I was struck by several statements by Michael Bradley when I watched a presentation he gave at a Conscious Capitalism event in Sydney.
Purpose: “For most law firms when you dig down there is nothing there. The common interest is the pursuit of money and success is measured in dollars and the size of your office.”
No time-sheets or targets: “We don’t have time sheets. We don’t measure hours. Nobody has a single performance measure that has a number attached to it. We don’t have fee targets. We have no concept of client ownership. We don’t have performance bonuses. We only have one profit and loss account for the whole firm and the whole firm has complete transparency on that. There is not a single thing in our business structure that gives anyone an incentive to be focused on anything other than the interests of the whole community of the firm.”
Happiness: “We want to enjoy our work, work with clients we enjoy, hang out with colleagues we like and go home each day with a sense of genuine satisfaction and reward … we appear to our clients to be human, to be genuinely interested in them and to be having a good time. That is because we are.”
In a time of transformation within the legal field, it can be challenging to find model or pioneer law firms that have really stood apart and said “no” to the embedded and expected way of doing things. Marque Lawyers in Sydney is an inspiring example. I was delighted to be able to speak with their managing partner, Michael Bradley over the phone during the summer about Marque’s approach and his views about how the legal profession needs to step up, take responsibility and change for the better.
Marque Lawyers was founded just under ten years ago in 2008. I watched a presentation you gave at a Conscious Capitalism event in Sydney in 2013. How have things evolved over the past few years?
The pace of change in the legal profession is extremely slow. Not that much has changed in the past ten years. The industry is starting to disintegrate progressively but that is more as a result of external threats – tech providers and other types of legal service provider – that are undercutting the traditional legal model on price.
Why is change so difficult do you think?
It’s human nature. People don’t think about higher order issues until they are forced to. It’s much easier to run a business on a purely financial basis. Breaking that mold is difficult. It stretches you. It requires a different understanding of relationships. The shift happens only when there is recognition on a personal level that it is required.
You had that personal recognition?
Yes. When we started the business, we accepted that it might not work. You have to be prepared for it to fail. It’s a big ask, a big step. We couldn’t continue with the alternative though.
The ‘Integrative Law Movement’ is about many new healing, holistic ways of practising law. At Marque, do you integrate any of these into your law practices?
No. In terms of the actual legal practice, we are still quite conventional. There are huge opportunities to reimagine not only how to run a law firm but actually how to use law for better outcomes. It is a higher vision that wasn’t there at the beginning but now that the original ambition is achieved, this is the next stage – how to “re-engineer” law to get better outcomes? There are not that many resources out there. It is waiting to be invented.
Law is rigid. It’s not dynamic, not moving. Because of this, it is losing its social value. Therefore it’s about moving those blockages and going back to first principles. We need to think about law the way we think about purpose.
What about litigation and the courts?
We have litigators at Marque that wear the suits and go to court (suits that they have to keep in the office because we don’t wear them normally). Some judges in Australia are actively thinking about the need for change but it is still a slow process. One aspect of the court system that significantly impacts our business is time recording. Our firm does not time cost but we are forced to for court matters because the court system will only deal with time recording, it does not recognise any other billing method.
Do other lawyers seek advice from you about the Marque model?
I get asked all the time about our billing model. But other lawyers prefer not to believe me [when I speak about how it works successfully for us]. Administratively, it’s easier to run the traditional time billing model so until clients force it to change, it won’t.
What about your clients? Are there any potential clients whose work you refuse because their values are not aligned with those of the firm?
We do not have a fixed view or moral position on this. It usually resolves itself by self-selection. Generally, we are aligned with our clients temperamentally and philosophically. There have been occasions where we have parted ways by choice but generally, clients not aligned with our values will be unlikely to approach us.
What about the firm’s involvement in wider issues in the community?
We did have an initiative of sharing our office space with the Art/Theatre community. We have had a philosophical realignment in recent times and developed a focus instead on human rights issues. We became aware as a firm of our capacity to influence the public conversation. It’s not something we realised when the firm started out but as our confidence has grown this has become more apparent. It is evolving as a mixture of things like pro bono work and direct advocacy for certain issues.
This week [beginning August] we are launching a campaign focused on marriage equality targeting the legal industry. Marriage equality is embarrassingly still not a thing in Australia, so we’re running a campaign targeting the legal community to get lawyers to speak up together and put some pressure on our Parliament to get the job done. It’s all explained at the campaign website, www.twopeople.org.au. It’s an unusual thing for a commercial law firm to be doing, but it’s something which is central to our purpose and about which we are absolutely passionate. We want to mobilise lawyers around this pretty basic legal issue. We want to elevate the conversation towards changing the law when it needs to be changed and push lawyers to a higher profile in those conversations. We should be outspoken in these issues. This is part of reframing the position of lawyers.
What are your views about legal education?
Yes, this is an enormous issue in Australia. Law schools have such a central role to play in raising awareness about these wider perspectives in law among the students and in emphasising the original purer purpose in law practice. Some law schools are starting to take the current state of affairs seriously. However, there are way too many law schools and way too many graduates in Australia. Universities have financial incentives, they are businesses, and unfortunately law remains a prestigious and lucrative course.
I have spoken at law school campuses, on ethics courses, about philosophical questions around purpose and about the business models of law firm and how Marque operates.
Are there plans for growing the firm?
Marque Lawyers has no particular expansion plans. We don’t feel excited by that. We only do what makes us feel excited!
Having eventually come to the conclusion that working in a law firm is no fun, Michael Bradley started Marque Lawyers in 2008 with the modestly stated ambition of completely changing the way law is practised. Apart from his well-deserved reputation as a shameless self-promoter, Michael is actually a lawyer too. His expertise is in Trade Practices and intellectual property, and he does stuff like fending off price fixing allegations by the ACCC against international airlines, merger authorisations, advertising vetting and compliance programs. Big copyright cases and some celebrity litigation too, but he doesn’t like to mention it much. As managing partner of Marque, Michael is treated by all the staff with a complete lack of respect, just the way he likes it. He says he’s “happy as a clam” and only regrets that the Spice Girls aren’t together any more.