Michael Rose and Susan Ferrier of Allens Arthur Robinson tell Sarah O’Carroll how they managed their people through the downturn and how they plan to lead a frustrated workforce through the upturn
There has been a significant mood shift within the
global workforce over the last 18 months, believes
Allens Arthur Robinson chief executive partner
Michael Rose, particularly among lawyers. Accord
ing to Rose, the attitude of the workforce has gone
from one of anxiety to one of frustration. He believes that dealing
with this mood shift will be one of the greatest people challenges
facing companies moving into 2010.
Anxiety to frustration
Rose, winner of the Neller HR Champion (CEO) Award at the
recent HR Leadership Awards, describes how he and his HR team
plan to handle these changing attitudes among lawyers and the
workforce in general.
“At the beginning of the year, there was an awful lot of press
around very significant cuts in numbers at law firms around the
world,” says Rose. “So there was a high degree of anxiety among
lawyers at the end of last year and beginning of this year. What was
pleasing for me was our approach to frank communication and let
ting people know what was going on. I think it dealt with that
anxiety and helped people understand the environment and feel
more confident about what was going to happen next.”
The current feeling of frustration, he believes, stems from
the fact that a highly mobile group of people – most of whom commenced their careers with a sense that there’d be a degree
of mobility within their career and that they’d live and work
in various places during the early years of their career – did
n’t get to realise many short-term ambitions because of the
economic conditions over the last 18 months.
“My sense is that there is a large degree of frustration
now. I don’t think this is an issue specifically for our firm – I
think it is for every industry and organisation,” says Rose.
This frustration among people will soon lead to a large
degree of movement, says Rose. However he also believes
that this will not be a big concern for him or his HR team.
“Everybody everywhere is going to be getting up and mov
ing and so, just as there might be a lot of people wanting to
go to the market, it also seems pretty likely that the market
is going to be pretty buoyant with people,” he says.
For Rose, the bigger challenge in relation to workers’ frus
tration is how to let people know that management recognises
that sentiment, and also that management understands how
staff members are feeling and is doing something about it.
“There’s a need to keep careers engaging and vital and
challenging – even though the environment isn’t turning
up as many challenges as it once did,” he says. “So part of
our planning is to look at how the downturn has changed
the experience that everyone has and whether there are
ways in which, within the current market conditions, we
can ensure that some of the frustration that people must be
feeling is addressed.”
According to Susan Ferrier, director, people and devel
opment at Allens, engagement surveys over the past three
years have shown that individuals want to be inside an
organistion that has strong leadership and a clear direc
tion and strategy around where the company is heading.
Aligning these business goals with personal goals can also
help alleviate any frustration caused by the restrictive
“We’re going to be doing a lot of work around careers
so that people have a lot of information about careers and
resources and what they look like,” says Ferrier. “And this
must be aligned with the overall business strategies.”
Core people strategies at Allens
One of the reasons Rose believes he won the award for
Best HR Champion was because of the belief and recog
nition that people are central to what the firm does.
“People talk about being ‘people businesses’, but when
people deal with law firms the only thing they want is
the experience and judgment of people,” he says. “There
fore our clients want to benefit from the experience and
judgment of people and that derives from their training,
on-the-job experience and also their personal character
Therefore, he says, the core people strategy within Allens
is simple: select a broad and diverse range of people, offer
them excellent experience and learning, and create an envi
ronment where people’s own personal values and the firm’s
values work together in a way that motivates and inspires.
“That sounds a bit high level, and a bit imprecise, but that
is a basic notion that runs through how we set up our people
strategies and how we work with them,” he says.
Over the past two years the company introduced two
broad programs which support these ideas.
“We have stepped up our investment in learning, in the
support side as well as for partners and lawyers,” says Fer
rier. “And we’ve probably [directed] the majority of our
spend around building skills around feedback.”
According to Ferrier, effective conversations and rela
tionships are vital in carrying through these values and goals.
Diversity is another area which the company has focused
on over the last two years. The firm built and is in the
process of implementing a reconciliation action plan and
has reinvigorated its Women In Allens program.
“This strategy is really focused on what the firm is going
to look like in 20 years’ time,” says Ferrier. “I think the firm
will look very different in 20 years both ethnically and [in
terms of] gender base and it’s very important to reflect that
in our workforce.”
Redundancies and flexibility in the downturn
According to Ferrier, inclement economic conditions nat
urally led to a change in people strategies – some had to
be put on hold and others implemented more quickly. Vol
untary redundancies, flexibility and open communication
helped carry the firm through the difficult period.
“The absolute first strategy was one of pretty constant
and very frank communication,” says Rose. “We got very
quickly to a point where people trusted that any decisions
made weren’t going to be something they were surprised
by and I think people became confident that we were work
ing our way through market changes in a sensible and
Redundancies were not something the firm looked to
go into as a kneejerk reaction to the changes in the mar
ket, says Rose. Instead a voluntary redundancy program
“We think our voluntary redundancy program was
designed very well so as to provide a generous incentive to peo
ple who were considering a career change anyway and I think
that the success of that program does indicate that it was well
designed and appropriately targeted. I think our staff regarded
it as a very positive move instead of a softening up measure
as a response to the market change,” he says.
