Interview | Ugur Nedim (Sydney Criminal Lawyers)

Wearing it on the sleeve

Author: Edwin Montoya Zorrilla (TLF NSW)

Law firms generally take a highly guarded approach to any form of political expression. Beyond the occasional submission to a public inquiry, law firms will rarely put out political statements. From a commercial perspective, it makes sense to be judged by your ability to deliver results for clients rather than the views you hold, and to avoid alienating clients who might disagree. From an institutional perspective, this might be seen as a reflection of the impartiality courts purport to hold.

This does not mean that the interests of law firms are not aligned with political parties. Last year, the Australian Financial Review surveyed the donor disclosures published by the Australian Electoral Commission to find that several firms had made donations in the year 2015-16. Maurice Blackburn donating $49,000 to the Labor party was unsurprising; after all, this has been their policy for decades and is in line with their stated support of workers’ rights. There were some more surprising inclusions, namely Holding Redlich’s $92,700 courtship of the Labor party at several levels. Norton Rose Fulbright, in contrast, spend about $22,000 on donations to the Liberal party. More saliently, law firms throughout Australian history have been at the other end of the revolving door of career politicians- Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop and Julia Gillard being the most recent and high-profile examples of this trend.

Big commercial firms do, after all, share the interests of their clients in financial and regulatory conditions that ensure a market full of investment, new contracts, and mergers and acquisitions, interests that are political insofar as such conditions generate winners and losers across society. One must only look at the divisions being exposed and created by the property bubble. However, it is also the formal role of firms to advocate on behalf of their clients without appealing to a particular agenda, but rather by formulating arguments that appeal to the interests of the legal system or regulatory consensus. In this environment, there are clear disincentives for lawyers to be seen as outspoken or closely associated with the agendas of certain interest groups.

Yet the status of opinion and discourse in society today is such that any claims to common values or rights, any media representations or even objective facts are heavily contested on ideological grounds. It is inevitable that some form of politics will erupt through any set of social relations. In the legal profession, what is known as “law firm politics” is never too far from politics in the broader sense. Recruitment practices are increasingly being evaluated on the basis of the levels of diversity they create. Progression through a law firm invokes questions of intergenerational politics, and in some instances, sexual politics. Billing practices invokes questions of access to justice and rights in the workplace. Increasing media exposure and outreach puts lawyers in the court of public opinion.

Much of the work of The Legal Forecast is about encouraging those entering or within the legal profession to be proactive, rather than reactive, about such questions. On a Monday afternoon, I entered the offices of Sydney Criminal Lawyers. After only one email expressing interest in speaking to someone from the company, I was asked if I would like to interview Ugur Nedim, the principal of the firm. This is a firm that entered my radar, like those of many of its clients, through social media. As Ugur told me, for the last fifteen years the company has maintained a strong online presence, and this has placed it in the middle of several important conversations. Criminal law is not my area, but it was my guess that the personal stakes and the range of cases lawyers deal with would generate broad discussions and a range of viewpoints. His interview, which he encouraged me to publish in full where possible, revealed much about what lawyers do and don’t openly discuss.

Could you please tell me a little bit about who you are and what makes you tick as a criminal defence lawyer?

I started back in 1998 as a criminal defence lawyer but before that I worked casually about five or six years as a clerk in a firm, once or twice a week, that had mainly criminal law but also some general practice. I quickly saw that I wanted to do crime so after I graduated I began looking for criminal law jobs and after some time I found a job in a specialised criminal office.

Working in criminal defence for the firm, I tried to get cases finished in a timely fashion. I was very keen and I worked very hard, very long hours. But after a while with the practice, I got the impression that it was more to do with the money rather than trying to get good results for people. I was pulled up by my principal when I had cases withdrawn because, of course, once the case gets dropped the firm doesn’t make any money from it and I think that’s a short-sighted view. If you want to have a practice that’s successful and you know does the right thing and gets a good reputation, you need to get the results done in a timely manner and for a price that’s reasonable rather than trying to drag cases from court date to court date and doing very little in between. Historically, criminal lawyers have been known to push cases to a defended hearing in the local or district court or a jury trial in a higher court. Some of these cases should never reach those stages. Lawyers should try to negotiate with the other side to have such cases withdrawn.

