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Law firm leaving rivals in its Wake

Law firm leaving rivals in its Wake

Law firm leaving rivals in its Wake

Tuesday 6 July, 2021


There's "no prize in size" says Jon Calder, chief executive of one of New Zealand's fastest-growing law firms, Waikato's Tompkins Wake.

It's not that Calder, a non-lawyer named "managing partner of the year" in 2019 and 2020 at the NZ Law Awards, isn't proud of the firm's explosive growth in the past five years. He's just making the point it isn't "chasing a number" in the country's law firm hierarchy.

And given the firm marks its 100th year in the Waikato next year, it's hardly a brash newcomer on the block seeking size over substance.

But Tompkins Wake's expansion in Auckland, Bay of Plenty and Hamilton is being noticed - along with the swag of law sector awards and recognitions it has been collecting.

The largest law firm in the Waikato - its lawyer numbers jumped 50.9 per cent between 2016 and 2019 - Tompkins Wake, with 77 lawyers, is now in the country's top 15 law firms by size. Probably around 13 to 15 spot, Calder reckons. In 2016 when he joined as chief executive it had 51 lawyers.

The firm recorded 40 percent revenue growth between 2016 and 2020 and is forecasting an 18 percent lift this year.

Waikato-born and bred Calder joined the firm after leading noteworthy growth at Fieldays, the largest agribusiness exhibition in the Southern Hemisphere, where he was chief executive.

Not surprisingly, he declines to elaborate on revenue, but shares that in a strategy reset in 2018, the firm's board set a revenue goal for 2025. It achieved it last year.

Headquarters is Hamilton, and there are Tompkins Wake offices in Auckland, Rotorua and Tauranga.

It was named mid-size law firm of the year (under 100 lawyers) in 2019 and again in 2020 at the NZ Law Awards, and was "employer of choice" in 2020 at those awards.

While Calder says the firm's future growth will be "well thought out and well-planned" - a function of both its innate lawyerly and Waikato conservatism - it is opportunistic and in growth mode.

Auckland presents a major opportunity.

When Calder joined the firm it had four lawyers in Auckland - today it has 21.

"Auckland's a natural extension. We're already attracting great people [lawyers] and winning some good work. Being a small player in a big market means there are significant opportunities."

The firm is in a sweet spot, he says.

Right in the centre of the so-called economic "golden triangle" of Auckland-Waikato-Hamilton, its administrative and management stronghold in Hamilton provides a platform from which to cash in on forecasts for the triangle. It already produces 50 per cent of New Zealand's GDP and before the Covid-19 outbreak, was predicted to spawn 70 per cent of the country's future economic growth.

"We are really leveraging the base we have built here in the Waikato. That is one of the key components of our competitive advantage. We have a good anchor here, we're well set up, and well-resourced in the Waikato. Which is code for it's cost effective and it has scaleability.

"Auckland is a very, very different beast. There are so many opportunities there it would be so easy to try to do too much or spread too thin. We are very conscious of that. Despite our growth, the firm is very conservative by nature."

Built on the Waikato's strong agribusiness foundations, Tompkins Wake is a full service law firm. The only in-house expertise gap is tax matters, for which it relies on exterior assistance. That gap will be closed, Calder suggests.

He says the firm's family law team - working in Hamilton and Auckland - is nationally recognised. The firm is particularly strong in the local government and environmental law sectors.

"Our litigation team is the biggest practice in the firm now. They would sit among the top 10 or 12 litigation firms in the country."

A small business practice, launched in 2019, is doing well. It offers bespoke, tailored assistance for SMEs with automated documents, almost a self-service portal, Calder says.

It's this sort of technology innovation that led to the firm being named innovation winner at the 2020 NZ Lawyer awards.

The firm is building a platform specifically to assist start-ups moving into commercial growth mode, providing cost-effective legal solutions for that stage of development.

In February this year it signed a Waikato and Bay of Plenty regional partnership agreement with SME growth provider Icehouse.

Waikato's growing reputation as a start-up technology hub has also caught the firm's attention.

Calder says there will be a strong focus on this area in the next year with the launch of a platform providing legal support for high growth start-up tech companies. He expects this practice to become prominent within the firm.

Information technology is a big focus and investment for Tompkins Wake.

The firm's rapid growth has meant "a lot more moving parts and a lot of investment in systems", says Calder, who is Tompkins Wakes' second CEO.

"We have great people [in-house], good systems and processes and it's always getting better. There'll be a couple of big IT decisions to make in the next year to 18 months to future proof the firm going forward."

