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Danny Gilbert – A Firm that Matters

This Next Normal Leadership series podcast features Elevate’s Chairman and CEO, Liam Brown, talking with Danny Gilbert, the Managing Partner of Gilbert + Tobin. Gilbert + Tobin is a firm of over…

An Influencer – Giving Back

This Next Normal Leadership series podcast features Elevate’s Chairman and CEO,  Liam Brown, talking with Danny Gilbert, the Managing Partner of Gilbert + Tobin.  Gilbert + Tobin is a firm of over 830 persons with offices in Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth.

During this surprising episode, Liam and Danny cover BIG topics in a quick 20 minutes.   Including leading during challenging and changing times,  the need to embrace change – specifically technology, and meeting and exceeding expectations – as a leader with a viewpoint, a provider of solutions  – and a contributing member of the greater community.

‘You have to be on top of the technological changes and the new software systems that are going to become available across everything we do, and there’s probably very little we do that can’t be automated’  – Danny Gilbert.

Episode highlights include:

  • [01:01] – The beginning, the middle, and G+T today… one of Australia’s leading corporate law firms
  • [02:47] – A firm that matters, an influencer firm…
  • [06:35] – For a society to work, all of the constituent elements of that society need to step up…
  • [10:15] – As a leader, you have to have a view that is carefully thought about and expressed
  • [13:41] – Danny is feeling both prepared and optimistic
  • [14:28] – Technology enables complex work – and increases expectations around capacity and delivery
  • [18:15] – You need to be on top of technological changes… if automation is going to take the expense out of the business, then clients expect you do that
  • [19:15] – Meeting the expectations of colleagues and clients while running a business … profitability and financial strength are incredibly important


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Podcast Transcript

Note: This transcript has been adjusted to improve readability. Transcripts are generated using speech recognition software and human transcribers. The context and more than 95% of the actual transcript have been preserved.  We strongly encourage our listeners to listen to the audio.


Nicole Giantonio: Hello, this is Nicole Giantonio, the Head of Global Marketing at Elevate. The podcast episode you’re about to hear is part of our Next Normal Leadership Series, featuring Elevate’s Chairman and CEO Liam Brown, talking with Danny Gilbert, the managing partner of Gilbert + Tobin. Gilbert + Tobin is a firm of over 830 persons with offices in Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth committed to both excellence and corporate citizenship. During this episode, Liam and Danny discuss leadership during challenging times, leadership consistency over time, and the business challenges that need consistent focus, specifically profitability and financial strength.

Liam Brown: Danny, thank you for joining me to talk today. Would you introduce the firm, yourself, and how you ended up running the firm today?

Danny Gilbert: With another fellow, Tony Tobin; we started the firm 33 years ago in January. We’d both been partners in an old established firm in Sydney; it’s now a part of the international Norton Rose group. We decided that we wanted to break out and do something on our own. When we started in 1988, the economy wasn’t that great. We didn’t know how it would go, but we just thought that we would start, see what work we could attract, and build from there. At the end of the first year, we had about four lawyers working for us, and today they’re about 830 or 840 people in the firm.

In the first ten years of the firm, we strategically decided to focus on technology, telecommunications, and media. And we became known as a boutique for the first 10, 12 years of the firm. I decided to change all of that at around the time of the tech wreck in the early 2000s and build an institutional, corporate firm and take on the establishment, large firms, many of whom had been around more than 100 years. Quite controversial at the time. We lost a few partners who believed that it wouldn’t work, we wouldn’t be able to take any work from them, and we wouldn’t be able to meet them face-to-face in the street as a first-tier competitor.

Those nay-sayers have proven to be wrong. The firm is now one of the countries leading corporate law firms. From the get-go, I was always very concerned and determined that we would build not only a firm of the highest professional standards but a firm that would be a strong, if not outstanding corporate citizen. I have expressed that through the support for different organizations, and more fundamentally, around our pro bono practice. The emphasis on our pro bono practice – a great passion of mine now for the last 30 years – has been the advancement of Indigenous Australians, Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people, to try to correct the deficits that have bedeviled their lives since the country was settled 100-130 years ago. We’ve also done things like support the Centre for Public Law at the University of New South Wales, probably the leading public law think tank in the country, one of the world’s leaders. So we’ve tried to be a firm that matters, not just in the work we do but also as an influencer. As a result, I’ve had a fairly privileged position. I serve on the Business Council of Australia’s board, and I’ve served in many different corporate and not-for-profit roles over the years.