Soon, I started wanting to open my own place which was focused on client satisfaction, getting results and getting the cases finished in a timely manner, rather than just turning cases over and getting as much money as you can from people. So that was my focus from when we started as Nedim Lawyers- Criminal Defence Specialists to later, when it became Sydney Criminal Lawyers. In my view, a person runs a criminal law firm should be looking at the firm in the long term, that is, developing a good reputation- getting good referrals from people who are happy about the outcome in their cases. And that comes through doing high quality legal work, rather than focusing on billing, billing, billing.

Where I came from was a background of seeing from the inside how criminal law firms work and trying to do things a little differently. When I first created a website at the end of 2001 very few firms had websites back then and now all firms have websites. In 2004, I published fixed fees, which no other criminal law firm had done. Others in the profession, including my former boss, weren’t happy because I was putting out there a certain price for a certain type of job and they saw as undercutting others, whereas I saw it as financial transparency. If you’ve got a criminal law case, traditionally the lawyer would sit down with the client and try to suss out how much money they can pay and give an estimate accordingly.

Nowadays, other firms also publish fixed fees for certain areas of criminal law, and I think that’s a good thing. Today, we include many other things on our Sydney Criminal Law website including many blog posts every week and we also run a NSW courts website and a number of other websites to give information to members of the public. The goal is, in my view, sharing legal information, having people know that you are trustworthy law firm, having people come to your law firm and doing the best job you can in every single case that’s going to get you good reviews it’s going to get you a good reputation and it’s going to really make you feel good at the end of the day.

I want you to elaborate a bit more on other ways that criminal law practice may have changed since you started back in the early 90s, and also what hints law students should take from that if they’re interested in going into this profession.

I think it has changed with the advent of various websites, especially with Facebook, social media, Google reviews, thankfully, firms are becoming more client oriented rather than before. Where before, if a firm didn’t do a good job for a client, they may have a upset client who will speak badly of them to a few people, now anyone can get on to Facebook or Google and really have a voice. And I think that’s a very, very valuable and positive and good check on law firms.

It’s also changing the way that students enter the criminal law. I think it’s a good idea to do your research before you apply at a particular firm or particular firms. You can get an idea of how reputable the firm is and their internal billing systems just by doing Google searches, or even on seek by reading comments from former employees.

If you are just coming into the law you might find that if you do work in a general practice, the area that you are drawn to may be different from the area that you thought you would have been drawn to. So for example someone might think that they like criminal law and they find that family law gives them the chance to do the best for children or they might find they might like certain aspects of civil or criminal law or even conveyancing.

I think it’s important to get some initial exposure to different areas to see what you actually like in practice, rather than in theory through law school.

The Sydney Criminal Lawyers blog has recently had articles, on discrimination on the grounds of sexuality on the need for a treaty with indigenous people and the media ratchet regarding the Sudanese crime wave. In the past you’ve interviewed indigenous activist Gary Foley and you also interviewed formal High Court Judge Michael Kirby. What is the vision behind being vocal on these kinds of issues and why do you think such figures would say yes to getting interviewed by a criminal law firm?

That’s a good question. I think that the mainstream media sensationalises issues a lot of the time and ignores a lot of very important issues a lot of the time. You mentioned the so-called Sudanese crime wave. You don’t really see in the mainstream media much scrutiny on the reports about whether that is correct or not, whether it’s fact or fiction. And, you know, when you read The Daily Telegraph, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 and 9 News, and all you tend to see is a clip of some Sudanese-looking young people running around, then you wouldn’t see that it was perhaps a different nationality of people actually just running around or something. I think it’s important to have the statistics and the proper research put out there to the public. That’s what we’ve tried to do in terms of keeping a check on media sensationalism and hysteria which politicians often try to capitalized on for votes or popularity.

In terms of interviewing people- people like Michael Kirby and indigenous former magistrate Pat O’Shane have a great amount of experience and insight in the criminal justice system. I believe their views on the criminal justice system and on how society should operate generally should be out there and they should be out there verbatim, rather than in the form of extracts.

