Dina Tutungi, Slater and Gordon Lawyers

Now that Slater and Gordon is public, we don’t have partners anymore, and the financial information is all out there — you can see what the senior executives earn — there are no secrets.

Slater and Gordon Lawyers is a consumer law firm with 70 locations in Australia and 25 locations in the United Kingdom. Slater and Gordon is a publicly held company with shares listed on the Australian Securities Exchange. The Slater and Gordon Group also owns Slater Gordon Solutions in the UK, which provides claims, motor and health services.

My title is General Manager — Personal Injury Victoria, Australia. The personal injury group comprises the Work Cover, Motor Vehicle Accident, Medical Negligence, Public Liability, Asbestos and Superannuation and Disability Insurance teams. I report to the Head Personal Injury Australia.

I commenced this role on return from parental leave with my second child. I had previously held the role of State Practice Group Leader of the Civil Liability team in Victoria and also lead the Superannuation & Disability Insurance national practice.

I joined Slater and Gordon in January 2001, as my first legal job straight out of law school.

Slater and Gordon is a very dynamic and flexible place to work. Much of what we do is different and innovative. We are always busy. In general, this is a very positive place to work.

Slater and Gordon is structured in a way that it can recognize people’s strengths and skills, and provide opportunities that suit those strengths and skills. Slater and Gordon is also a place that can provide a lot of different and empowering opportunities for lawyers at all levels.

Let me tell you two personal examples:

When I first joined Slater and Gordon, I worked in class actions, and I had the opportunity to work on a large scale projects. That was a great opportunity for me, especially since I got to work directly with three senior partners. But after a while I wanted to have a different experience, I wanted to get the experience of working for individuals in a traditional setting, with a traditional file load. An opportunity arose in motor vehicle accidents in Head Office, and I did that for a year or two.

When I was a fifth year lawyer, I put a proposal to our Managing Director (Andrew Grech) and the executive team, to open a new suburban office in Ringwood. They supported this proposal. The sentiment was to “go for it.”  I was well supported but also provided ample autonomy such that the lease on the premises was executed based on my recommendation and review of premises. I ran that office, as a junior to mid-level lawyer, for five years.

Part way through that, I was asked if I wanted to run the national superannuation [national disability and disability insurance scheme] practice. I saw that practice as having great potential, so I accepted that request while continuing to run the Ringwood office. Later the opportunities of further career progression have come and I have accepted those roles, including my current position as General Manager for Personal Injury in Victoria.

I am up for a challenge and I like change. I have enjoyed taking something that has potential and turning it around so it meets its potential — in understanding what systems and processes need to be improved, and then developing those systems and processes. Slater and Gordon has given me the opportunity to do that. I think I would be quite bored if I were working in a well-established practice that simply needed to be maintained.

The people I work with are focused on the future and finding innovative and progressive ways to deliver exceptional customer service and business growth. The people I work with seem happy to be here. It is not uncommon to come across lawyers who have been here 15 years, 18 years… That being said, it can be gruelling — lots of projects happening at once, growing, acquisitions, consolidating acquisitions, many balls to keep in the air all at once.

I had my first child a couple of years ago. At that time, I was appreciative that when you have a child and you come back to work, you can select a flexible working arrangement that suits you. Flexible work arrangements are part and parcel of being a working parent at Slater and Gordon. Many staff members are on flexible working arrangements involving a mish-mash of hours and days including my own supervisor who is the head of our Australian personal injuries practice. That has certainly been my experience. When I returned from parental leave to my usual role, my request to work 3 days a week, leaving at 4:30 pm was accepted. I naively thought that was how most businesses operate — offering flexibility to working parents and enabling them to even progress their career on reduced hours. It wasn’t until I started talking to the parents at my Mother’s Group that I realised that what Slater and Gordon offers is exceptional. Most of the other parents in the group were required to return to work full time after 12 months of parental leave. That was a real eye-opener for me. Not only does flexibility enable working parents to remain in meaningful employment, it makes good business sense to offer such flexibility.

I have attended a couple leadership forums for women, and in each the messaging has been that this is a time for your career to take a back seat, that you cannot have both, that women in the law will generally go back to roles that are not the same as before and that their jobs will change. That’s not been my experience or those of the talented woman I work with. That’s not to say that juggling both a progressing career and family with small children is easy. But with the right support and workplace attitudes, it is achievable.

This says a lot about being at Slater and Gordon, where many women have continued to progress their careers during the time they have small children and are working part-time. The flexibility that Slater and Gordon shows for working parents is important. There are many part-time working parents — if I am not mistaken, about 25% of Slater and Gordon’s work force is on a flexible working arrangement, including part-time work, compressed working weeks, job share arrangements and working from home. When someone wants to come back part-time after they have a baby, we always attempt to accommodate their request.            For example, we have a senior legal assistant who wants to come back part-time — that is fine — we will change the structure of the file load, or team her up with someone who can support her. It is something that we take seriously. Recently, one of the Associate’s in my team returned to work three days per week and we supported her with the addition of a junior lawyer in her team.

Our work flow system is a very important part of our processes. It does not teach you how to be a lawyer, but it is very good for practice management and makes it easier for certain tasks to be done by experienced legal support staff who are supervised by lawyers. It also frees our lawyers up to focus on good case management — those high end analytical and forensic tasks.

