Demetrio Zema refers to July 1 as the “magical day when every lawyer’s billable hour increases overnight”.
The first day of the new financial year is usually the day when law firms around the country also announce promotions, which for the most part come with new job titles and new salaries.
But for Zema, founder of Law Squared, this July 1 was accompanied with an announcement of a different sort: his business would be doing away with hierarchical job titles for its lawyers altogether.
The timing was deliberate for the business owner, who founded Law Squared as a ‘NewLaw’ firm in 2016.
Since it’s beginning, the company has sought to “go against the grain”, says Zema, so dropping job titles associated with traditional legal firms, such as ‘associate’ or ‘senior associate’, is an extension of that approach.
Law Squared is now operating on what it calls a ‘cluster-based model’ whereby lawyers are referred to by their practice areas. The team now has ‘commercial’ lawyers, ‘corporate’ lawyers, ‘employment and workplace relations’ lawyers and ‘litigation and disputes’ lawyers.
Zema tells SmartCompany the change is about using descriptive job titles, rather than ones that come with assumed levels of management skills or financial statuses. The business, which employs 20 people in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, also has non-lawyer roles in its operations team and, again, these job titles, such as ‘business analyst’, are descriptive.
“In a traditional law firm, the length of time you’ve been there just assumes you have leadership skills and ability,” Zema says.
“You may have been there for 10 years, so you make partner, but you don’t have people skills. That can cause a cultural rift in the organisation.
“Skill sets don’t necessarily match titles in traditional law firms.”
Law Squared’s path to dropping job titles
Zema started the discussion about job titles with his team at a strategy session in May, but the change had, in effect, been years in the making.
The term ‘NewLaw’ refers to alternative legal providers that, in Zema’s words, have “flipped” the model of traditional law firms, which generally operate with hierarchical management structures and “very traditional theories of running a business”.
“We see ourselves as a business that delivers legal services, as opposed to a law firm,” he says.
Law Squared doesn’t have a partnership structure and doesn’t charge clients based on time worked, or ‘billable hours’.
This business model is influenced by Zema’s six years working in two law firms in Melbourne, where he says the environment was highly competitive, with “lawyers working against each other, not with each other”.
The onus was on “climbing the ladder” faster than your colleagues and lawyers would choose not to collaborate with others in the business for fear of their work being taken away, he says.
Zema says he felt there had to be a way for legal work to be “done better”.
So, after working in other industries, including technology, food and beverages, and transport — to “make some money outside of law to get out of law” — he set about creating a legal business that brought teams together, rather than creating incentives for them to work apart.
“There had to be a better way to work as a lawyer, to create an environment that lawyers want to be a part of,” he says.
Deciding together on a new way
At the quarterly strategy session in May, Zema presented his team with a one-page document about the proposal to drop hierarchical job titles for all lawyers across the business.
“For sometime there had been a bit of a mismatch between our jobs titles and us being a new and innovative law firm that had a traditional title structure but didn’t really function that way; we just got the job done,” he explains.
The team spent about two and half hours on a Zoom call discussing the idea and, Zema says, ultimately made a “team decision” to adopt descriptive titles instead.
“We felt the traditional titles are not suitable to our values or culture at Law Squared,” he says.
“Inevitably, there are leaders and still those with leadership skills and decision-making skills, but it’s a merit-based system, not title-based.”
Zema says naturally any employee involved in making a change like this will have questions about what it means for them and their future, particularly as traditional job titles in law firms tend to reflect salaries. However, at Law Squared, he says the approach they’ve chosen is for skills growth and execution to determine salary and financial goals.
The goal is to help employees “carve out something for themselves, for their own benefit and for the team” at the business, rather than seeing their current role as something that can be leveraged for their next job somewhere else.
He admits this kind of workplace does attract a “different type of person” — typically someone “who wants to work collectively as a team”.
“People are motivated by three key things,” he says.
“The first one is money — everyone has financial goals. The second is doing good work, and the third is working with a good team. If you have a business and culture that satisfies those three things, I don’t think it [employee motivation] is an issue.
“It’s less about having the title of a partner; you can still do all the things that a partner does, and have the same financial aspect, without the title.”
On a practical level, Zema explains Law Squared operates with four legal teams, which each divide up the work to manage client expectations, and within those teams, everyone has a role. An operations team, including communications and finance, then supports these teams.
“It’s about being accountable, not about having a manager,” he says.
Professional goals are also developed for each individual in the business and reviewed regularly, and these will be mechanisms for career progressions.
Pandemic ‘reinforced what we’re doing’
As businesses across the country, and the globe, continue to grapple with the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, Zema says the events of 2020 have “reinforced what we were already doing”.
“The business was started on the basis of having a clean slate and a true alternative to a traditional law firm,” he says. “It’s re-embedding that and reinforced it.”
Apart from the mass move to remote work, which will continue for some time now in Melbourne at least, Zema says the pandemic has highlighted the value of truly collaborative workplaces.
“It’s a different way of working, but I think it is the future of work,” he says.