And in terms of doing these articles on matters which such as racism and sexism in the criminal justice system and so on, I think it’s important to set the record straight in that regard, rather than to just look at things that are on the mainstream media.

Have you ever directly or indirectly received some pushback on the kind of post the firm has made given that they have some political dimension?

We receive a hell of a lot of inbox messages and posts or comments on our posts with negative commentary from people who disagree with what we’re writing and that’s especially in terms of people from nationalist perspectives and people who believe what the mainstream media are saying. And that’s just part and parcel of being out there, we don’t expect everyone to agree with everything we’re saying. Especially some of the posts that we put out there exposing police corruption or misconduct or brutality will get a lot of people stating that they disagree with us and far worse than that.

My response has been- ‘the more that you swear at us, the more that you tell us that we can’t report on this sort of stuff, the more resolved we are to report on this sort of stuff.’ These types of feedback aren’t going to get us to stop doing what we’re doing. I always remember that quote, maybe from Gandhi that goes ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win’ (interviewer’s note- this quote is often misattributed, and the earliest reported mention is from American labor union leader Nicholas Klein).

On the topic of fearlessness. Do you think that too many lawyers, especially junior lawyers, shy away from expressing their opinions on certain matters for fear of offending others in the profession?

I think that occurs throughout the profession, whether it’s junior lawyers or experienced lawyers. I know that lawyers have Facebook groups in which they express their opinions on certain issues but they won’t turn that into submissions or blogs on those issues.

This is probably more so with unior lawyers for fear of jeopardizing their career prospects. Yes, a lot of lawyers neglect to express how they feel on issues for fear of reprisals or negative feedback or offending people.

Do you think it’s important for people with strong opinions on certain matters to submit to public consultations? Do you see other ways?

Absolutely- there are a number of organizations who regularly submit on certain issues and I think that it’s very important that they do that and also that they publish what they’ve written to the public as well. Without those types of voices, parliament’s more likely to pass legislation which goes against the interests of certain groups. So I think it’s important to make those types of submissions. The concern that I have is we have two main political parties at the moment who share very similar views and are passing a lot of harmful legislation with bipartisan support. That comes through in our blogs.

I would hope that the people at the top the politicians will listen to those submissions more and act upon it more than they do. But these parties seem to agree on views that are not conducive to the protection of human rights. But even if a lot of these organisations feel like their submissions fall on deaf ears, they should put them out to the public, even mainstream media organisations, so that they can be heard. That’s what we try to do with the writers we have.

How important is diversity in a firm for producing a diversity of viewpoints?

Sydney Criminal Lawyers has a lot of gender and racial diversity. But it’s not only race, it’s also people with different levels of familiarity with Australian society, or other cultures. These people bring a lot of value to the firm.

The way that we speak with and get along with each other is how we hope other areas of the community could get along with each other. We get along with each other very well, whether it’s the admin, the lawyers or the writers, or the suppliers that we have, everyone gets along very well. And I think that not only does it enrich the firm to have people from different backgrounds, I think that it’s a rewarding experience to be within a practice that is so diverse who can talk to people not just about the law, but about the backgrounds about the insights into different areas of human behaviour based on their past experiences.

So what kind of reputation do you think criminal lawyers have among the broader populace? And to what extent is this influenced by the media?

Well clearly they don’t like us. All the movies show lawyers as greedy, as unethical, and generally as people who would do anything for their own purposes. I have been in the criminal law for a long period of time. Nothing can be further from the truth. I think that lawyers can be ethical in terms of how they conduct themselves within the courts and within general practice despite what I said about some law firms trying to a lot of money. I think that lawyers are ethical in terms of their obligations towards clients and towards the courts and I think that criminal lawyers aren’t generally greedy on an individual basis, although I think some firms are running their practice in a way that pressures lawyers and encourages greed. I think individual criminal Lawyers, for example, will meet their budgets because they have to meet their budgets or otherwise I’ll get in trouble but I think they are ethical towards the clients generally.

On the Sydney Criminal Lawyers blog there are a few articles on access to justice. Do you think there is an access to justice issue within the criminal law?