Getting a work flow system up and running is a long term project requiring significant resource and expenditure. It requires a group of lawyers to sit in a room with a team from IT, and to think through every step that a lawyer can take in the litigation process; everything that they do to prepare a case to make sure that the case is compliant with court orders; to make sure that the customer service is exceptional, that clients are updated and that the case is moving on schedule.

This system is a big part of what we do. It is amazing to think that personal injury litigation of all types follows a flow. When you first think about it, you think that it’s not possible to do it, that it is not possible to put it in a flow. But in fact you can. There is a process of thought, even for the most complicated areas of litigation, and it can be channeled into the work flow.

We have created a “flow” for every type of matter that we handle in personal injury. It anticipates different combinations and permutations for how that matter can progress. It is like a “choose your own adventure” because it can go off in so many different ways by using prompts and checklists.

For example, it will prompt questions such as: Are you pursing a common law or statutory claims for damages, or both? Do you have a medical report? Will you make a claim for lost wages? Did you want to get a police report? Do you want to speak with witnesses? Do you need updated medicals?

And it goes into further detail. If you check “obtain police report,” it will automatically diarize for you to chase it after the freedom of information period. When you check off that the police report has arrived, it will tell you to cross reference that you’ve got the time limits right and it will ask you if you need to speak to the witnesses named on the police report. And it goes on.

There are thousands of these interactions in each “flow.” It is such a powerful tool. No, it will not teach you how to take a witness statement, or how to provide great customer service or how to manage your client’s expectations or undertake high level legal analysis. But it does minimize risk and improve efficiency, expertise and client service in a busy practice. And it is really empowering for the legal assistants because they can see exactly where the matter is at, keep the clients well informed and plan and manage their workload.

Our legal assistants do not sit there with dictaphones or simply answer the phone to put calls through. They are an integral part of the team that services each client. The lawyers are there to do the high-level forensic, legal and analytical work and update the client with major developments. Our legal assistants aid the claims through for the client and make sure that everything is progressing. Our legal assistants are very engaged, they are passionate about the work and they are empowered. I see them as closer to projects managers than administrative assistants or secretaries.

The “flows” are maintained and kept up to date by a team of people. Many of the people on that team have training and experience in both IT and law, because you need someone who can speak both “languages.”

When I am interviewing a lawyer new to Slater and Gordon, I tell them that the opportunities here are varied. I advise them that their first priority needs to become an excellent lawyer and specialist. It takes about five years for a junior lawyer to really nail that, but once it becomes second nature, the opportunities at Slater and Gordon are endless. We have 70 offices across the country and also offices in the UK, there are opportunities to be involved in localities, in a region, to become a practice group leader, a subject-matter expert and train junior lawyers. There are also purely operational jobs in management services and business development. There are lawyers (like myself) who are very focused on business development and client service. And there are lawyers who do research, who publish articles and books. Slater and Gordon probably isn’t for everyone, but I think that it offers many more opportunities to lawyers than a traditional law firm, where your options are usually limited to either becoming partner or not.

I have been with Slater and Gordon both before and after it went public. I don’t feel that the fact that we are public has changed the effort and thinking we put in to the legal advice we provide — whether we take on a case, whether we recommend to a client to settle a case, but it has meant that we can service more clients and that we’ve expanded a lot outside personal injury law. Despite the listing, we are all very conscious of the fact that our primary duties are to the court and client. In my experience no one from our finance department and certainly no shareholder has ever tried to influence what cases we take on or how my team handles a case. If anything, I feel that in the past few years, we’ve been even more focused on improving client service and servicing a broader client group because of the benefits that have come with listing and investing in the more operational areas of our business.

Certainly because we are a public company, things are more transparent. Financial results are published for example. That has certainly changed since we went public. Before, when Slater and Gordon was still a partnership — I remember wondering what partners actually got paid, I remember wondering just what you had to do to become a partner. There wasn’t a lot of information available. Now that Slater and Gordon is public, we don’t have partners anymore, and the financial information is all out there — you can see what the senior executives earn — there are no secrets. Also, Slater and Gordon’s structure gives a broader group of staff an opportunity to become owners of the business, and many have taken advantage of that.

Scale allows you to have highly specialised practice areas. For example, we have lawyers dedicated to motor vehicle accident claims — day in and out, that’s all they do. In a similar fashion, we have lawyers that specialise in work place injury claims, public liability or medical negligence claims. The lawyers in those practice areas are experts in their area of law. I think this translates to a higher quality of legal service with less of the delay and additional fees associated with asking for a barrister’s opinion at every turn or researching matters that are well known to our specialists.

Scale also allows you to segment the work leaving the forensic and highly analytical work to our lawyers. This all leads to more satisfied staff and creates career opportunity for both lawyers and nonlawyers.

Scale enables us to deliver a more affordable legal service to our clients. We don’t want our clients to pay lawyer rates for work that can be performed by a nonlawyer, such as the myriad of phone calls and correspondence associated with getting all the relevant parties and materials in one location for a mediation.

Our job is to achieve the best possible outcome for client in an optimal time.

I used to tell my clients — I can speak to you as much or as little as you want to but that comes at a cost. I will focus my energies on the high end analytical and forensic legal work and my legal assistant will be responsible for the other specific duties. My clients then knew what to expect from the beginning and had some confidence that we had their interests at heart.

We are all motivated to get the best possible outcome for every client. This is what motivates everyone at Slater and Gordon.

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