Previous "heavy" investment in IT meant the firm coped well when Covid-19 struck.

"We went into Covid incredibly well prepared and with a solid plan of how to operate with several options mapped out. A lot of that will serve us well going forward."

Calder says Covid has ushered in a surge of corporate commercial work including opportunistic mergers and acquisitions - and interesting changes in the lawyer labour market.

"Covid's seen young but experienced lawyers return home. We've had three or four good hires, hugely talented, come back. One of the firm's key success factors over the past 15 to 20 years has been talented Kiwi lawyers coming home from overseas and for lifestyle or family reasons choosing to settle in the Waikato. We've had huge benefit from that."

But the lawyer labour market is getting tight.

"Anecdotal feedback is that most law firms are doing well, there's good streams of work for most law firms."

The challenge will be keeping younger lawyers who, because of Covid, can't travel.

"I never want anyone to feel stuck and like they've got no options, but we've been putting a bit of thinking into how we deal with that. The flipside is every year they stay they get more experienced and take another step forward in their careers. We've always been very focused on career development."

Important to Calder is that the non-Hamilton offices don't feel like "branch offices".

"It's a very connected and fluid model. There can't be any separation between offices."

The firm pays its lawyers "Auckland rates".

Diversity is another focus. The firm has 34 female lawyers aged under 40, and eight males.

Of its 24 partners, 14 are male and 10 female, six of the past eight partner promotions were female, and 66 percent of all its lawyers are female. In 2016 the firm had three female partners out of 17.

"It's not us chasing diversity stat - it's just we have exceptionally talented people in this firm at every level and it's heavily weighted," says Calder.

"One of the things I love about this firm, and I think we can get better at, is that all of our people can work flexibly because they have families. I don't want that to sound patronising... but it's just one of the neatest things about Tompkins Wake, these things just happen because that's how we do things. It's not conscious, it's just the sensible, right thing to do.

"It's part of my licence to operate and I know I have the support of the partnership to do the right thing."

Part of the firm's recruitment process is "cafe time".

After the interview formalities, an aspiring employee is expected to go out for a coffee with a group who would be their peers.

"That's the final hurdle. I can hand on heart say if the coffee group comes back and says 'that didn't feel good' we wouldn't employ someone. It's reciprocal. The odd time we've had the individual come back and say 'that felt a bit weird'. It's a good way to flush things out."

Calder knows alot about the "fitting in" process - and at no time accepts credit for the firm's rapid development.

"I've got really comfortable with the fact I'm not the smartest person in the firm by miles. There's massively intelligent people here and I'm comfortable with that."

A former general manager at NZ Bus, Auckland, Calder spent nearly 12 years in senior operational management roles at Air NZ.

He says a lot of people ask him what it's like running a law firm.

"The years at NZ Bus and Air NZ were very operationally focused. There's a process and how does that process come together? What are the steps for improvement or what is letting us down?

"As in any relationship between business owners and a new CEO it's always going to take time to build relationships and establish a base level of confidence.

"But a law firm is quite different. I'm here with 24 partners every day - seven of those sit on the board and three sit on the committee that reviews my performance annually.

"All those partners are key resources in the firm and can be lawyers I have to deal with as CEO, so it's not a usual governance/CEO relationship.

"I can have a conversation with a partner as a business owner, a conversation with a partner as a board member, a conversation with a partner as a practice team leader and a conversation with a partner as someone who does work for our clients.

"It's with all the same person. It's quite unique. Having your board members working in the business every day means there's no surprises. It keeps you on your toes but in other ways keeps life a hell of a lot easier because we're all connected and we all know which direction we're going in, and working together."

Peter Fanning, Tompkins Wake partner and chairman of the board, when approached by the Herald, noted Calder started his Air NZ career as a baggage handler (at Hamilton airport).

"The comment I make is purposeful. I would imagine when one is a baggage handler with other baggage handlers you have to be human and be able to communicate well with your colleagues.

"That's a talent Jon has. He's an everyman in the sense he has the ability to be able to talk to other CEOs and chair people of some of our larger clientele and do so with aplomb, and also with our day-to-day clients.

"Because we are a full service firm it is an everyman practice and therefore to have that ability to relate to people at all levels has been part of his success.

"The law is a specialist industry but at the end of the day the law in itself is itself a relationship between people. It is ultimately a relationship business.

"Jon is a relationship guy. It's one of his real strengths."


SOURCE: NZ Herald | Link to article (behind a paywall)

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