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Gina Cass-Gottlieb, Partner at Gilbert + Tobin, tells us about her approach to client management, flexibility and more

Gina Cass-Gottlieb, Partner at Gilbert + Tobin, was named Dealmaker of the Year at the Women in Law Awards 2017, and this year was named among the top 13 female lawyers globally in the Acritas Stars report. 

Here, she shares her approach to client management, discusses how flexibility works in her group, and offers insights on her longstanding career in law and building lasting client relationships.

Crowd & Co: Congratulations on receiving the most client nominations among the 13 women recognised in the Acritas Stars report. Can you tell us whether you have a particular approach to understanding client expectations and meeting them?

Gina Cass-Gottlieb: It's always in my mind, both on an individual level – in terms of the interaction with a particular client contact who is giving us the instructions and understanding the role they play within their organisation – and, secondly, understanding the client as a whole.

Often the client is a corporation and this second point is to understand the client in the context of the market or industry in which they're operating, and particularly to be across dynamic change in their market. That's a mixture of commercial change, technological change and disruption, and also regulatory change. 

For me, as a senior practitioner in competition law and regulatory practice, there is also so much change happening at the regulatory level. Both in terms of law reform but also proposals for policy change. So, understanding client expectations is not static.

Understanding the individual requirements and instructions for every piece of work is important. As is being able to respond quickly to understanding how those expectations speak to the client in their broader commercial and legal environment.

C&Co: Just 1,000 of the nominations out of the 8,000 total nominations for the Stars report were for women. Do you have any comments on how we can change that and what changes need to take place to improve the overall experience and profile of female lawyers?

GCG: Firstly, I think that it's important for firms, when we for instance set up things to interact with our clients or when we brief barristers, to take account of greater diversity in the makeup of our teams. We need to give women lawyers greater opportunities to work directly with clients.

Quite frequently, clients will have broader teams with people of differing levels of experience and responsibility in their team. You can give lawyers an opportunity to have direct contact and that means younger women have that opportunity where they're able to grow in their experience and improve their capability to understand clients and meet their expectations. Through that, we will increase those numbers. I think a large part of it is just much less access for clients to women members of teams. That follows also because there is still, in many areas of practice, fewer women lawyers at more senior levels. Where more client contact is happening at more senior levels when you just apply that straight out mathematical proposition, clients are going to be having less contact with women lawyers. If we introduce the contact earlier, when there are more women, and also of course they're going to continue to promote more women, then that will flow through.

In the competition and regulation team within our firm, we are two-thirds women at every level of seniority. Now, that is a very unusual profile. The firm has carefully thought through policies to support flexible arrangements. We do have in our group a majority of women, and some men, who are working on a flexible arrangement to match their work – which is direct, client-facing practice work – with family responsibilities. Part of it is the result of very practical policies in that way but it’s also a priority for us to keep addressing how to make that work.

It requires commitment and flexibility from everyone. You need to be much more cooperative and collaborative. You need to ensure information accessibility so that all members of the team, no matter where they're working from, are supported in that way. We've had a number of women at a senior level working flexibly and I have been personally very committed to it. It needs to be a priority for the practice to achieve it.

C&Co: Looking at your own career now, what has been the biggest factor in helping you grow your career?

GCG: Everything is on the table when it comes to flexibility. We have lawyers with responsibility working three days and four days. I'm not just talking about the important roles of business development and other professional support. I'm talking here about client-facing work. Many are working three days and four days. We had one lawyer who worked almost entirely in another city where we don’t have an office because that's where her family and children are based and are going to school. We have, as many places do, very good video conferencing and she would conference in from her laptop and we would speak face-to-face in meetings with her in our meeting room. Every two months or so, she would travel to the Sydney or Melbourne office to participate face-to-face but the usual working procedure was she was working from her home.

Now, that is one end of the spectrum. I'm not saying that's usual, there are others who would spend most of their part-time days in the office but at least one day working from home because of childcare responsibilities. We have quite a range of flexibility now and people use it. It's not just that it's available. People use it.

I don't want to present that it doesn’t take real commitment and at times be chaotic for either the individuals or for the team because things are always changing. Children get ill. Children have particular needs, of course. To offer that range of flexibility is continually putting a demand on the lawyers themselves who are using it and on other members of the team. But, we have decided it's something we have to achieve and we keep working on it.

C&Co: Looking at your own career now, what has been the biggest factor in helping you grow your career?

GCG: I think the first was that I have a strong interest in economics as well as law from my time studying at university and looked from the very beginning to be engaged in a practice that integrated both disciplines, which was why I looked for competition law opportunities. It meant, at the time that I entered I was very junior but I was the only woman who came into that sort of legal practice. All the others were at that time, as I recall, men.

I also brought a real understanding of and passion for economics to it and I think that it gave me both an interest but also an ability to add value – that was a differentiator. I think that was important and of assistance to me, and I've continued to have that focus in all my regulatory work.

Then, I was also fortunate to be engaged with a number of clients from early on who were very acquisitive and very bold in the transactions they were doing and where a key part of the creativity of what they were looking to achieve centred on arguments from a regulatory perspective. I was given an opportunity to be challenged and those opportunities always draw you out.

The third aspect I would refer to was at a pretty important time in my career, as a mid-level lawyer, when I had an opportunity to do a secondment. That secondment was to the legal department within the IBM Australia and New Zealand team. That secondment which was for a seven-month period, actually brought me – at a pretty important time for me, early on in my career – within a very capable internal legal team, and one that was operating as a global legal team within the corporation. That gave me an opportunity to understand how clients work from the inside, what the priorities are, and how your advice as a lawyer operates in a really practical way.

C&Co: Looking ahead, what you think will be the biggest challenge for lawyers?

GCG: I think the biggest challenge for lawyers going forward is to assist our clients, in the legal decisions and regulatory decisions that they take, to regain or to maintain the trust of consumers in the community, while at the same time meeting the expectations of their shareholders and employees as well. 

For many clients and industries, there is a challenge in maintaining that trust in view of their services and their commitment to customers while they must also meet the expectations of employees and also shareholders. Lawyers play an important role in advice about the stance to be taken and the approach to compliance. I think that's a challenge that lawyers face, particularly senior lawyers – standing shoulder to shoulder with the clients.

C&Co: Still looking ahead, what qualities do you think successful lawyers will need in the next decade?

GCG: Like always, being an extremely good listener with an open mind and being very responsive and, of course, technically excellent is important. In terms of what is changing, there is a greater and greater need to be analytically very capable. So, from understanding data analysis, what the trends of data analysis show, and to be flexible in seeing what's changing. In terms of skills, we are definitely seeing that the lawyers of today, let alone the future, need to have a data analytical capability and presentation capability that you would not have assumed was necessary. That’s definitely the case for competition and regulatory law, but I expect more broadly. It's being able to present trends and conclusions in a variety of different ways, so not just with text. It's being as open as the clients are to this and to train people, for instance, in an interactive fashion and to advise using all different sorts of communication platforms as well.

C&Co: Finally, is there one piece of technology that you use every day in your work and couldn’t live without?

GCG: The most obvious ones are those that enable fast communications, which is most often still happening with email from my perspective, but supplemented by different instant messaging-type services. I would add to that the ability, through VPNs to access documents from anywhere. To access them, revise them, send them on and work together with lawyer teams from anywhere is critical.

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