Definitely. Unlike in the United States where everyone has a right to legal representation in criminal cases in more serious criminal cases, and despite the fact that we have the case of Dietrich which essentially says that people who are charged with serious crimes in the District or Supreme Court need to be legally represented; despite all that, at a base level, especially at the local courts, there are a lot of people that are underrepresented because they do not have enough money to pay for a criminal lawyer and are ineligible for legal aid. So from between both of those ends, there’s a justice gap, there’s those 45,000 people or so per year who self-represent, according to the Law Council of Australia, because they can’t afford a criminal lawyer or a family lawyer. Often, they’re up against very well-funded professional prosecutorial teams and they might not even know the rules of evidence or how to present at the hearing. And that’s very unfair, and some might say ‘what the heck, I’m just going to plead guilty’. And that’s not justice. Because you can only get justice if you’re on a fair playing field.

Yes, in Australia, there is a significant problem in terms of access to justice. A lot of people are up against it.

 

If you would like to be interviewed or offer your thoughts on a recent event, book or article, please contact our Editor In Chief, Michael Bidwell.

Interview | Stewart Rasmussen (KPMG Australia)

Stewart Rasmussen is the Director of Legal Technology for KPMG Australia.  As KPMG leaps and bounds into the practice of law, Stewart is responsible for ensuring their adoption of technology is both industry leading and a point of differentiation.  Our Victorian President, Sophie Tversky, was fortunate to ask Stewart some great questions.

What interests you about the changing legal landscape?

Exactly that: the changes. But more specifically the sheer amount of passion I see coming out of the people creating the solutions, including start-ups. Many of these people are driven by an immense sense of purpose which is contagious.

In your discussions about the rise of the legal engineer, you mention the importance of opening up the communication lines in relation to technology and lawyers. What are key elements of ensuring lawyers and technologists are on the same page and what challenges have you seen?

The key is actually in the getting the correct skill set for this role. Don’t put a techie alone in a room with a lawyer (that has got to be the start of a joke, right?). Instead, ensure that you are employing people with great communication and problem solving skills. Lawyers will discuss their area of legal practice, so the challenge lies in actively listening and not being afraid to ask questions.

But it’s hard to find someone who knows enough about the legal industry to ask the right questions, and who also has a solid tech foundation to translate a legal process into a technology solution. Universities have only recently recognised this obvious skills shortage and are taking action to address it, and in some cases there are even brand-new “legal professional” degrees emerging, so I predict this won’t be a challenge for long.

What excites you about your role as Director of Legal Technology at KPMG Australia?

Having access to some of the industry’s smartest people all under the one roof. Honestly, the place is a boiling pot of amazing people with very varying skillsets. I, like much of the general public I suspect, had no idea that KPMG was involved in so many areas of business that actually have nothing to do with Tax. So tapping into those people and the diversity of knowledge will be the single most influential aspect to KPMG’s success in the legal industry.

If you could choose two learnings from other industries which could be applied to the legal industry, what would they be?

I think the most inspirational industries for me are Agriculture (Agtech) and Regulatory (Regtech).  The emergence of technology applied within the agricultural industry has given birth to so many inspirational stories and proves just how powerful a sense of purpose can be. I grew up in rural northern Tasmania, and many of our family friends were farmers. I remember just how hard those families worked to perform the simplest of tasks, such as turning the irrigation systems on and off, or the constant fence repairs needed. In recent years, I have watched some amazing companies go from strength to strength, not because they found a way to make money faster than their competitors, but because they started out by wanting to make a meaningful impact.

In contrast, Regtech is a fast-growing sector which is very closely aligned to Legaltech in my view. Looking at the ways in which regulation, and by proxy, compliance, is being “demystified” by the use of great technology solutions is a constant reminder for me that not everything can/should have a technology layer applied to it – i.e. if it’s not easily replicable, then the best solution might be simply picking up the phone and talking to your client (imagine that!).

How is client engagement changing in the legal industry?

