E20 - Business is IN service, not just FOR service - Juliette Ford, Farrar Gesini Dunn

Juliette Ford, a director at Farrar Gesini Dunn, a family law practice with offices in Canberra and Melbourne, shares her perspective of what it means to be a good corporate citizen. Contribution is a responsibility and a calling. It's part of the fabric of what makes up their business platform and approach. It's an integrated view of life, work, and making a difference.

We cover:

  • How environments support the values and culture of an organisation - including a swing!
  • Business has a two-way role in the community
  • The value of different in roles in collaborative leadership

Juliette will be a Table Host at the Edge of Leadership UnConference in Canberra March 28, 2017.


Zoë Routh: Hi, this is Zoë Routh, and today I'm here with Juliette Ford who's one of the directors at Farrar Gesini Dunn. I have to say a couple things before we get started with Juliette so that people have some context. I know this firm quite well because my husband is also a director so I have some good inside knowledge into how the firm operates and what it is interested in. Aside from that personal interest, I think FGD is quite a funky organisation and I love the people in it. We're going to find out a little more about that with Juliette today so welcome Juliette.

Juliette Ford: Thank you, Zoë, and thank you for the very kind introduction.

Zoë Routh: You're welcome. I've got to be kind, you guys work for my husband.

Juliette Ford: Work with.

Zoë Routh: Work with, that's right. What did I say? I didn't say work for, did I?

Juliette Ford: Something like that.

Zoë Routh: Oh my God.

Juliette Ford: It's okay.

Zoë Routh: Yeah, definitely work with. Work with. See, I'm blushing. Good thing this is on podcast. One of the things we should also say is that Juliette will also be a table host at the upcoming un-conference, The Edge of Leadership, where she will be hosting conversations with other like minded business people in the Canberra region around this topic of social agenda. Let's find out a little bit about your background. You've been a lawyer for a long time so tell us a little bit about your trajectory in the profession.

Juliette Ford: Sure. I have been practicing family law I suppose and being a lawyer since around, 1991 I think I was admitted or 92 and I did my degree at Monash in Melbourne so I'm a Melbourne girl growing up. The reason why I always did law was because I was interested in understanding how society worked and what sits behind how we operate on a day to day basis is something called the rule of law. Instead of rules that we all buy in to and the question is why do we buy in to those rules and why do we follow those rules? There's a whole lot of reasons for that. One is just, well, I'll get into trouble if I don't follow the rule and the other one sort of really goes in to the whole question of culture. What we all believe in and what we all think is important for us as a community because unless we do believe in those rules, there is no sense of community. That has informed a lot as to why I've continued to practice in law and being a lawyer. 

I would then say that when I finished my degree, the question was what area of law I practiced in. I was very mindful that there would be a lot of really good commercial lawyers and that I would be a really good commercial lawyer but my interest was more in people and in talking to people on a day to day basis because I really enjoy listening to their stories and then, in listening to their stories, seeing whether or not I can help them have a more positive narrative to that story arising out of, obviously in the world of family law, separating from their partner. The question for me then was I've got a certain skill set and a certain interest in people and where I really, I suppose, I can do my best work is where the law really intersects with a whole lot of other things going on in people's lives on a day to day basis and that's what really interests me.

I then found a pathway, indirectly, through a commercial practice in to practicing in family law. That's been really the guide for me throughout my practicing years. There was another beat to it which was purely personal - I wanted to be working in an area that was national so that I would have mobility as a young person so I could go anywhere and I could still be able to work in the area. There was another aspect to all of those relatively altruistic ideals I've just been talking through. Then the interesting thing for me was really trying to find the best place where where I was as a person intersected most authentically with how I wanted to practice. 