So we’ve tried to be a firm that matters, not just in the work we do but also as an influencer.

Danny Gilbert

LB: Thank you, Danny. You started back in the late 80s, which was the beginning of my career. There were some tough years there. So what gave you that confidence to transform the firm? And perhaps, maybe it was confidence you had to find in yourself first to start the firm.

DG: A bit of that. Every year, you see what you’ve achieved in the year gone; it builds your confidence to take on the next challenge. As we were doing that, and I observed the other major firms’ strengths and weaknesses, I took the view; there was no reason why we can’t do this. I suppose I’m fundamentally a builder and a risk-taker, and I was excited by the challenge of it. I was not interested in just coming to work, having a few clients, and doing a good job. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, that’s completely laudable. But it wasn’t my shtick, I wanted to leave a mark, and I still do.

LB: I like the term, a firm that matters. We’re talking about in society today, and younger colleagues bring that to work. And in some ways, people say or act as that’s new. I’m sure that that is something that you guys have thought about for generations. Why did you want to build that into the firm from the very beginning? And how do you feel as you bring on younger professionals? How do you ensure that that continues to be at the core of the firm?

DG: I wanted it to be about more than just me or the partners. I mean, I have, throughout my professional life, been somebody who wanted to give something back to the community in which I live and which has given me sort of the privilege that I have. I’ve always thought that that was an obligation of professionalism and a personal commitment that comes a bit from my religious background as well, I’d say.

LB: One of the things that we talk about at Elevate is bringing your whole self to work; you just touched on a belief.  I think that’s something that many people are uncomfortable with.

DG: You always feel a bit uncomfortable about it. I agree with you; I don’t think it’s particularly new, but I believe its expression has faced barriers in the past. I think it’s been the focus on shareholder return and the primacy of that above everything in the corporate world. All those dynamics have changed for a whole range of reasons: the global financial crisis, regulator’s growth, the failings in many respects of our democratic process. People are looking for more, and they want more people to step up. And I think there’s a stronger understanding that you can’t just look to one or two institutions because most of them have failed in some respects and have their wards and challenges.

To make a society work, all of the constituent elements of that society have to step up. And of course, the rule of law is an important one and access to justice and these sorts of things. And that’s more out there than it once was. Young people, I think, have identified that and want to be associated with organizations that bring care and capacity to make a difference to what they do, mind you, there is some tension around that. Of course, to build what I’ve build requires hard work, and at the moment, there’s a pushback against that. That’s coming from young people who want to live a different life. I think that’s a challenge that we have yet to answer. Maybe the answer sits somewhere within the COVID crisis in that it has afforded people perhaps a better balance to their lives, spending more time at home, and that’s not something that I think is completely good either. Time will tell.

LB: Let’s talk about that a bit more. Even though our professional worlds overlap, we don’t know each other, and I work with many professionals who have chosen an untraditional path. Many of them bring non-traditional ways of thinking to a legal business, requiring me to navigate these tensions. In navigating the tensions, I find that welcoming, bringing your whole self to work.  We have an initiative called Workplace of the Future where we talk about what the professional world will look like over the coming years. We have a weekly pulse check-in, so we get a sense of how people feel. You touched earlier that it is no longer merely shareholder or capital owner supremacy; there are many stakeholders that we need to balance.  I find myself sometimes really working hard supporting the company’s structures or, in your case, a firm and not getting too drawn into deciding where to fall on anyone matter on that sliding scale of where the tensions are.

It’s almost creating the system that allows these tensions to exist, and that creates an emergent company rather than to be the decider of what we’ll allow or not allow. I’m not going to make a decision about whether or not people choose to work from home or the hours that people work. I’m quite careful to provide an environment where people can discuss and come to the best outcome as a community. So I’m interested to know, as the leader of a legal business a little further along, as you look back on your journey, how do you manage or feel about these tensions, both within the firm and then perhaps within the border of liberal social democracy?

