Refinement, not reinvention: how a firm can expand without losing its identity
Opening a new Melbourne office is illustrative of the unique opportunities that specialist law firms can capitalise on, writes Ironbridge Legal founder Trevor Withane.
Expansion, as a boutique firm, can be a tricky business.
At Ironbridge Legal, we have positioned ourselves as specialists, practising exclusively in commercial litigation and insolvency. This has enabled us to develop an impressive client base that extends across the globe.
Our formula of practising only in our areas of deep experience exceptionally well has been a success and, with this achievement, the opportunity for growth beckons. The key question for us has been clear – how might we expand without losing our focus?
As a firm of 10 employees, our resources are finite, so we must be strategic to find our place in the legal market. Our focus is directed to the quality, rather than the volume, of work that we do.
We have focused on producing top-tier work. However, this quality is not achieved through legal expertise alone; building lasting relationships is key to our strategy.
As a smaller business, each client represents a larger share of our total work, and we can become more familiar with their individual needs and concerns and can tailor service more attentively to them. This tailored approach has been productive.
Given that practice in commercial disputes and insolvency tends towards definite conclusions, we are particularly proud of the enduring relationships that we have fostered – often leading to repeat referrals. Our twin priorities of expertise and relationship-building have been instrumental in earning this trust and getting new referrals.
I will be heading up our Melbourne team, to be joined by Laura Coleclough, a seasoned litigator, who has arrived from London and who will be permanently on the ground, building the practice and bringing her global experience to bear in advising clients. Laura and I will be assisted by lawyers in Sydney, as well as insolvency and litigation specialist, Alice Rolph, who is also Melbourne-based.
We wanted to ensure that any expansion would be organic and reinforce our strategy, rather than distract from it. This involved a process of analysing the different avenues that we could pursue with reference to our existing identity.
The most obvious options available in expansion tend to be:
- adding new practice areas
- adding additional services (e.g. innovating with new technology)
- growing market share in-state
- opening offices in new states and jurisdictions.
Our exclusive focus on commercial disputes and insolvency is foundational in enabling us to work to an elite standard, so increasing practice areas was not an area we wanted to explore. Diluting our practice might lessen the quality of the expertise that is so essential to our identity.
This concern also applies to the prospect of adding additional services. While for large corporations this may be the key to business development, boutique firms tend to benefit from keeping it simple and engaging a strategy of refinement, rather than reinvention.
A better case might be made for a boutique firm to grow in-state. This is a natural objective for a firm of any size and the associated boost in reputation and profitability that might accompany this growth are self-evidently compelling.
However, the mechanics of in-state growth are not necessarily simple. An opportunity needs to be scouted out in the first place and to be capitalised on by, say, an increase in staff.
Although such opportunities are doubtless available in NSW, we found that the prospect of an out-of-state office would increase our marketability far more. There are several reasons for this.
Most obviously, inter-state expansion increases our potential client base by simply increasing the share of the market to which we have access. This is particularly simple to capitalise on where we have good relationships with pre-existing clients with offices in states other than NSW. A presence in two states also places our firm in an excellent position to deal with disputes that occur across borders.
Understanding state contexts and differences is key to resolving complex disputes, so having a team on the ground with expertise in both jurisdictions can be of indispensable value. There is also a reputational value in crossing state borders, particularly with respect to international clients who are often interested in hiring a firm with a presence across Australia.
Inter-state expansion appealed as the best option for growth, offering a prospect of increased market access, broader technical capabilities and an enhanced reputation without the drawbacks of diluting our identity.
As the largest city in Australia, by population, Melbourne is an obvious choice for expansion. A presence in both Sydney and Melbourne significantly increases available opportunities to work with both exclusively Melbourne-based clients and clients who have branches in both cities.
Given the interconnectedness of the two states, the NSW-Victoria line is often the location of commercial disputes. Having a presence on both sides of the border places us in a competitive position to deal with these disputes. It was also an ideal soft landing. In addition to the prospect of a big market expansion of new potential clients, we had existing clients that were expressing interest in working with us in both cities.
Upon further consultation, it became apparent that a permanent physical office would be essential. Even in our ever-increasingly digital world, there is no substitute for tangible relationships. In-person meetings and physical offices are crucial to communicating the kind of permanence and stability that a law firm needs in order to win the trust of clients. This is particularly true for boutique firms, which are ideally suited to understand the importance of personal connections and confidence between client and solicitor.
The prominence of Melbourne, both nationally and internationally, was also significant in our considerations. When prospective overseas clients are interested in hiring an Australian law firm, a presence along the eastern seaboard is particularly important. Having offices in the two largest cities in the nation has been a big boost in developing that presence, both for our marketability to those clients and for the practical benefits that accrue from having boots on the ground.
As Australia attracts increased investment from across the world, we aim to capitalise on the growth of its commercial industries and prominence on the world stage.
A permanent presence in the twin capitals of Australian commerce will enable us to do this, expanding our capacity to service both international investment and the fruit of that investment, as domestic commercial growth follows.
Trevor Withane is the founder and principal of Ironbridge Legal and is a specialist commercial litigator and insolvency lawyer with deep experience in his areas of practice. Prior to founding Ironbridge Legal, Trevor was a partner of a successful Sydney-based boutique law firm.