As a young lawyer I gave private practice a go and found it didn't actually address what might have been more philosophically where I was at and what I wanted to do so I left private practice and I up-sticks from Victoria and moved to Western Australia and I took on the position as the head family lawyer in the Aboriginal legal service in WA. That was probably one of the highlights of my career, the three years that I worked there. I was an incredibly inexperienced lawyer and when my boss gave me the job she told me that I was grossly inexperienced and probably lacked the skill to actually do the job but that she was going to give it to me anywhere and give me the supports around, which she did and she was a brilliant mentor throughout those early years of my career. 

When I look at my career now 20 years on I have dipped in and out of both the public sphere and the private sphere so I've worked in the Aboriginal legal service and it was a unique position and it allowed me to really drive family law for indigenous people throughout the whole of WA which was quite remarkable because for me the measure of success was actually indigenous people coming to a civil jurisdiction and seeking a court to help them in relation to their family, which when you think about the history of the treatment of indigenous people in this country and their experience of the law purely in a coercive space, to actually be able to effectively give them the courage and the belief that the rule of law would support them in a civil jurisdiction was probably what I considered the most successful thing that I did in my years there. 

That's really driven anything I do in practice is all about not necessarily result but insuring that the outcome is one that is reasonable, meaningful, that the system hasn't been abusive in itself by the way in which it operates and to achieve the best possible outcome for those particular people. I have done a lot of work in that community legal centre sector. In Victoria I worked at Saint Kilda on a voluntary basis. In WA I also worked at Sussex Street on a voluntary basis.

Zoë Routh: What's that?

Juliette Ford: That's a community legal centre similar to Saint Kilda and welfare rights and legal centre here in Canberra. Then I have also dipped back into the private sector so in WA I also was an associate at Dwyer Durack when I left ALS and when I came here to Canberra I made a very conscious decision not to go back into the public sector and to diversify out of family law for a while. I remember walking past the doors of FGD on the fifth floor at our previous building and deciding not to give them my CV because I was fairly confident they would give me a job. I was good value. I'm not overstating my skillset. It's just that I knew that the number of years of experience that I had and the kind of work that I'd done, that I was a useful employee and that they could pay me a certain salary and they would make a lot of money from me but I didn't want that. 

I took up a job with welfare rights and legal centre and worked with welfare rights for 12 months and grew to love administrative law and understanding the political intersect between social policy and how law works in that environment. It was a brilliant position. I probably would've gone down the administrative law path and left family law behind but for the fact that the guy whose job I was looking after decided to come back off parliament house and the gig he was doing up there and take up his position at welfare rights. I then segued into women's legal centre and I've done some teaching through ANU and then through my work with women's and ANU I found myself a plan for a position as a registrar at the family court. 

I took that position for probably roughly just under two years before Farrar Gesini Dunn approached me and I came and joined them in 2001. I was very surprised they gave me a job because if you looked at my CV I'd never lasted anywhere longer than three years before the boredom factor kicked in and I was off doing something else so I've been with them since. During that time we left GD. I've continued to do work with women's legal centre in Canberra. I don't do anything with welfare rights anymore and we do different things. One of my passions has been about bringing the rigour of your training in the private sector to the public sector so that the lawyers in the public sector are as good as and are as rigorous in their practice of the law as anyone in the private sector so that anyone receiving free advice doesn't feel like they've got a second class lawyer, that their lawyer is as good as the guy in the suit. 

Zoë Routh: Or girl in the suit.

Juliette Ford: Yeah, yeah.

Zoë Routh: From 2001 you've been at FGD and you became a partner shortly after or ...

Juliette Ford: Yeah, I became a partner in early 2003.

Zoë Routh: Okay.

Juliette Ford: Yep.

Zoë Routh: I'm interested in terms of when you take on that stewardship, that leadership role in an organisation like this, I know FGD has been very focused on developing a family friendly environment that supports women with young children in particular and has a really kind of different ethos and ethic when it comes to its people and its lifestyle for its staff. Can you tell us a little bit about that? 

Juliette Ford: Sure. It's interesting when people analyse our firm from the outside and identify those things as being different or unique because one of the real drivers for us as a firm is really to be authentic in what our core values are. That gets down to the people who you are in business with and the people you employ. When you then start devising what your core values are and why you exist and they then resonate with everybody in your organisation then what we do isn't unique or unusual for us or a point of difference. It just is who we are. 

