The Advocate: Interview on Different Approach called Open Door. What’s it all about?
SS: So who is Christopher Whitelaw, where do you come from and how do you come to be practising law in Burnie?
CW: I have to confess I am an import from NSW. I lived in Sydney for 35 years until I arrived here in December 2016. I was and am a barrister and mediator. I guess I was ready for a change and my life partner was too. Why here? Well there is a story behind it. My good friend Phil NaChampassak, who used to be in foreign affairs, owns the award-winning Madsen Boutique Hotel in Penguin. Sitting outside his Penguin home, with a view of Penguin beach, drinking fine cognac after a delicious meal cooked by Phil, he suggested it was time for me to get out of the big smoke and experience the charms of NW Tasmania and the peacefulness of Penguin. He eventually convinced me. I then convinced my partner. The die was cast by early 2016 and we swung into action.
SS: Did you come here with the intention of practising law and offering your mediator skills?
CW: Actually not – at least not right away. The first step was to set up a 4-star guest house in Penguin as an adjunct to and affiliated with the Madsen Boutique Hotel. Our research revealed an acute shortage of 4 star accommodation in this neck of the woods. As soon as we found a suitable property in Penguin to convert to approved visitor accommodation we committed to the plan. The plan was to spend a year establishing the guest house as a viable business before making any other decisions.
SS: So what happened?
CW: In the first year, together with the Madsen Boutique Hotel under the brand name “the Madsen Group”. we won two business and tourism excellence awards We learned all we could about this industry and about tourism in NW Tasmania. It was full on immersion. We also fell in love with NW Tasmania and Penguin in particular. We have had no regrets about our decision to move here. NW Tasmania is a paradise and we rave about it to everyone.
SS: So what happened after that first year?
CW: Once the guest house had achieved our initial goals for it, I decided to set up a legal practice and a mediation practice that would work in tandem and to do this in Burnie. My good friend Richard Ruddle, Principal of Kay & Ruddle Lawyers, gave me a great deal of support and so I moved into vacant office space right next door to his legal firm at 30 Cattley Street Burnie. My areas of legal practice are different to his, so we don’t compete. I have outfitted the office suite to make it suitable both for conducting a legal practice and a mediation practice. It has a large conference room to conduct mediation sessions in but with private rooms that can accommodate the different parties to the dispute when they need a break from the joint session into private spaces to talk and reach decisions as part of the negotiations.
SS: What’s different about you to other lawyers in Burnie and the North West? Tell me about this “Open Door” concept.
CW: I would love to. As a barrister in Sydney I greatly benefited from the Open Door concept in my early years at the Bar. The concept is applied by barristers in all the Commonwealth nations. When you come to the Bar, you are told that all other barristers’ doors are open to you as long as you don’t abuse the privilege. It can save a huge amount of wasted time barking up the wrong tree. It is all about seeking early guidance and direction from more experienced barristers. Time is often of the essence in the law and you can’t charge a client for time spent learning some aspect of the law as you are meant to be an expert. You might spend many hours trying to find the guidance you are looking for by going to the law library, when using Open Door might quickly point you in the right direction.
SS: So how do you offer Open Door here in Burnie?
CW: My focus now is primarily business owners in NW Tasmania. My law firm, Whitelaw Legal Group (www.whitelawlegalgroup.com.au) and my Dispute Resolution business, TasDisputesCentre (www.tasdisputescentre.com.au) aim to become the first place any business owner will take their legal or dispute issues to. Open Door is what we now offer to those business owners.
SS: How is Open Door a better proposition for these business owners?
CW: In short, because it is user friendly and avoids all the things that most people, including business owners, don’t like about lawyers and which makes them hesitant to go see a lawyer.
SS: What makes them shy away?
CW: Research done by a number of Small Business Commissions and Ombudsman has found that a large percentage of small business owners identify the following as the risks of seeing a lawyer
- Too expensive
- No guarantee of value for money spent
- Lawyer leading them down a path that isn’t in their best commercial interest
- Getting bogged down in expensive litigation.
SS: So how does Open Door avoid these risks?
CW: Open Door provides a combination of things to the customer that most law firms don’t offer, and which in my view makes a world of difference.
- We don’t charge a cent for our time unless and until we can produce an action blueprint that meets the customer’s approval and is accepted by the customer
- We will spend as much time as necessary with a potential client, at no cost, to evaluate the customer’s needs and to work out the best options to meet those needs and discuss each of those options pros and cons to identify the best one for that customer taking into account arrange of factors such as commercial interests, the applicable law, the factual circumstances as best we can ascertain them and the financial requirements to pursue each option and any financial constraints of the customer
- We do not engage in time charges. Most law firms will invoice their clients based on a time costing method. The most prevalent method is applying 6- minute increments to each and every action taken on a client’s file whether it be phone call, conference, writing a letter of whatever. Even if the time expended is 2 minutes, the lawyer will still charge the minimum fee based on 6 minutes.
SS: What is wrong with that way of charging?
CW: This adds up over time and rewards lazy lawyers who take too long to complete each action. They make the client pay for this laziness or lack of efficiency. We don’t do that. Before we start work, we form a view of what the job will require from us and of the fair and reasonable cost of each stage of work we do for a client and we then quote a fixed fee for each stage of work. This gives our clients certainty about the cost of engaging our services. The fee we quote is based on our experience in that area of work and on our ability to do the work in the shortage possible time. We build efficiency into our billing, and if it takes longer to complete the work that we anticipated we stick to our quoted fee.
SS: What else differentiates you from other lawyers?
CW: We are prepared to back up our work with a value guarantee. The value guarantee ties in with our blueprint that is accepted by the client before we start work. That blueprint is made part of the cost agreement signed by the client. We are very clear about the minimum value and results we must deliver to justify our fees.
SS: Anything else?
CW: Open Door is about building a long-term relationship with each client. It is about getting to know each other well enough that our client sees us as part of their team to achieve their goals and aspirations. That means we need to be easily accessible and approachable. It really means the client can contact us 24/7 when the client needs us. Once a client of ours, you never need to make a formal appointment. We will take your calls and respond to your needs when and as they arise. In essence, we are “ on tap” whenever needed by a client. For those who aren’t yet a client, we are happy to give free up-front guidance and direction but not formal legal advice.
SS: To finish off can you outline the different ways in which your services might benefit the business owner?
CW: Of course. The essence of what we do is problem solving and assisting our clients to achieve their business goals with minimum disruption and interference.
SS: What sort of problems?
CW: How long is a piece of string? In business problems that might benefit from engaging our services come from many different sources, but here are some common ones
- Avoiding bad contracts
- Creating good contracts
- Ensuring compliance with State and Federal laws and regulations
- Consumer complaints
- Creating and protecting intellectual property
- Cyber risks and security
- Employment contracts and disputes
- Business to Business deals, joint ventures, partnerships etc.
- Internal disputes
- Business to business disputes
- Corporations law and compliance
- Electronic information protection
- Directors duties
- Internal policies and procedures to minimise disputes
SS: That is certainly a broad area of services.
CW: Yes it is; but in broad terms it is about risk management and prevention via strong internal policies and sound contracts, compliance and effective dispute avoidance and management.
SS: How does TasDisputesCentre fit into the scheme of things?
CW: There are many commercial disputes that can be effectively managed and resolved by TasDisputesCentre that do not require the provision of legal services. The easiest way to explore and understand this is by a visit to its website.
SS: Thank you Chris.
CW: Thank you Sophie. A New Lawyer in Town -A Whole Different Approach – Itʼs called Open Door. Whatʼs it all about? An informative Interview with Sophie Siggins.