A Conversation with... Ben Gouldson


Today we meet with Ben Gouldson, Managing Director and one of the Founding Partners of Clifford Gouldson Lawyers. Welcome Ben, and thank you for speaking with LawMaster.

Category:
Client Profile

Perhaps we could start with your background and tell us how you and Danny founded Clifford Gouldson Lawyers?

I grew up in Toowoomba and studied Accounting at the Toowoomba campus of USQ whilst doing my law degree externally through QUT. In 1995 I started as an article clerk with Murdoch Phillips McVeigh Randall, and I completed my law and accounting degrees while working for them. I was admitted in 1998 and worked my way up through the ranks at Murdoch's, finally becoming a partner.

The catalyst for me to consider starting my own firm came in the form of a wake-up call from my father. The Toowoomba community knew my father very well as he had been an alderman when I was at school and a physical education teacher. When I would meet people, they would often ask me, 'Are you John's son?' which led to doors being opened and new opportunities arising.

When my father was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in 2005, I thought if I didn't do something on my own, I would regret this for Dad's sake.

So in late 2005, I decided to set up a firm. About 18 months before this, while still at Murdoch's, I had advertised for a workplace lawyer. Danny Clifford had relocated from Brisbane to Toowoomba for that position, so I felt I had to tell him I was planning to leave Murdoch’s. Danny mentioned that he had been planning to go as well, so he decided to join me, and that was the birth of Clifford Gouldson in March 2006.

How many staff did you have in the firm at the launch?

We started with Danny & I, and my wife did the accounts. Danny's wife is a lawyer, so she helped with some of the overflow work for us. Selina Algate was our receptionist/paralegal, and I'm pleased to say she is still with us today. Selina worked for me at Murdoch's straight from high school, so we have a long association.

We chose LawMaster for our practice management system from the start as it was the system I had known, and Danny was happy with it.

Over the past 16 years, we have grown tenfold and now have 42 staff in three office locations, and we're still using LawMaster.

What factors do you credit to the success of the firm?

If I had to identify the most critical factor, it is humility. And that applies in just about every setting. It helps to have confidence, but you must be humble about the confidence you display, even in your practice areas. So as a character trait, I think humility.

And, you need to be an early adapter. Being open to the possibility of how you are doing things right now is not necessarily the best way to do something, and that would be a close second factor.

What attracts clients and staff to work with Clifford Gouldson?

We have tried to build a culture for staff and clients of being approachable, not arrogant, that humble piece. I hope that our culture supports everyone joining us for as long as they might like. We want to enhance people in their occupations. From my conversations with our clients, they all refer to very similar behaviour themes from the CG Law team. Our team has that element of humility. They're straight-talking and honest, especially when they know something is beyond their skill set. These things have helped us build a good team, a good culture, and attract clients that fit that culture.

What makes CG Law different to other law firms? How do you differentiate yourself?

We don't pretend to be the one-stop-shop for everything. We don't do Family Law; we don't do Crime; we don't market for cottage conveyancing; we are not all things to all people. Many regional firms can be a one-stop-shop for everything, but we don't subscribe to that theory.

We are a business-focused law firm, so that's how we differentiate.

CG Law is known as a very progressive regional firm. How do you think your regional clients accept that?

When they contact us, most clients look past the regional location very quickly. Some international clients would describe a hesitance to engage initially, but they are pleasantly surprised at the firm's capability. There is still a little bit of perception that a regionally based firm is a 'less than perfect' service provider. Still, we demonstrate through excellence a capability that is second to none. 

Your website shares CG Law's Manifesto and states that you are open to change as a law firm. What do you mean by finding new ways of practising law?

We never assume that we do things in the best way from a client's perspective, and we are constantly putting ourselves in our client's shoes.

We have an experimental culture.

Clifford Gouldson Lawyers also powers Bolter, an online law firm for start-ups. Therefore, when we try a new process or implement a new form, we try it through Bolter first. We have tested how we receive clients, onboard them, and produce legal documents, bills, engagement around costs and fixed fees. So, we experiment and the things that we find the clients like we roll out in CG Law in different practice areas, then if it works in a particular practice area, we might expand and roll it out to the whole firm.

When our manifesto talks about practising law in new ways, we don't have limits. We don't ever want a starting point of 'No'; we want a starting point of we're happy to consider that, then we might navigate through and find that we can't, but we must be open to change.

How do you initiate ideas and roll out the change in your firm?

Firstly, we talk to our clients. Most of our new ideas are driven by better serving our clients so this exchange of information is critical. As well as direct conversations with our clients, we send surveys to our clients during the onboarding phase, during and after the matter.

