Norton Rose Fulbright South Africa has reinvented itself over the past four years, including revamping its management team and changing the way partners are compensated.
This has allowed the company to cut costs, increase revenue and embark on an aggressive sideways hiring campaign, said Andrew Robinson, CEO of the company in South Africa.
“We looked at where our work was coming from and who was bringing that work in,” added Robinson, who has been closely involved in developing the new strategy.
But to deliver on its new expansion strategy and move away from traditional ways of doing business, the company has had to make some bold decisions, including adding a new-age CFO and overhauling associate compensation. .
But did he pay?
An assessment of each partner’s contribution over a three-year period revealed that some were not doing the work they should have been doing and that in some areas there was a lack of staff to do the work.
“We could see that there were people who were stuck in the middle of the equity ladder who were producing the goods year after year but not being compensated properly.”
This was because, he said, there were people who sat above them on the equity scale who did not contribute relative to what they were paid.
“We realized we had to find a way to get those people to go out and get more work and move it on to the juniors.”
Another problem was when super performers hit their budgets in September and had little incentive to continue working at their previous pace.
“If we could identify the work they had created and overseen, then we could pay them a percentage of that extra income on top of the profit.”
The company first had to make a profit, above its budget, and part of the surplus would then be used to pay a bonus to the super-performers.
“And it really worked,” Robinson said.
The new remuneration model is linked to a policy of financial hygiene, he added. And partners only get a bonus if the company makes a profit and they have collected all that they have charged customers. In 2018, the office did not make a profit, so no one received a bonus. But in 2019, 2020 and 2021 it did and the bonuses were paid from the funds charged and banked.
“In 2020 and 2021 we had great years and we are well ahead of our budget in 2022.”
The more partners understood the benefits, the more profit the company made. And global Norton Rose likes the new South African model, Robinson said.
“Our revenue increased by 15% from 2019 to 2021. More importantly, we improved the point value of each equity manager by 36%.
At Norton Rose, a director equals a partner.
In 2019, the NRFSA recruited a Chief Financial Officer, Roy Midlane, who has experience running businesses as a business, ensuring the business does not run short and finds itself in a liquid and flexible position.
“Someone once said that the most important thing in a law firm is to hire an aggressive CFO that everyone is a little scared of because lawyers are terrible at playing the numbers game,” Robinson said.
The company has also adopted a no exceptions policy that unless they follow hygiene rules, associates do not receive their incentives or dividends.
“As a result, our cash flow has improved and our reliance on any type of overdraft has virtually disappeared.
“We charge better, get paid faster and reduce expenses, and we have a corporate accountability that has been established through our No Exceptions Policy,” Robinson said.
Since COVID restrictions were recently lifted in South Africa, the company’s hybrid model has taken hold, with each team now working in the office at least two days a week.
Young people like to be in the office all the time, and older people need to be in the office to work with them, Robinson said.
“COVID was horrible for young people, many of whom shared a kitchen table while working remotely. For some it was the two years of their articles, so socializing in a legal environment is really important because you learn how it all works.
“Since returning to the office, we have spent many hours sitting with these young people and listening to what they had to say, taking it into account and implementing some of their ideas. Their input will help us stay nimble and flexible as the way law firms work will change massively over the next five years.
Last August, the NRFSA launched an aggressive lateral hiring campaign in which it took on nine partner-level lateral hires, several of whom brought small teams with them, Robinson said.
“Basic hiring criteria are that they must have a skill set that we are looking for, that they must have a portable practice and that they must, where possible, fit into a succession plan. .”
In recent months, the firm’s lateral hires have included a corporate mergers and acquisitions team from local boutique firm Glyn Marais, a partner from Baker McKenzie and a duo of partners from CDH and Cox Yeats Attorneys.
In May, the NRFSA appointed Michelle David as its new chairperson, replacing Robinson, who had been elected CEO of the company in South Africa the previous month following the retirement of Marelise van der Westhuizen due to health problems.
He said the firm is finding more flexible ways to keep its lawyers in the fold.
“People leave for good reasons, and we want them to know that if they’re good there’s a place for them when they come back. And they come back better and wiser and that’s good for the business. .
Office footprint, remote work
Prior to COVID-19, NRFSA was already considering downsizing its office space in Johannesburg and Cape Town, where the lease was about to be renewed.
“In Cape Town, we found alternative premises at a third of the rental with stunning views of the mountains and the harbour.
Lower rents were also negotiated in Johannesburg and Durban.
“Our office rentals are now a third of what they were, across the board,” Robinson said.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, thanks to the company’s IT manager Maurae Wooding and her team, the NRFSA was able to transition to remote working with “astonishing speed”, Robinson said.
“At the end of February 2020 we told everyone they would have to work remotely, and by the time the lockdown happened in March the whole business was fully functional from home.
“I won’t pretend we didn’t have the dinosaurs that said ‘we’ll never work from home’. But they became the biggest converts and we fought to get them back into the office!
He said that during the pandemic, it was agreed that everyone would voluntarily reduce their drawings or salary. “We had a 98% response and we refunded everyone, on top of that, to reward them for their loyalty.”
To support the firm’s succession strategy, the firm has implemented an incentive program for potential retirees.
“Part of their compensation is now based on the amount of work they have individually handed over to the person they are supposed to train to succeed them.”
The company also offers wellness programs, first introduced during the pandemic, through which those in need have access to assistance.
For example, to ease the isolation of remote work during the pandemic, teams have held group Zoom sessions of social “huddles” and psychiatrists and other specialists to talk to them.
“We have similar programs in place to prepare people to return to the office. Some people were coming into the office environment when they had never worked there before.