A Q&A that appeared in the Law Society of New South Wales ‘Smalltalk’ newsletter.
Profile: Peter Gell
Principal, PG Lawyers
In this issue we talk to Peter Gell, a sole practitioner based in North Sydney. Peter’s thriving practice focuses on tax and commercial work, and he bases his billing system on a fixed fee model, which he says gives his clients certainty.
Peter believes that, as a firm owner, happiness comes from making sure your firm reflects your own values. To this end, he offers clients a “satisfaction guarantee” which means that if they’re not happy with his service he won’t pursue them for payment. He also makes a special effort to train and mentor law students before encouraging them to get broader experience.
What kind of work does your firm do?
Tax advice and commercial work for public companies, law firms, accountancy firms and financial planners.
How long has your firm been established?
I have been in the law for more than 30 years and in two different practices before becoming a sole practitioner about three years ago.
How many partners and employees are there in your firm?
Five employees, including myself.
What are your points of difference from your competitors?
I try to operate on fixed prices on most matters and offer a satisfaction guarantee so that if the client doesn’t want to pay I won’t pursue payment. Some clients still insist on hourly rates and I’m happy to accommodate that. Fixed prices give certainty and clients respond well. I’ll also spend whatever time is needed to have a client end up with a service or product they are happy with and understand. In my area the main skill needed is to distil the simple from the complex and not have it cost a bomb.
How do you market your legal practice?
I do nothing other than relying on a web page and word of mouth. Every now and then I may send out an email to the client base if some important issue arises in the taxation area. I tend to help and support others in other law firms and have many friends in different firms. I buddy up with larger firms in helping them on matters where my expertise may be required and will refer work out to them where I believe the client’s interests are better served by having a larger team. All that seems to work well.
How do you stay up-to-date with legal changes and practice management issues in a rapidly evolving environment?
I receive a series of daily emails from the Australian Taxation Office. I am also a member of the Tax Institute of Australia and a chartered taxation advisor which requires 30 hours of CPD a year. I use both the seminars and downloads available through the Tax Institute and attend College of Law and Law Society seminars.
How do you grow talent in your practice?
I like to take on young law graduates part way through law. As they grow in talent it really gives me satisfaction to see them placed in a good firm where they can obtain broader experience. I have a good relationship with a major firm in which that is starting to happen. When I take on a younger person I spend whatever time is necessary to help them understand the issues in a matter and how to resolve them. I am not afraid to challenge them and I set high expectations but I am very, very gentle with them if they make mistakes. I do not have them charge for their time as I do not want them under that pressure while they learn. The cost of their employment is absorbed by me.
What are the main challenges you face as a sole practitioner or partner in a small to mid-sized firm?
So far the growth in my practice has taken place through cash flow rather than debt. This leads to challenges in evening out expenditures between peak times and tough times. It can be a feast or a famine in a small firm.
Where do you see your firm in five years’ time?
Much the same. I am happy with where the firm is placed and, given my age, I have made a conscious decision not to grow the firm much more.
What advice would you give to someone starting their own practice today?
Be very clear about what you want the firm to reflect and be an expression of. A firm which is nice to get out of bed and go to each day is a place which is a true reflection of you and what is important to you – I guess a reflection of those values you hold dearest. You can spend a life time working out what these are, as I did. But once you get it, professional life becomes a great deal easier. And of course, with every person that you come into contact with each day, try to make the interaction pleasurable for them even if you are not feeling the best. Be kind and remember that person is facing his or her own struggles each day just as you are.