You touched earlier that it is no longer merely shareholder or capital owner supremacy; there are many stakeholders that we need to balance.

liam brown

DG: You’re right, in a general sense, you can’t intervene and seek to resolve every point of tension, and you need to let other people resolve those issues, sometimes it’s just not a good expenditure of your time, and sometimes other people need to get on with things and develop their own leadership and their own solutions to things. But there are peaks of behaviors and outcomes in that description that can’t be left unattended and may need to be ameliorated by a leader. So you might not care whether people work from home or not in an instant, but you do care in an overall sense of what it’s going to do to the organization’s culture and the firm’s future.

So ultimately, you have to have a view, and that view has to be capable of being carefully thought about and expressed, and I don’t think you need to rush into these things. And when there are changes, a force that you can’t completely control, you need to observe and let the thing flow. I think it’s too early to say what the future of work might look like. I think it’s healthy to have the discussions, but we can sit back and watch and have our views about it. That’s just one example. I’m a great believer in leaving things to all the organics, the dynamic of the people who come to work every day to sort out, and I try to resist too much top-down process, although, in this day and age, you do have to have policies around the whole range of issues. We were a firm in the ’90s that was fairly chaotic, and I think we thrived on that chaos and into the 2000s. But times have changed, and you have to adapt. We can’t be that organized chaos that we were.

We were a firm in the ’90s that was fairly chaotic, and I think we thrived on that chaos and into the 2000s. But times have changed, and you have to adapt. We can’t be that organized chaos that we were.

Danny Gilbert

LB: I think it’s a real challenge now, Danny. We are navigating the healthcare crisis. We’re navigating the economic crisis, social justice problems, and crises associated with inequities. As a leader, I am thinking about how we do this sustainably, pointing towards something that people can choose to be part of? And I try not to be drawn on picking sides in these issues. I’ve got my personal views, strong personal beliefs about these issues. Going back to society’s institutions and the versions of that inside a firm or an organization or a company, I think it’s healthy to have tensions and a kind of interlocking system of policy leadership or even different points of view. That energy needs to be managed in some way to lead towards a shared future that people choose.

DG: I suppose people would be surprised if they thought that I agreed with what you said. I’d have some empathy with that view. Still, I think it is the role of a leader to have a view and express their view and have clarity about where they want the business to be or look like, how people are to behave in it, and the issues of concern. There’s probably some tension between the two and timing is everything when you bring these views to the table, but I think you need to have them. People here expect that I’ll have views about things, that I’ll have clarity. If you don’t, I think you risk not seen to be a strong leader. In uncertain times, you want your people to feel that you are a strong, if not visionary leader.

LB: I think that’s interesting because leaders are always questioning their development and progress and the impostor syndrome. And how did I end up here? If you look at your firms’ future, with the benefit and legacy of that history, how prepared do you feel and what kinds of things you think we should be preparing for this next normal, and what the future of a firm can be?

DG: Well, I feel pretty prepared and very optimistic. I’m an optimistic person by nature, but it is highly, if not completely, dependent for the immediate term on the economy. How we will fare and the decisions we will have to make will depend on the economy and how that part of the market that we serve thrives. If there is going to be great economic damage to the Australian economy and the international economy. You think about the future, that has to factor into your thinking. It’s the overwhelming anxiety or challenges any firm is wondering about – is that going to kick in, how are we going to cope with it, how are we going to look after our people? Is there going to be enough work coming from our clients, etcetera?

If we had this interview this time last year, I would have felt very confident about the future and our capacity to meet those challenges. Many observers say that the challenges presented by this pandemic is simply to bring forward challenges that you would have had to meet anyway: challenges around flexible working, people working from home, the challenge of technology, how do you empower people in the new world, how do you meet the more diverse needs of your workforce, how do you meet the demands of clients at that part of the market who still demand seven days a week attention to their affairs and transactions. We do complex work in everything we do, which is very time-consuming and demanding of consistent hours, and technology is simply an enabler of that. Technology doesn’t reduce that pressure; if anything, it creates more because the expectations around capacity and delivery are simply escalated by whatever technology facilitates.