The interesting question then is how come this firm owns those core values and other firms don't? That's probably where there's, which we won't talk about today but which I think is actually quite an interesting question. When we were looking at what our strategic plan should look like and then, in that, what our core values are, what our strategies are and why we exist, that was really then about coming up with something which resonated with everybody that was meaningful that was still recognising the reality that we're in private business and we exist for the purposes of obviously being able to pay our staff, look after people, that is our clients, but also to generate profit because that's the reality of a privately run organisation but to do so in a way which was sitting within what our core values are. 

The next challenge is, once you draft that document, that you live it and it doesn't become this dusty old thing that sits in the bottom of a drawer and everybody ignores it and gets on with what they think might be the case. For us, those core values really cross eight different areas. Now we know all the theories said you should only have five but as lawyers we couldn't go down to five so we decided we would live with eight. They included things such as innovative and dynamic. It included things such as a work environment which supports our lives and values women. It includes being such a success of the organisation and its future, absolute integrity and honesty, production of excellent work. What you hear in none of that is a measure of dollar but our thinking was if we did all of those things we would be successful by way of let's say your balance sheet and what your balance sheet looks like at the end of each financial year. 

What does that mean? For us, how that's translated in reality and what we do, that is our actions speaking louder than what's on this piece of paper, has translated to a work place which has a relatively unique space to it. It's activity-based. There is no overt hierarchy and it was all about the client. It was all about when somebody walks in this door they didn't get this big message that we the lawyers are really important and you're our client and aren't you lucky to be here but about welcoming you into our space, into what we consider our home. That then generated a whole lot of ideas about we now need to be more open. We need to move around. We need to share the spaces. We need to share the good spaces and the bad spaces. That creates a sense of collegiality and communication amongst us in the organisation. 

Zoë Routh: I think it's worth just describing the a little bit for the people listening because it is quite a unique environment and much has been made of the, it's not so new anymore. You've been here three years I think.

Juliette Ford: Two years. 

Zoë Routh: Two years.

Juliette Ford: Just over two years.

Zoë Routh: This office design that you've got, and it is activity based so that means people have got laptops and iPads and they can sit wherever they want and as soon as you walk up it's a very simple desk and then the doors open onto this beautiful kitchen and then the lounge room and the fake green lawn which is awesome.

Juliette Ford: The swing.

Zoë Routh: The swing, of course. There's a swing and it looks pretty relaxed and yet there's this edge of professionalism, too, and there's these little pod meeting rooms and then there's the engine room out the back where people can work around and get their work done but the meeting rooms for the clients are all around. As a visitor coming in you get a sense of calmness coming in here and a sense of you can relax here which is very different if you go into another corporate edge legal firm which is they're on the fifth floor and it's-

Juliette Ford: Important art work and big, big foyer with the tap tap tap of someone's heels across the floor and the quietness can be intimidating, particularly if you're popping in with a pram and little kids and thinking, "I don't fit here. How am I going to explain to my lawyer what my situation is," when that person is most anxious and stressed about their kids not making noise and interrupting all the important work that's going around. This place is all about giving the client a voice so the artwork on the walls here is our children's artwork, that is kids of people who work here. 

The space, it's not about cutting corners. There's a real difference between activity based and open plan. You have spaces which are dedicated to the kind of work you need to do and which respond to the different personalities of the people who work here. Introverts prefer to work in a quieter space. Extroverts love working with people. You have to respect that and also ensure and encourage people to up-skill so they feel comfortable in the spaces. It creates conversations. it creates collegiality and it really does send a clear message to both people who work here and the people who come here that we really try to live that part of our strategic plan. 