I think it’s slowly improving, but not fast enough. In fact it’s this very thing that has paved the way for NewLaw/alternative legal providers as they are able to start out by first focusing on their customer service model and working back from there. The rise of “middle office” functions within law firms such as Legal Project Management and Legal Service Design, is evidence that firms are starting to invest in improving their service delivery model to include a more customer service-oriented approach. However, and I hate to parrot the experts who continue to say this year over year, the billable hour is still king, and without a significant shift away from this, I fear that the best laid plans will struggle to make a real impact.

If you could bust one myth about innovation in the legal profession, what would it be?

Innovation is not always about technology! I realise it may sound obvious to some, but if you are to believe all the media hype coming out by research companies, or your everyday social medial influencer (you know who you are), you would be forgiven for thinking that technology is the golden gun. Don’t get me wrong, in many ways technology can, and will, have a profound effect on the legal profession. But spending all of your time and effort trying to develop the next “Uber for Legal” is a high-risk strategy and you may first want to innovate within your team. Create new ways of problem solving, introduce better ways of communicating with your clients, or even look to introduce the concept of a legal service SLA. By starting there, the technology play will often become obvious.

Collaboration is a theme that keeps on coming up in the legal innovation discussion. Throughout your career, what have been key elements of successful intergenerational workplace collaboration?

Wow, great question! I’m not sure I have the answers but here are a few observations. Open plan offices break down hierarchies. When I was starting out, I never found the CEO to be a scary person.  OK, I didn’t really know what to say to him in the lift, but I was raised to treat all people as equal. However, many people do find it hard to approach senior staff members, especially if they have to go up and knock on their office door. I think removing the walls (literally) between graduate lawyer and managing partner (and everyone in between) sends a clear message that we are all part of the same team, and no member of that team is more important than the other.

My other observation is that the Millennial generation is so much more confident than we ever were. You ask most young people today if they have an idea to improve a process or deliver a better product and I almost guarantee that you will get a response. They have an amazing entrepreneurial mindset, and if I had one piece of advice for any Baby Boomer looking for ways to improve their business, it would be to start by asking the “kid” sitting a few desks down from them.

What is your legal forecast? How do you see the legal world in 10-15 years?

Pretty much the same as it is now. Just more efficient and more accessible. Potentially more fragmented by virtue of the rise in online legal service providers, but that’s a conversation best had over a bottle of wine.

Do you have any top tips for law students and graduates?

Think about spending your first few years out of university in a role that allows you to interface, or work with, the legal service teams within a firm. That may be the technology and innovation department, the project management team or the business development team, for example. You have plenty of time to go and become a lawyer, but developing your customer service skills early, will surely benefit you later.

 

If you would like to be interviewed or offer your thoughts on a recent event, book or article, please contact our Editor In Chief, Michael Bidwell.

Interview | Sam Flynn (Josef)

Sam Flynn is the Co-Founder of Josef.  With Josef’s easy-to-use technology, you can create and launch your own legal chatbots without the need for developers.  Josef’s clients include top-tier commercial firms, plaintiff firms, government, in-house legal teams and community legal centres across North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific.  Josef was created to bridge this access to justice gap, connecting expert legal knowledge with those who need it most. That’s why Josef continues to work with community legal centres, building products that help everyday people.

Alex Case was able to poke Sam’s brain on some burning questions.

What is Josef? How does it work?

 Josef is a platform that enables lawyers to automate legal services and launch their own legal chatbots. It’s really easy-to-use – you just click, type, drag and drop. (Law students at Swinburne Law School recently built chatbots on the platform in just a couple of hours!) The chatbots that you build on Josef are intuitive, engaging, available anywhere and anytime and can automate the production of personalised documents, like letters and agreements.

What sort of impact has Josef had on your clients’ organisations so far?

It depends on the organisation! Josef works across the legal industry, from top-tier commercial firms to plaintiff firms to in-house legal teams to community legal centres to government. So, while CLCs are using Josef to help as many people as they can (a chatbot can speak to countless people at the same time!), top-tier commercial firms are using it to create customised solutions for their clients (which they are loving). And in-house legal teams are using it for a different purpose again – they want to create internal efficiencies by supplementing their @legal inbox or automating the production of frequently-used documents like non-disclosure agreements. Because it is a platform designed especially for lawyers to use, there’s no limit to the areas of law that legal chatbots built on Josef can deal with.