LB: I see that. I had an interesting experiment with two of our financial services customers. We ran a program where we agreed on some guidelines with our customers – I know we’re in a slightly different business. We agreed with one of those financial institutions that if you send your team messages after, I think, 6:00 PM, we would not respond to them until 8 o’clock or 9 o’clock the following morning as a kind of guideline between us unless there was a kind of asterisk of, “This is urgent.” With the other financial institution, we didn’t do that.

What was fascinating was that by actively engaging in that conversation with the customer, they were more mindful and didn’t just assume that we were on 24/7. I bring this up because I was in a meeting with the managing partners in New York, considered to be peers, and one of the conversations was that this is not just a problem for law firm managing partners to solve. And it’s also not appropriate for the general counsel to make this be a problem only for managing partners to solve. It is a shared responsibility that we need to agree on. The point that you’re making is that in the advice of law, it is a 24/7 world, and some demands are real that are around the clock, and unless you’re mindful and have some shared agreement with clients on it, you could end up just working all the time with the technologies that we have available.

DG: You make a good point; maybe the future will see one of those conversations with your clients and some better understanding. We’re struggling to see it; you’d have to have a similar understanding with the regulators when we receive notice to reduce thousands if not millions of documents within short order. You’d have to have a similar conversation with the courts, and you’d have to have similar conversations with the bankers who aren’t really built that way. It depends on your clients’ nature, and where you sit in the ecosystem.  We have positioned the firm, addressing those things that you just mentioned, as something that perhaps could be done. If you overlay that with intense competition, there’d be many firms that would be very worried about having that conversation with a client because the people down the road would say, “Well, that’s absolute rubbish, we’ll deliver what you want when you want it, no matter what.” And the clients are always going to like that.

LB: I tell you, Danny, it was interesting between the financial institution clients and the managing partners, and it was quite clear that I touched the third rail.

If you could speak to the 20-year younger version of yourself, and you think about the leaders that you work with now, what would be the advice that you would give the 20-year younger, Danny, that perhaps you might share with the next level of leaders coming through in your firm?

DG: You have to be on top of the technological changes and the new software systems that will become available across everything we do. There’s probably very little that we do that can’t be automated. And if that automation will mean taking expense out of business, clients will expect that you do that. Large law firms won’t have the same number of people doing the same jobs, and they will have different expertise. Some of those people will be as important to the firm as the best partners, that you’ll have you change the partners and the firm’s thinking and build that into the psyche of the organization to be flexible and adaptable.  In 10 years, these firms won’t look a lot like they do now, and how do you transition to your new normal and treat people properly and give people the opportunity to be a part of that?

I think that’s quite a challenge; of being aligned with the lifestyle expectations of people wanting to work from home and the expectations of clients – that you’re going to be culturally aligned with them, have the same views about the communities and environment you work in. In that case, it’s a number of different challenges that we need to think about that one time we would not have had to. And you have to be running a business on top of all of that. I think that profitability and financial strength is incredibly important and will become more so. You can’t meet all of those challenges, attract the best people, get the best partners and pay them what they can get in the market unless you are a very profitable, fairly reasonably hard-nosed kind of organization. Managing all of those things and talking to people about them, communicating about them, and bringing everybody with you, is a big challenge for the future.

LB: That really resonates with me. When you talk to the owner about your own personal style, Danny, about having a point of view about the future, it’s very important to face reality. It’s almost de rigueur right now to sweep that away. For any of us who have lived through multiple recessions, I think the economic environment has really shone a spotlight on – that as the oil in our company.

DG: It’s the number one priority is to keep the business strong and safe.

LB: Interesting answers. Thank you very much.

DG: Thank you very much, always.

About the Author(s)

The host of this interview is Elevate’s Chairman and CEO, Liam Brown, talking with Danny Gilbert, the Managing Partner of Gilbert + Tobin.

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