The professionalism, I'm always interested in hearing people talk about because it's been really about redefining what professional is about. We often talk here about, "Look, you don't have your certificates on the wall. You don't have your props. It's you. You have to project yourself by the way in which you dress, by the way in which you talk to people, by your demeanour because then you can compliment what looks like a relaxed environment. Really starting to put an edge on what professionalism is all about. When you achieve that and you achieve that well then you'll continue to be a relevant, modern, innovative legal practice which will continue to answer the needs of what the clients are asking for and hopefully then the success of the organisation going forward. 

You're talking about women. We often talk about why it is that we actually put the word women and not family or make it more gender neutral in those strategic plans is often a conversation that is raised. Often women raise it. The answer that I give people is that if I did neutralise it the conversation wouldn't be had but if I actually make a point about saying, "Well, this is about recognising that for the majority of women they take on more of a primary role in if not doing the work within the family, organising and running the business of the family." That then means we have a conversation about it here. Because people raise the question, you can then step through the door and start having a conversation about the role of women, the role of professional women, the whole having a career and continuing to take on the role that you wish to have in your relationships at home, whether that be with children, whether that be with your partner, whether it be anything that takes on a much broader spectrum because I really talk about employing the whole person and not the artificiality of the private public split. That's what that's about. 

Then here, everybody owns it. Everybody owns the proposition and it's about them keeping good people because we all know what the cost is of turnover. You lose an employee, costs you $100,000 easily.

Zoë Routh: As much as that?

Juliette Ford: Easily by way of retraining, the culture that walks out the door, the corporate knowledge that walks out the door, the reestablishing with a new person and people focus, training employment practices, upon the cost of someone going part time or going on parenting leave or any of those things and then coming back and having to accommodate those person's different hours. Look at what that person brings to our organisation by way of corporate knowledge. If you retain that person rather than that person then deciding it's all too hard then, A, you're going to attract more good people rather than just half the workforce so your pool of talent broadens up because people want to come and explore what you do and see whether it works for them. 

Zoë Routh: When we talk about, and you've kind of just alluded to it then, so supporting women, professional women who are the primary caregivers or family managers so the firm is very flexible in terms of allowing people to have extended maternity leave and then come back part time. Is that what you're talking about in terms of supporting women?

Juliette Ford: Yeah, that's part of it. It's all about recognising what's going on in a person's life so I'll gender neutralise it now. 

Zoë Routh: Sure.

Juliette Ford: Working out what's going on in a person's life and the workplace accommodating that in order to facilitate and support them to be very effective and efficient of what they do here. For instance, the flexibility in the workplace proposition, whether you work here or work at home, is a policy that we have here which applies to everybody, not just professional staff, that is your legal professional staff but your non-lawyer trained professional staff. It's not something just for this group. It's for everybody. We can accommodate that proposition very effectively because we've made this decision to be paperless, to be even in our treatment of everyone across the organisation because everyone's professional in different roles and different capacities. Some people will require different leave for different purposes and we look at that on a case by case basis. 

The conversation here starts to create a proposition which goes much broader than simply valuing what might be considered the role of women in a professional space because the other part of that value is all about the work environment which supports our lives. People are at different stages in their lives. Some people want it more income generate than others. Other people want to have more time off than others so it's actually about broadening that proposition about looking at the whole person. 

Zoë Routh: I'm interested in this social conscience that you and the firm has as well so not only taking that to looking after the whole person of the staff members and there's also what you contribute to the community and FGD has long been a supporter of different charities and different organisations. Can you tell us what kinds of things the firm has supported over the years?

Juliette Ford: Sure. We've supported a number of charities in Canberra and we've always made decisions for it to be very much a Canberra based proposition. In the past we've supported the Cancer Foundation.

Zoë Routh: The ACT Cancer Council.

Juliette Ford: Yes, thank you. We've supported Menslink and we continue to support Menslink and the work that it does. We also support currently the Tara Costigan Foundation and the work that it's done. They're three that come to the top of my mind. There have been others over time that have been with the organisation in one-off grants or subsidies or time that we would give to particular organisations and we've sponsored certain events during Law Week for the women's legal centre. We have sponsored and supported other organisations which are trying to raise money for particular Canberra based charities so for instance last week I was involved in the P 2 P squared international which is run by an accounting firm here in Canberra and we, all those businesses donate funds as an entry fee and the funds all go to an identified charity or two charities which are very much ACT based. There are different ways in which this organisation supports local charities in the ACT. 