Secondly, we have innovation on our weekly or monthly section or firm meetings as an agenda item.

Thirdly, we include action items in each Author Target Document (ATD) related to innovation. Authors help set the volume of goals they need to develop for new innovative ideas or new templates, or new workflows. We monitor this through monthly check-ins.

We've built systems that keep innovation top of mind. Every time a file closes, we go through a process to see if there is something that we should change around this matter, its work types or its workflows.

Can you give us an example of a change you have recently implemented?

Yes, of course. In the engagement onboarding process, we try to be as efficient as possible when opening a file. Every file we open takes around 4 to 6 units of time for the lawyer to engage, delegate to the paralegal, who opens the file in LawMaster and do the cost agreement. We wanted to reduce this time cost. So now, we have built an onboarding form with a questionnaire that we send to the client. The client can say as per the last matter, which means there is no effort for them, and we go back to the previous matter and replicate everything, or the client can complete the form. The form gives them the flexibility to advise on their preferred billing frequency, how the advice should be prepared etc. We will use LawMaster's reverse merge functionality to automatically populate the fields back in LawMaster for the new matter when the form is returned.

We are trialling this new process with the IP team at the moment. We first trialled it with Bolter, and it worked very well. I can share that we've recently had a board meeting, and they approved that this new process will be rolled out to the whole firm.

When did you first launch Bolter?

We started Bolter in the April of 2020 in the midst of the pandemic. We debated whether to hold the launch once the lockdowns came into effect. Still, we decided to go ahead as we thought people might start looking at alternative business options if people started losing work. Bolter is growing very nicely as an online business service.

Speaking of Covid, did it fast track or derail any plans for the firm?

There were no changes because of Covid, and we were lucky with LawMaster in the cloud. We also use Teams that we had trialled long before Covid, so we were fortunate to work seamlessly from home when the lockdowns occurred.

I understand that you have been paper lite for many years. How did you implement this strategy?

When we started the firm, we worked remotely, and we had no storage space to keep physical files. When we moved into an office, we just continued with this approach, and hence we still operate this way today.

How is CG Law involved in the Community?

Our ethos or mantra is that we believe we should give back. As a member of the CG Law team, staff should feel free to volunteer in any community organisation, whether it's connected to their family, a personal interest or the firm. In the ATD, we include a pro-bono or a community giving element and ask people to identify the number of hours they are prepared to commit to this initiative. We track it, and we support them around that. It is just something that has evolved to be part of our DNA. Many of our staff volunteer to be on committees and organisations, and we sponsor where we can. It's important in a regional community to give back as we benefit from their local instruction.

Sometimes it's about demonstrating your investment in the region to encourage others not to take their work outside of the area.

Growth is a key element for the future of the firm. What are your plans for future growth?

We are under a five-year growth strategy. It is not growth for growth's sake; it is growth to ensure pathways for our people. We want to grow in our three office locations of Toowoomba, Brisbane and Sunshine Coast and show our people they have pathways within the firm.

What is your primary role in CG Law today?

We made a decision back in July 2020, which came off the back of a significant class action here in QLD. It became apparent that I couldn't continue a full file load, so the partners agreed that I would become the 'Managing Director.' My time is supposed to be 1/3rd file load and 2/3rd 's Practice Management, but it's probably still the reverse of this because of how busy we are. But that's OK; it's a work in progress.

Do you like this role?

I love it. I enjoy the interactions with the team, but I think I get more from them than they do from me. I enjoy the strategy, the planning. Strategy can be tiring but very stimulating.

What would you like to do more of/less of in the next 12 to 24 months?

I love every aspect of what I do. I need to become more ruthless about what I am doing. I know I have to do less file work and more strategy. I wish the days were longer, but that's not going to happen, so I have some hard decisions to make.

Do you have any advice for other regional firms looking to grow their practice?

I wouldn't profess to tell others what to do. Do what comes naturally and be true to yourself. It needs to resonate with integrity and align with their true intent. The other thing that goes hand in hand with this is that there needs to be good alignment with the other people in their firm. Alignment with the direction of the business is fundamental as well. 

What do you do in your downtime?

I have a family of three daughters, my wife, two dogs, and I love to play basketball. I don't travel as much as I used to, so I am enjoying that aspect of not burning the candle at both ends. I probably have Covid to thank for that.

I am extremely lucky that I have a wonderful wife, children and business partners in Danny, Amanda, and now Harrison, who are so supportive. I'm a bit of a blessed one.

Ben, thank you for sharing your story with LawMaster’s audience. 

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