Michael Morrissey
28 January 2021

Look after your staff, and innovation will thrive – says Michael Morrissey, Managing Director of Morrissey Law + Advisory

Published on 28 January 2021

Michael Morrissey believes that to run a successful firm – one that utilises creativity and innovation to grow – you must put your people at its core. For him, building robust relationships, the right culture and a strong team are all crucial.

Michael is the Managing Director of Morrissey Law + Advisory, a firm with specialist knowledge in the construction and infrastructure, and start-up, industries.

Creating a safe environment where curiosity flourishes

According to Michael, the key ingredient to a successful legal business is fostering a thriving working environment. Fundamental to this idea is building a safe space that encourages staff to take risks – and most importantly, assures them that it’s okay to fail.

“As lawyers, we’ve been taught to be risk averse. But that’s changing. To innovate, we need to try new things.

“This leads to us asking our staff – who have had conservative thinking drilled into them since law school – to take risks. We’re saying, ‘Solve these novel problems rapidly.’

“In these situations, we’re not putting our clients at risk, but rather, our business’ short-term profitability. However, to adapt in the face of change, we need to expect some failures.

“Staff must know that you accept this – and that you have their backs 100% of the way, even when things don’t go quite as planned.

“And they need to know that if your firm loses on that project, they’re not going to be sent to some box in the basement, never to be given growth opportunities again. That’s a sure-fire way to kill internal innovation and put the brakes on true progress.”

Placing relationships at the heart of business

A people-centric approach means more than merely creating a positive culture. It’s about respecting staff and treating them well. At its core, it’s about building robust relationships.

For Michael, this belief stems from his upbringing.

“I grew up with a lot of social workers in my family, which is probably why I believe businesses should always centre their operations on wellbeing and positive relationships.

“My fellow directors also share this view. And because we’ve been building on this approach for three years now, we know that it’s leading to better outcomes for our clients, staff – and our business as a whole,” he says.

Building a team with true synergy

To build a creative, innovative workforce, Michael believes it’s important to put the right structures in place. He says that a diverse team – in demographics as well as skillsets – leads to superior client outcomes.

“Having a 50-50 gender balance within our team was a very deliberate decision. We know that in many sectors, the higher you go up the corporate hierarchy, the lower your chances of seeing women in those senior roles.

“So, we wanted to ensure gender equality across our entire workforce – right up to the top. And we do. We have an equal balance at Director level, with two women and two men. Maintaining this balance across our entire team is an ongoing commitment,” he says.

Michael says that diversity of staff members’ skillsets is just as important as their backgrounds. And this means recruiting people that don’t have legal backgrounds.

“We have a number of non-lawyers in our team – including one person who calls himself #notalawyer. He joined us with no previous exposure to the legal industry, but brought with him a wealth of experience from design-thinking and customer-centric roles.

“He’s smart, creative and curious. He questions the legal processes that us lawyers take for granted and challenges us to find a better way. He’s an asset to our team largely because he doesn’t think like a lawyer.”

Automation has a place – but will never replace people

Michael says that while technology will have an important role to play in tomorrow’s law firm, it’s important that your people always remain front of mind.

“We’re seeing automation cropping up a lot. But it’s often used to pick the low-hanging fruit. It can be very useful for certain problems where there is a quick ‘one-two’ solution.

“Automation certainly has a place, and arguably it’s going to be pivotal in helping us deliver services more efficiently and at a lower cost to both us and our clients.

“However, at the other end of the spectrum of legal problems, we’re posed with exceedingly complex challenges. Ones that need the human mind to solve. And often, we find that these problems come back to people – particularly within my area of expertise, the construction and commercial sectors,” he says.

Our industry’s key growth areas

The legal industry isn’t accessible for a large cohort of people. This is either for financial reasons (they can’t afford the services) – or simply because the technical jargon is near impossible for non-lawyers to understand.

Michael believes these are two areas where innovation can have a significant impact.

“The industry needs to have a serious conversation about how we charge. To make legal services more accessible, we have to rethink how we approach them.

“Investing time and resources into improving your services is very costly. So you need to find a way to increase your customer volume and satisfaction to ensure a return on that investment.

“A major project we’re working on right now is developing an entirely value-based pricing model for our firm. We’re hoping to launch it in the first quarter of this year,” he says.

Then there’s the language lawyers use, which Michael says is “confronting” and “difficult to understand.”

“Legal professionals need to embrace everyday language when communicating with clients. And that’s easier said than done because it’s difficult to simplify any area of the law that relies heavily on precedent.

“But in reality, clients don’t like being handed a 50-page contract. So we need to start asking questions like, ‘Can we reframe this conversation?’ and ‘Can we reduce this five-page piece of advice to two pages?’

“We have a long way to go before simple language becomes the norm, but things will change dramatically over the next decade. Many lawyers are already moving towards it – and doing it extremely well,” he says.  

Industry bodies pushing the sector in the right direction

If you or your firm are struggling to keep pace with industry changes, Michael advises looking towards the leading bodies. He says that the Centre for Legal Innovation (CLI) is the best place to begin that journey.

“I was nervous about embarking on this innovation journey before I discovered that our own industry bodies were pushing in the same direction.

“The CLI is opening the industry’s eyes to the many changes afoot – and acting as a connective tissue by bringing everyone together to solve the challenges ahead. On a micro level, it’s helping firms accept that they do need an innovation mindset, urging lawyers to have frank, open conversations.

“Critically, though, the CLI is also offering concrete ideas and solutions to help us all adapt.

“Just having people like Terri Mottershead, who leads CLI, out there advocating for and connecting people is invaluable. She has achieved a lot in a short time,” he says.

Advice for new legal professionals

“Firstly, your priority should be to build your legal skills – don’t think you can skip that because of our rapidly evolving industry. Clients still need lawyers who know their stuff. You need to be technically astute to know how to best help them.

“Secondly, be curious about the world outside of law. Don’t limit yourself by staying in our legal bubble. Why? Because other professional service providers have developed novel, more efficient approaches to many of the same challenges we face. We have an opportunity to learn from them.

“And lastly, speak to people. Reaching out to others ensures you are always learning. If you’re struggling to solve a problem, chances are, there are people out there who can help and are more than willing to do so.

“In some ways, there’s never been a better time to be entering law. If you have an innovation mindset and real creativity, you’re well placed to succeed in the face of our industry’s changes,” he says.