A total of 115 people were made redundant within the
firm. As the company enters 2010 – and with a possible
upswing in the market in sight – Rose says the possible
spectre of a shortage of good people is not a big concern
for the firm and that it does not regret the decision to let
these people go.
“Our redundancy program was ‘about right’ is how I’d
describe it,” he says. “We actually did say ‘No’ to some
people who had applied for redundancy because we
wanted to keep them. We are still carrying people to
some capacity – which gives us some flexibility in the
event that conditions change quickly. We are very happy
with the outcome, which reflects the careful design and
implementation of the program.”
A flexible work option was also introduced and was
taken up by 8 per cent of the organisation. This was run
in conjunction with the voluntary redundancy and also
took a tailored approach.
“There was a significant take-up across all our offices,”
says Ferrier. “We did a briefing process throughout the
whole firm, briefing all lawyers about what it could look
like and my team worked with partners throughout the
business. In order for flexibility to work it has to be very
much business-led and [focused] around business needs.
It can’t be just filling out a form.”
There was no specific demographic that snapped up the
flexibility offer, according to Ferrier, and she explains it
went right across the board.
“There [was a spread from] young people who
wanted to do something else on their day off to senior
men who also wanted to scale back and perhaps spend
more time with their children,” she says. “Flexibility is
a long-term sustained business practice now and I think
that generationally people who are between 20 and 30 will want to work very differently from the old traditional
style of work.”
Biggest people challenges for 2010 and into the future?
Ferrier believes that one of the key challenges for law firms
in the next few years will be pressure to embrace globali
sation, mergers and strategic alliances and with it, she says,
will come another set of challenges – including mobility
and cultural challenges.
“When business activity amongst our clients returns to
pre-crash levels it won’t necessarily return to the same places
it was before,” adds Rose. “Here in Australia we’re seeing
a greater emphasis on the Queensland and Western Australia
economies – and most law firms tend to be concentrated in
NSW and Victoria. The [ability] to get good people to where
the clients most need them to be is something that law firms
will have to get better at working at in the future.”
Another big challenge, Rose believes, will be the issues
of pay and performance
“Traditionally there has been a very loose linkage
between pay and performance in our kind of firms and pay
tends to ratchet up, on a seniority basis at least. That model
really solidified in law firms over the last 10 years or so
and was a reflection of the pressure in the market for
lawyers,” says Rose.
“Most of the firms have salary freezes in place and it will
be interesting to see if that model re-emerges or whether
there will be greater reliance on performance-related remu
neration – including incentive-type remuneration, which is
generally not widely used in the legal profession.”
Courage to address emotions
One of the most important aspects of leadership, says
Rose, is to have the courage to address sensitive issues.
He believes, after discussions with other CEOs and indus
try experts, that there is a need for greater recognition
of emotion and feeling in the workplace, particularly
around the notion that people need to feel proud, valued
“Things like that don’t turn up in strategic plans but
turn up in how an organisation performs,” he says.
“I sometimes think that when people talk about the
‘courage of leadership’, the kind of courage they’re talking
about is the courage to recognise what many people label
as the ‘soft issues’ of leading people. But they are, in fact,
really quite important issues, usually difficult issues to talk
about – and difficult issues to get right.”
Judges' comments: Michael Rose
Allens Arthur Robinson is a large law firm. Considering the highly professional and demanding nature of this workforce it is no mean feat for the firm to have a 91 per cent positive response from its employees saying they believe the firm is well managed in its annual employee survey called "MyView".
Chief executive partner Michael Rose has been instrumental in ensuring that people strategy is not only clear to the senior leaders, but also at every level of the organisation. He has championed a principled approach in responding to the GFC, at the same time as not losing focus on the company's great initiatives around areas such as work/life flexibility, diversity and being the first law firm to launch a reconciliation action plan. Rose has been personally committed to the success of these initiatives and has worked closely alongside the HR team to drive them through.
Rose takes time out to provide input to the HR team. He regularly attends their meetings and personally thanks the team for their contribution to the success of the company. He makes public statements both supporting and recognising the work of the HR team. Rose is truly a role model of a great business leader championing HR.
About Michael Rose
Rose is the chief executive partner of Allens Arthur Robinson, based in Sydney. He leads a team of executive partners and corporate services directors responsible for overseeing the firm's professional practice, client relationships and business operations in the nine countries in which the firm operates.
Prior to this, Rose was the head of the firm's litigation and dispute resolution department and a commercial litigator specialising in large-scale commercial disputes. He has acted for clients in significant disputes throughout Australia and in the United States, Europe and several Asian jurisdictions. His clients have included Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Dow Corning Corporation, Estée Lauder, Export-Import Bank of the United States, Aristocrat Leisure Limited and Sports & Entertainment Limited.
Outside the firm, Rose is the Chairman of ChildFund Australia, an international aid and development organisation that supports more than 55,000 children and their communities in developing countries. He is also a member of the Education, Skills and Innovation Task Force of the Business Council of Australia.