Kylie, welcome to the first of our 'A Conversation with' series. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.
Can you tell us how you came to be Director of VAJ Byrne, a long-standing firm, at such a young age?
Timing and effort. I joined the practice at a time when the sole principal was looking at succession planning, and within months, we were conversing about my future and whether I would be interested in taking over the firm. Eventually, another practitioner and I took over the practice, but I have since become the sole Director of the firm. I was young, enthusiastic and fearless and willing to have a go. I had seen how difficult it was for female practitioners to manage that 'work-life balance' when they have a family and children to look after. My immediate thought was to dig in and take this opportunity while I was young and get myself into a position to achieve work-life balance when I reached that stage of my life. Not only that, I naturally gravitate towards leadership roles; it's just my personality.
How long had you been with VAJ Byrne before these conversations started?
Not long at all. I was managing the practice before I was admitted, and I was a Director before I was out of my Supervision period. I could be an employed Solicitor Director, but I couldn't be a Legal Practice Director until I was out of my Supervisory period.
What drove you to study Law? What areas of Law are you most passionate?
Law wasn't even on my first list of preferences. However, I achieved a very high OP, so the top-level opportunities opened up. English and Social Services such as Social Justice, Discrimination and Indigenous Rights were my areas of interest and Law aligned itself well.
How do you take a traditional regional law firm and move it to the 21st century?
Initially very slowly, although others might have thought it was quick. I didn't change everything immediately, and I spent much time observing what worked and what didn't. Then I started the clean-up. Anything that was obviously inefficient, I would start in that area first. The other thing that helped me was my previous exposure to software systems in businesses where I had worked before starting with VAJ Byrne. When I started looking at LawMaster, I could see that this software had so much more to offer than what we were utilising. When you're at the bottom of Everest looking up, it seems insurmountable, but I just kept breaking everything up into smaller tasks.
One of the most significant projects I implemented was taking the firm 'electronic'. However, we only worked on the 'close file' process first. That way, I could leave everyone with their 'hard copy' files, but when we closed the file, we would scan it rather than archive it. I would get people used to that process first, and then we would work back through the process very gradually. It took around 18 months to complete because it was complex, and we implemented it piece by piece. It can be challenging for people to change when they have worked in a practice for many years. It took a lot of time and patience.
Did you find there was much resistance to the change?
Absolutely, but I always made sure I told them the 'why' and not just instruct, 'this is what we're going to do'. I found it was easier to share the reasoning with my team.
- Here's the problem
- Here's what I would like to do to solve the problem
- Here's the vision for why this will be better
- Do you have any feedback or suggestions?
You get a much better 'buy in' once they understand the 'why?' Interestingly, some of the most resistant people became the most vocal advocates once they saw it in practice.
Were some things easier to change than others?
Oh yes, we were doing things because they had been done that way since…1931. But no one knew why! For example, we would roll all the files before filing when a matter was closed. Rolling the files made them very difficult to scan and took up more storage space. So, this was an easy one for us to change.
How did going ‘electronic’ help the firm when Covid hit?
When Covid hit a lot of our counterparts were scrambling. For us, it was almost business as usual. There was very little we had to adjust, and the impact and business interruption was minimal.
What unique difference do you feel VAJ Byrne offers its clients?
I am not going to say that we do anything unique because many firms offer similar services. Generally, law firms still work and think in the more traditional law firm sense. Hence, the fact that we use progressive technology means that we are very efficient; we can be very cost-effective and offer fixed fee solutions for many services. The other thing is that we are very results-driven and practical. So if we don't think we can add value to a client, we will take a step back and offer other solutions or try and problem solve with them. We are very honest and up front about the difference we can make. I believe we are very pragmatic and aware of legal costs, and we take this approach with all our clients.
You recently opened another office in Bundaberg. Tell us how this occurred?
We opened the second office in Bundaberg because we had a brilliant practitioner moving there. It made sense to set up an office for him and break into that market.
What systems and processes did you put in place to manage and run the two offices? Do you have plans for further expansion?
One of the benefits of going electronic is the flexibility it has given us to work from anywhere. Rather than people leaving and taking all their knowledge with them, they can move and live anywhere while still working for the firm. We have people living in Brisbane, Sunshine Coast and all over the place and still working for the firm. It's fantastic.
We have had major growth in terms of the Gladstone office as well. In terms of further expansion, it is not in the plans, but I would open an office pretty much anywhere in Queensland for the right practitioner.
Have you employed more staff with your expansion?
Yes, we were hovering around the 15 staff member mark, but now we are 24 employees. Some of that is from the Bundaberg office expansion and some from our general firm expansion.
Regarding how much more work we are doing versus the number of staff we have employed; I think I am still on the right side of the ratios. And I have still improved the ratios of fee-earners to support staff. I didn't grow the business just by adding people. We implemented all of these changes to facilitate more work, and then I recruited people.
Did Covid impact your growth at all?
No, not overall. There was of course an initial period where we couldn't finalise files as quickly when we could not conduct face to face appointments and the courts were closed, but we still had plenty to do and could offer video conferencing easily. Everything eventually caught up, and we've done exceptionally well in our numbers over the past two years.
We are looking forward to 2022.
The complete remote access and WFH phenomena give everyone so much more flexibility. How does that impact you as a business owner?
As a business owner, it gives me far greater flexibility. Many business owners are scared of it; they assume it will make their business harder, so they are very restrictive. They think if I have to do it for one, I'll have to do it for all! That's OK, do it for all.
I have embraced it, and it has given me the ability to grow my practice substantially and keep key staff members who otherwise I would not have been able to retain. Employees enjoy their job more as it takes the pressure off them, and I have found it gives working mum's a lot of relief, knowing they can work from home if they have a sick child.
How does LawMaster support you and the firm in terms of remote access?
We work with a hybrid model, and everyone works on a virtual remote desktop. This setup is key to the success of our Work From Anywhere policy. Whether I use the laptop at work, home or on the road, we're all logging into the one system.
What automation have you introduced into the firm?
I use the word automation in a reasonably broad sense. A process that is well organised can be a form of automation, even if it is not a technological one. Most of what I have done streamlines processes, procedures and automates where possible. We've automated all our templates to merge the content into our precedents and documents. We've introduced workflow with our templates, making it easier for our staff, so we're not as reliant on people's knowledge. I am trialling new technology all the time. We have implemented software to automate appointment bookings which has saved us a lot of time. We use all types of technology such as webforms, electronic signing, Pexa, Trust EFT, and digital phones to make our operations more efficient.
How do you juggle your work-life balance?
I would say I offer work-life balance a lot better to my staff than myself at the moment. It all comes back to that flexibility. I can work from home when I need to and do what I need.
My partner and I love to go caravanning, and as long as I can log on to my laptop and check in when I need to, I can plan to go on leave a lot easier than in the past.
What are your plans, goals and aspirations for the future?
Work less and make more! Our technology, automation tools and processes are taking us forward in this direction.
Any advice for firms looking to start a similar journey to yours?
Just get started. Pick a project or a part of a project and start! The old adage that business owners and directors need to work on the business, not just in the business, is true. Spend the time on strategic planning to review your processes, automate and invest in the right technology. I recommend embracing the tech.