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A centenary of suburban practice

News

Cite as: (2004) 78(10) LIJ, p. 26

Dandenong-based Macpherson + Kelley Lawyers joins an elite group of law firms when it enters its 100th year of operation this month.

The story of the firm that would become Macpherson + Kelley begins in a room at the long-closed Royal Hotel in Dandenong.

That is where local practitioner Jeffrey Macpherson first began practising on 4 October 1905 after buying out the practice of William Brocket.

The current day headquarters of Macpherson + Kelley, which enters its 100th year of continuous operation this month, is now a modern, multi-storey building overlooking Dandenong’s main shopping district.

It is, by any measure, a compelling success story that is rarely told in the suburbs.

It is about a firm that has grown from a single practitioner to a law firm with about 110 staff, including 15 partners and 40 lawyers. The firm also has three related businesses – a mortgage book that handles $330 million in clients’ funds, a recruitment agency and a migration agency.

The firm has been growing at a rate of about 20 per cent per annum with regard to fees and personnel over the past few years.

Its growth mirrors that of Dandenong, the suburb known as Melbourne’s second city.

Despite modern day practice making more and more demands in terms of technology, administration and legislation, the firm is finding that sometimes the old-fashioned way is best.

The firm’s managing partner Damian Paul told the LIJ that with centenary celebrations set to begin, the firm was returning to the original values instilled by Mr Macpherson and his partner Charles Kelley.

“These values were based on serving clients in the Dandenong region as well as possible”, Mr Paul said.

“We spent a lot of time and soul-searching trying to analyse what the firm was about and trying to decide what our purpose was.

“We decided that our purpose was the very one that Macpherson set the firm up with and that was to serve the region. As simple as that.

“We got to a point in the 1980s where the firm hadn’t necessarily lost its way, but it had gone down some other tracks.”

This was represented by the expansion of the firm beyond its traditional Dandenong home to the Melbourne central business district, Pakenham, Frankston and Koo Wee Rup.

The firm’s expansion during the 1970s and 1980s caused it to drift away slightly from its original values.

Macpherson + Kelley partner Bruce Fletcher recalls the advice that was given to him when he joined the firm as a first-year solicitor in 1967.

“First of all, within reason the client is always right.

“And the second thing was try to put yourself in the shoes of the client.

“If he is expecting a telephone call from you at 9am and he doesn’t get it then how is he going to feel? I noticed that as soon as I arrived here – the client is number one.”

At the same time as the firm expanded, Dandenong went through a period of unprecedented growth, which led to a significant change in the make-up of the region.

Gone were the vegetable and meat markets that typified the suburb in the first half of the century, replaced by large-scale manufacturing companies and an influx of people from culturally diverse backgrounds.

In the late 1920s there were 4000 people in the area now known as the City of Greater Dandenong. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2001 Census there are now almost 125,000 people in the region.

“Twenty years ago if you’d ask me, the statistics [on the percentage of the type of work the firm did] would say something like 20 to 30 per cent commercial and 70 to 80 per cent domestic.

“By domestic I mean family law, domestic conveyancing, personal injury, insurance work, wills and estates, crime – typical stuff that suburban firms do, with a smattering of commercial work.

“That’s reversed now. We’re 80 per cent commercial and 20 per cent domestic.”

Included in the firm’s client base are 50 subsidiaries of global companies based in Dandenong.

Mr Paul said this change in the type of work the firm is doing led it to cater more for commercial clients. In the past decade the firm has appointed four lawyers to provide advice on intellectual property issues, another four lawyers to provide advice on employment issues and three in the area of tax.

He said the firm has tried to bring to the region the breadth and depth of services that would normally be found in a city firm, but combined with the more friendly service of a suburban firm.

“What we try to do that is different is provide a better level of service. If a client phones up, chances are we are on his doorstop in five minutes.”

This more personal service is what Mr Paul calls the core value of the firm and to which he attributes its success. The personal service is also what differentiates it from its competitors, especially those in the city.

Mr Paul said when the firm sold itself to prospective clients it highlighted the client’s easy access to the firm’s personnel and services, quick response times, high level of service and lower costs.

He said the firm sold itself on the back of its down-to-earth approach, free of the “Rialto and chandeliers” image of its city rivals.

However, he admits that there was an increasing tension between the ability of a suburban firm to deliver intimate service with the need to run a profitable business.

“It is certainly a tension that needs to be balanced and one that we are trying to deal with, and have been dealing with for some time.”

There are other problems with being a suburban firm. The major one is attracting people away from large city firms and into suburban practice.

Mr Paul said he laughs when he reads about one large firm recruiting an entire team from a rival firm. He said it was extremely difficult for suburban firms to attract talented senior lawyers.

The solution for Macpherson + Kelley has been to develop its own talent.

“We very consciously recruit out of university as many, if not more, people than we need every year.

“Our articled clerk program of some 10 years now has meant that we have taken on at least six articled clerks a year even if we haven’t needed them.

“Probably eight or nine partners are a product of the articled clerk program.”

He said once young lawyers saw the business and career opportunities open to them at the firm they tended to commit themselves long-term.

Mr Paul is one of those, having started at the firm as an articled clerk in 1988 and becoming managing partner in 1997.

He will be proudly driving the firm’s year-long centenary celebrations. Appropriately, many of the events will be restricted to the firm’s clients, although one public event will be the launch of a book currently being written on the firm’s history.

Law Institute president Chris Dale said the success of Macpherson + Kelley was a “great achievement”.

“They have got a great deal to be proud of, particularly where you see the number of changes that have occurred in the law which has meant that law firms have come and gone or merged.

“They are a vibrant member of the legal community and we wish them well.”

The centenary will also place Macpherson + Kelley in a unique position in the region: it will become the first business in Dandenong to reach the 100-year mark. The previous longest-running business made it to 98 years.

Mr Paul has a simple explanation for the firm reaching its centenary.

“In 100 years the firm has never changed.

“It has always run under the same name. There’s been a few little murmurs along the way, but no significant bust-ups that have even gone close to threatening the firm.

“The one thing that I always gravitate back to [is] ... what comes first is the client.”

Jason Silverii

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