Zoë Routh: Maybe it's a obvious question but I think it's worth asking. Why do that? As a company, why would you choose to support charities?

Juliette Ford: Part of our role in the Canberra community has got to be two ways. We have to, just as if I'm an individual living in my house, we as an organisation are a corporate citizen in the ACT and being a corporate citizen with the philosophy that we have. Our underlying reason for existence here, why we are in business is to help and empower people with compassion and innovation. That's our key phrase. That's written on the door on our Melbourne office in Melbourne. For every client that walks through the door, they see those words. We as a corporate citizen do that in two ways. One is how we operate on a day to day basis and the running of this business and how we look after our staff. The other bit of that is all about our role in the community. I'm being really careful about not using the words give back because it sounds as if it's something voluntary that we do. I actually see it as something that we must do. It's compulsory for us to be able to have that role in the community in order for us to be the kind of corporate citizen that we are. 

It's really interesting. One of my staff members on Friday just happened to say to me, "You know, it's fantastic that you guys are doing this." He was talking about ... something we had just done recently. It might have been either the tennis that we were involved in last week or it might be the work we're doing in the Tara Costigan Foundation or something like that. He made this comment to me, said, "You know, you guys are doing this and you don't have to because the big publicly listed companies are obliged to do this." There is a certain requirement for them to identify part of their budget being for social conscience, if you like. Whether or not, I don't know whether that's something they must do or not but obviously to look good out there it's an important thing to do. 

He just happened to make this observation. For two reasons, I thought that was brilliant. A, it was an employee of our organisation that just happened to think that about this firm and therefore his sense of loyalty to us would be greater because he's really proud to be part of this organisation just doing those things. Secondly, more importantly, we're actually acquitting on what I consider to be authentically what the role is of this organisation is in the community and that is to step into certain spaces and do certain work in certain spaces or volunteer our time in certain spaces or volunteer our solicitor's time in certain spaces in order to carry through some of the obvious things which are really important for this community, the Canberra community, to be and to continue to be the kind of community that it takes pride in. 

Zoë Routh: That's lovely. I love that whole notion of being a corporate citizen and what that actually means and that it's not a voluntary thing. It's incorporated into the DNA of the business at cost.

Juliette Ford: Social contract.

Zoë Routh: Social contract, yeah. That's lovely. Last question for you, what's your philosophy on leadership? Just an easy short question! 

Juliette Ford: The most effective leadership is when you're walking with people and not in front of people. For me, that's all about the team and about the team all being on the same page in relation to what we want to achieve at the end of the day. Within the team everyone takes on different roles and some of those roles can be more overt than other roles or more in the driving seat than other roles. So long as all of those roles compliment each other and are valued for what that role is then, and they're all buying into whatever might be divisionally for us why we exist or what our strategies or core values are, then that is then effective and successful leadership.

I'm always talking about people doing things which may be not necessarily what you want to do but which is really good for the success of the team. Leadership is really about people sharing with you and standing with you rather than you standing in front of them and telling them what they must do. Pure rule based compliance is the lowest form of success. When people own the rules, and you need to have them if they get bigger, and everyone in the organisation is owning the rules then everybody is compliant with the rules because they understand what's going on and what the values are behind those rules, then that's successful leadership. 

Zoë Routh: Fantastic. Juliette, thank you so much for your time this morning. I've enjoying hearing your story and your philosophy and what the firm is doing in terms of its social contract with the Canberra community and I'm really excited to have you as a table host at The Edge of Leadership un-conference. Some lucky people are going to get to spend the day with you so thank you so much. 

Juliette Ford: Thanks, Zoë. Thanks for the opportunity.