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25 April 2017

Happy Lawyer Happy Life recap: How Tony Phillips runs a top law firm of happy lawyers

Published on 25 April 2017

For a person who initially aspired to be an archaeologist, making the top four of Queensland family lawyers and being named one of Queensland’s most preeminent family lawyers every year from 2013-2016 is an impressive achievement. Leading an award-winning firm renowned for its happy lawyers and focus on health and wellness is arguably even more remarkable. Tony Phillips, Owner and Managing Director of Phillips Family Law, shared his experiences with the Happy Lawyer, Happy Life podcast, proudly sponsored by The College of Law.

“I came from a generation when there were no mentors,” said Phillips. “I’ve been fortunate that for the first 25 years of my career, I was in partnership with my best friend, Tom. I was fortunate to work in some progressive firms, including Shine Murdoch.”

Phillips established a firm with three partners and four staff, growing it to a forty-person outfit within a few years. He credits much of his growth to sharing experiences with fellow small-to-medium firms via Law Australasia. “You’re not dealing with your competitors. We share completely all our financial information, precedents. You’re baring all your successes and mistakes. As a collective group, we were able to engage the best speakers to come to our conferences to look at trends; this group really became our mentors. Consequently, we looked into people management and ‘people care’ about five to ten years ago.”

Collegiality, he admits, is “not as prevalent as it used to be,” though he noted older practitioners might tend to look back on their earlier days “with misty glasses.”

Phillips strives to set a more collegial tone from first contact. “If people start on an aggressive front, people will hit the bull back just as hard. Getting on the phone, making contact with the other side, getting a rapport going – it’s what I try to focus on so it becomes more personal and we can achieve a quicker, smoother result for the client.”

Over the past few years, he has also strived to work less and become more conscious of working and relaxing “smarter.”

“There’s a temptation, particularly with young lawyers starting out that everyone wants to be Tarzan – that I’m beating my chest, that I’m king,” observed Phillips, who conceded he was much the same in his early years. “It was unhealthy. Saturday would be the only day that I took a break. It was common that you would spend half a day, usually Sunday, catching up on the week and preparing for the week ahead.”

Switching the culture of his firm required conscious leadership. “It’s talking the talk and walking it,” said Phillips.  For new recruits, it is clear that performance, salary reviews and promotions are measured not merely by billing – “it might have 30% value,” said Phillips – but also teamwork, business development, leadership, contribution to precedents. “When you put value on those tasks, people are more likely to share their work and be prepared to participate.”

To Phillips, the most vital attribute of a new recruit is how effective they are. “They may not be the best drafter in the world, or the smartest lawyer in the room, but they’re effective at managing the client and dealings with the other side. They’re effective at achieving results for clients, rather than scoring legal points.”

“The most important skill of all is listening; we don’t listen enough. You learn so much more by not filling in the sound gaps.”

As Managing Director of an award-winning law firm, Phillips decries the ‘churn and burn’ approach firms may take to new lawyers. “To achieve targets of ten to eleven hour days, five to six days per week, you will lose good people in that model. You will impact the longevity of young lawyers’ careers.”

“We concentrate just as much on lawyers doing too much as not hitting their targets. At any given time, we might have four to five lawyers working on a task so any one lawyer isn’t swamped. We try to head off a crisis by spreading the work around the office.”

It’s an approach as profitable as it is effective, which has allowed the firm to recruit for ‘excess capacity’ to account for leave, bereavement and parenthood. “Once you have a structured firm, to an extent it starts to run itself, which results in a profitable model.”

Phillips credits mindfulness with his approach to law. “Take a breath, pause before you react. It’s an otherwise very reactive profession. You’re often faced with response emails from clients, lawyers on the other side, which you think if they had paused, they might not have had the aggression and anger in that initial response. Our responsibilities are primarily as a limiter of conflict, not in aiding and abetting. This might involve role-playing with clients, or reality-testing a response, so you can avoid creating another potential point of conflict.”

“Mindfulness to me is not making those knee-jerk responses. Consider the ripples – who is going to be hit?”

Passionate about law, Phillips recommend lawyers leave their work at the office.

“I’m incredibly passionate about the work that I do, but I don’t take it home. Put it behind you. It’s important to stay grounded and appreciate the small things in your life. It’s never a smooth journey, but everybody has problems. All things pass. You’ll wake up tomorrow and be a bit better.”

His advice to lawyers: “In that time between leaving the office and arriving home, leave the work behind. Leave the day behind. Tomorrow’s another day. The challenge that seemed overwhelming today will seem less overwhelming tomorrow.”

“Being a lawyer is an incredible opportunity. Someone is coming along and says, ‘I trust you to fix my life.’ I’m very proud to be a lawyer.”

Listen to Tony’s full interview.