LAW LOVE STORIES Day 7: Axiom in Vancouver?!

Well, not exactly. But we've got an inspiring change-maker of our very own! Yesterday afternoon I had a coffee with Rob Miller, one of the founding partners of Miller Titerle LLP, a small (and growing!) law firm situated in Gastown, in our very own city of Vancouver.

From the beginning through to the end of our conversation, two things were clear: 1) Rob is a guy who is passionate about bringing change and innovation into the business of law; and 2) he, and the rest of the team at Miller Titerle, are actually doing it.

And what is it they are up to that’s so AMAZING?

There are so many things that I had a lot of trouble keeping this article to a reasonable length! But I did my best. And so, here are the highlights…

Miller Titerle maintains a principled approach and a socially conscious focus

They believe in “helping people do good things” and, despite not formally making this the firm tag line (although Rob tells me they seriously considered it), everything they do comes back to this principle. So much so that they have become a “gathering post” for socially responsible activities and organizations.

Also in accordance with this commitment, the focus of their practice areas include: First Nations community and economic development; responsible resource development and social licence; and commercial work for mission driven and socially responsible enterprises.

They are a team

Everyone at the firm is a contributing, valued member of the team. Associates, paralegals, and administrative support staff are engaged in firm business development discussions and empowered to assist in ways not common at the traditional law firm. For example, administrative staff and paralegals also assist in client development by engaging with the community at various events.

How their team benefits

The firm’s principled approach and unified vision benefits all members of its team in MANY ways.

They have an open office space that is conducive to SHARING IDEAS. The reason for this, Rob explained, is they believe that in the legal profession we have a great opportunity for the sharing of ideas of really smart people - including lawyers, paralegals, and administrative support staff – but that we usually don’t do enough talking, and so we end up with duplication and inefficiency (and I would add isolation). The open office space prevents this. It allows for much more DISCUSSION and COLLABORATION.

They believe in work / life integration – yes, integration, not balance. Rob’s view is that there is no bright line between work and life in our profession (and I would have to agree). "Professional brand = personal brand", he says, "so the only way to make it work for people is to ensure that our professional and personal values are consistent – we need to work with clients that we would want to be friends with".

All team members discuss with each other their personal goals for work and life. The environment they have created at Miller Titerle is conducive to all members sharing with each other their vision for the future. To this end, the firm actually went on a retreat where time was set aside for this discussion to happen. I have to elaborate a little on this one...

Rob explained that:

  • The firm wanted to maximize each team member’s happiness and productivity and to get clear on each team member’s personal goals and values, and so, they planned a firm retreat to Pender Island and did just that. A portion of the trip even included creating visionary flip charts – yes you read that right – visionary flip charts so each would be clear about the other team members’ visions for the future.

And they took the results of their discussions at the retreat seriously. For example, Rob told me that in the following months, they fired clients that didn’t mesh with the team’s personal and professional values and goals – to the tune of over 1/3 of their revenues (now that's commitment to values!).  In his mind, this was the only way to be true to the firm’s commitment to making personal and professional values align.

As the firm grows Rob hopes this type of open communication will ensure they continue to operate like a tight knit family, despite increased size.  

They offer flexible working arrangements (if you aren’t sure what I mean by this, check yesterday’s post) so that each team member can achieve their personal and professional goals. For example, Rob explained that someone who wanted to focus on their family may only work 800 hours a year whereas someone looking to save up for a mortgage may prefer to work 2000+. The choice is the individual team member’s, and their salary will simply be reflective of the degree to which the member is choosing to contribute.

And on that note, another SURPRISING and AWESOME thing Miller Titerle does is open book accounting – yes, that’s right associates, paralegals, and administrative staff can actually SEE the firm’s profit margins in black and white. And, not only that, every member of the team including paralegals and administrative staff participate in a bonus structure that lets them share in a percentage of the firm’s profits.  If the firm really wants everyone to feel and act like owners, Rob explains, then the firm needs to treat them like owners.

Other examples of how Miller Titerle supports the dreams of its team members include paying for continuing educational programs and professional development conferences, helping them achieve important milestones (by lending money for condo downpayments or to pay off old loans, for example), and involving administrative staff in client development, as described above. Finally, if a firm member is no longer happy at the firm or would like to pursue a different career path or dream, the firm offers a compensation package to assist them with the transition into the next stage of their careers.  According to Rob, “in order to provide value to our clients, we need to make sure that we have happy and productive members.  The last thing we want is someone hanging around just because they need the paycheque – they will be unhappy, we will be unhappy, and our clients will suffer.  We want people to be free to explore other options if our platform isn’t working for them.”

And - one more thing I have to share - as described in their January 2013 newsletter:

“In 2013, all members of our firm have been empowered to spend up to 10% of their time in the office developing procedures and products to provide better service or value to our clients. What will this result in? We have no idea! But we are excited and expect great things out of this program – from increased efficiency around the office to innovative new ways to deliver our service.”

AWESOME. I can’t wait to see what they dream up next either!

Technology, client benefits, and other amazing things

Rob explained that the firm is committed to value and innovation and that, on a practical front, they have sat down and discussed what it means to be a service provider.

They have experimented with different fee structures, including fixed fee arrangements, and offer different arrangements for different clients. They are upfront about the estimate of costs for a client’s project, the process that will be used, and what the client will likely get in the end. And recently, the firm has started offering a value guarantee – allowing clients to discount their own bills by 25% if they believe the value guaranteed was not met.  

The firm is also currently rolling-out a program that will allow clients to access their corporate records online. And additionally this year, the firm is working on developing a program directed at helping new startups get off the ground.  Their platform will allow entrepreneurs to incorporate and complete certain corporate structuring, organization, and basic corporate/commercial transactions – all online!  Their startup package offers incorporation, shareholder agreements, and early stage financing all at a low fixed cost. The point of these initiatives, Rob explained, is to provide exciting new businesses with cost predictability at the right price point to ensure that uncertainty and scope of legal fees, traditional hurdles for startups, are not barriers to success.

Two last points…

Despite having a physical office, the firm operates in the cloud at all times. Because the nature of the firm’s work often involves travel or working out of clients’ offices, finding a way to be mobile and still connected was crucial.

And... by controlling overhead (for example, by outsourcing legal research and other work to contract lawyers and paralegals who prefer to work from home) they are able to use revenues to more effectively do all of the awesome things described above, including more socially conscious work.

Ok, I promise I will stop!

I think you get the point: this firm is “not your Daddy’s firm”, as they say. It is clear to me that “value and innovation” are not just words to Miller Titerle. The firm has embraced these principles at its heart, and its transparency, innovation, and congruency of personal and professional values are truly inspiring.

I invite you to check out Miller Titerle’s website for more background on the firm, its practice areas, and the team that makes it up. I would also recommend checking out their 2013 Winter Update newsletter, if you want to learn more about some of awesome things I have described above.

So in conclusion, Axiom may not exist in Canada, but what Miller Titerle has and is creating is pretty AMAZING. I left the interview BELIEVING even more in the POSSIBILITY for all of us to do things differently in this profession and I hope you feel similarly inspired when you read this article.

And so, that concludes TYS’ series on real life LAW LOVE STORIES. I hope you enjoyed it, and that you BELIEVE a little more than you did before.

Here’s to each of us CREATING a LIFE we LOVE in LAW.