has been terribly frustrating – even after the tragedy of the Newmarch House aged care facility – to see the same mistakes repeated in the Omicron wave.

Irrespective of COVID 19, it is very satisfying to bring health and medical law and aged care law services to regional NSW. Some of the services we offer were largely the domain of capital city-based law firms. People in regional area have poorer access to health and aged care services and poorer health outcomes than those living in capital cities – they deserve the highest-quality representation.

One satisfying aspect of operating through the pandemic is that, unlike some other firms, we kept serving clients without cutting jobs or staff hours.

Can you tell us about your management style or approach to running a firm?

My management style is very hands on. That has been out of necessity when establishing and growing my own practice. I have high expectations of myself and my team, but like to think I am supportive and seek to mentor up-and-coming lawyers. I always try to lead by example and don’t ask lawyers to do things, such as advocacy or community work, that I don’t do myself.

We have recently restructured the firm, bringing in a CEO and Chief Operating Officer and establishing an advisory board instead of a traditional practice manager. That has made a tremendous difference to the firm and to me personally.

On your website, it mentions the importance of challenging employees to meet their optimal levels of personal and professional growth. How do you encourage and support that objective?

To start, we have reviewed our recruitment processes to help attract employees who are interested in personal and professional growth. We clearly set out our firm’s vision to be the leading law firm in regional NSW, our values and our people-first mindset.

Our capability framework outlines the requirements of the firm and how people are recognised, rewarded and promoted. The rewards and recognition strategy includes employee awards and regular recognition of ‘values-in-action’. A new performance management system includes professional development plans for all staff.

The firm has always had a level of community participation, but this is now firm-wide. All staff are now engaged in social or community events – freely assisting others.

We emphasise work-life balance. It is a KPI and key to helping people achieve personal and professional growth.

With your values for the firm, how do you ensure that they become meaningful and not just words on a website?

We have a HR plan that supports the business plan and integrates the company values into everything we do.

The values put the focus on the HR activities that the firm desires to be best practice. The plan’s initiatives put employees at the centre of the business – giving our people a better understanding of how they contribute to the success of the business and can influence the culture. Many of the initiatives are developed from staff feedback. This creates buy-in and ensures success. To be a law firm of choice, we must be an employer of choice by fostering inclusion and positivity.

Importantly, values are demonstrated and reinforced from the top. Everyone walks the talk. The senior leadership team agrees that we are not a law firm that employs people; we are a people firm that employs lawyers. We know our workplace culture is a true competitive advantage that cannot be copied.

We have also introduced a culture/staff satisfaction survey to measure our success and identify opportunities for improvement, so our values don’t just become words on a website.

As mentioned, work-life balance is important. Staff have access to flexible work arrangements and are actively encouraged to take their leave. They receive above-standard parental leave. Work should be about productivity and fun.

What are the key business challenges you face and how can you tackle them?

One of the big challenges all law firms and other businesses face is managing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The fact that we already had a culture of flexible work practices, including working from home, meant we were quickly able to pivot to new ways of working. Online meetings, and document exchange and signing systems, are in place. We keep adapting.

The other industry-wide challenge is the highly competitive and changing business landscape. We have addressed this by comprehensively reviewing and integrating HR functions, policies and systems with business strategy and planning. Improvements have been made to recruitment, onboarding, employee engagement and satisfaction, culture, reward and recognition, and performance-management systems. It has worked because productivity and staff satisfaction has improved. Billings and revenues have doubled. All staff are now completing all key performance objectives.

Work is under way on addressing the impact of low-cost competitors and artificial intelligence eroding market share and revenues. We’re exploring digital technology to offer client services as well as focusing on securing complex, high-value work. We’ve broadened and deepened services while encouraging clients to take up a broader range of services.

What are your ambitions for the firm?

For the firm to continue to be the leading law firm in regional NSW, long after I have left.

If there is one piece of advice that you would give to leaders of small to medium firms in Australia, what would it be?

Don’t give up, just keep going!