Simplicity begets sophistication: Tim Capelin & John Stanton, Australian Business Lawyers

by 27 Oct 2009

Tim Capelin and John Stanton have seen workplace laws change dramatically in the ten years since they founded Australian Business Lawyers. For clients, that means a necessity to speak “plain English”, writes Angela Priestley.

Lawyers are known to take pride in their language abilities but all too often, believes John Stanton, co-founder of Australian Business Lawyers, they will mistake the notion of complex speaking as an indication of their own intellectual abilities.

“Law can be very frustrating [to non-lawyers] if the mystery isn’t taken out of it,” he says. “So written advices should never be seen as something that will be framed as a showcase of the intellectual abilities [of the lawyer] but, rather, they are meant to resolve the issue for the consumer of the legal services.”

In 1999, Stanton, along with Tim Capelin, saw an opportunity to revolutionise their legal work at what was then known as the Australian Business Limited - now the NSW Business Chamber - and take their belief in the language of simplicity to the next level. Instead of providing advice on employment and industrial relations matters through an advocacy unit within the chamber, Stanton and Capelin moved to open a fully functioning workplace law firm to provide such advice to the chamber’s members at competitive legal rates.

Ten years on, it’s a model that has since been followed by many employer associations and one that has provided a profitable venture for Capelin and Stanton - as well as a much better resource for businesses requiring employment law advice. Meanwhile, in that same ten years, industrial relations law has taken on many different incarnations and become much more complicated in the process.

As Capelin notes, the traditional workplace law advice work provided by an employer association back in those days revolved around maintaining awards and dealing with industrial disputes. “But industrial dispute laws were pretty simple in the old days,” he concedes.

“It there was a dispute, you filed a notice, you went to the commission and you told them all the good reasons why the dispute should end,” he adds. “They usually agreed, battered the parties around the head and the workers went back to work and the company went back on with its business.”

The workplace law headache for business has only grown more painful over the years, calling for a growing marketplace of employment lawyers to assist. “At no point in all those changes (to workplace laws) have the laws become less complicated,” says Capelin.

“At each point they have become more complicated, then layered on top of that is obviously discrimination laws, trade practices laws, OH&S laws - all of which have also not become simpler over time.”

Positioning a law firm in the midst of such change was a smart move. Since ABL’s inception, Capelin and Stanton’s firm has grown to five partners and 35 staff in total and serviced clients ranging from Coca-Cola to American Express, Boral and Asset Super. While the firm maintains a referral arrangement with the NSW Business Chamber, Capelin says it has also moved to generate new business in more traditional ways.

As for the headache that businesses have been forced to endure around workplace laws, both Capelin and Stanton believe that their firm’s stance on speaking “plain English” to clients has led to their successful growth. Knowing that the bulk of their instructing officers will be made up of people experienced in HR - and not law - the two proclaim the importance of ensuring their advice is as straightforward as possible. The firm also relies on hiring new staff with some kind of background in HR - be it through a dual degree, or direct experience - and prides itself on delivering “consumerable advice” to clients. “We tell our lawyers that the starting point [in advising clients] is always to offer a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a question the client asks,” says Capelin. “Then add qualifications as it is necessary for the client to be able to make commercial decisions.”

For Capelin, it’s a method he believes separates the firm from its competition. “We’re very strong on not advising with a strong eye on our insurance policy and we think that makes a big difference,” he says. “We believe a lot of our competitors are defensive in the way that they provide their advice - and that’s not good for the client.”