For a lot of Australians, the thought of seeking legal advice is both intimidating and cost-prohibitive. How is legal tech helping provide more people with access to justice?

 This is exactly why we started Josef. Every year in Australia, 8 million people face a legal problem. Of those, only half seek any legal assistance. The stats are worse in the US and the UK. This is for a number of reasons, not least because services are inaccessible and expensive and the legal assistance sector is under-resourced.

In 2016, the founders of Josef were invited to a meeting of CLCs to figure out how we can start to bridge this huge access to justice gap using technology. Time and again, we have seen examples of digital legal assistance products succeeding in this space. We had myki fines in Melbourne in 2016 (which Sam helped to build) and DoNotPay in the UK around the same time. The challenge is simply to put these technologies in the hands of the right people. That’s why we came up with Josef.

You have previously spoken about how you believe law firms should be just as accessible as dentists and mechanics. What changes do you believe today’s firms need to make in order to improve accessibility to their services?

The changes will be many and varied. From where we’re standing, we can’t see them all yet. What we do know is that the answer will come from focusing more on the people involved in the legal industry. That includes everyone from the lawyers to the clients. Other industries have taken a human-centred design approach to their services for decades. But, for some reason, lawyers haven’t done much of this yet. I think we’re starting to see this happen now.

How important do you believe technological literacy is for today’s legal professionals?

Very! That is not to say that all lawyers need to learn to code, though. That would be like saying everyone needs to study the law. But there needs to be a base level of technological literacy which allows lawyers to understand what technology is out there and what it can do.

At a recent conference in Sydney, a number of people kept saying that “innovation does not equal technology.” On one view, this is definitely right. Innovation is much more than blockchain and chatbots.

But, on another, if legal professionals are trying to do things differently and improve the experience of the law for themselves, their employees and their clients, then it seems odd to ignore the tools that will enable them to do that in the most effective way.

What are your thoughts on current technology-focused educational opportunities for law students at Australian tertiary institutions?

This is something we’re very interested in at Josef! There are some fantastic courses out there, such as the course using Josef at Swinburne Law School. Some law schools are still catching up, but most are moving in the right direction. The best courses are those that teach the skills needed to build good legal tech, rather than just how to use legal tech. This involves teaching multi-disciplinary skills like design. If you want to read more, check out our blog post here!

How do you predict technology is going to change the legal industry over the next five years?

From what we’ve seen, we think that the legal industry is finally moving on from the “hype” phase, when people promise the world and deliver very little. We’ve seen that in the chatbot space recently as well. Two years ago everyone said that chatbots were going to replace apps and do everything! But of course they were never going to do that. Chatbots do one thing. Apps another. Blockchain another. What we’ve seen in the past is that once you move past the hype (and the ensuing disappointment), you can actually get to work and get stuff done. We think we’re almost there in the legal world, and we can’t wait to be a part of it.

What’s next for Josef?

We’re growing fast! After just a few months we’re working with clients across the legal industry – from top-tiers to CLCs – and from New York to Moonee Valley, and we’ll be heading to San Francisco later this year to meet with clients and investors. But, whatever happens, we’re not going to forget where we started: three young people with a dream to bridge the access to justice gap.

What advice would you give to current law/IT students and early career professionals interested in technology and the law?

There are so many paths to where we are. Kirill came down the tech path, being a machine learning expert and a general tech wizard. Tom came down the not-for-profit and academia path, being on the board of the AYCC and studying data analytics at Columbia University. Sam came down the legal tech path, working at NewLaw firm Hive Legal and building myki fines. We know it’s an annoying thing to hear when you’re a student, but the only advice is: do what you’re interested in. That doesn’t mean you have to drop everything and go and save the world or buy a paint brush and an easel. But it does mean that, whatever space you’re in, work towards what excites you and what you think is important. If that’s legal tech, then we’ll see you soon!

 

If you would like to be interviewed or offer your thoughts on a recent event, book or article, please contact our Editor In Chief, Michael Bidwell.