Alice Tay – Change, Transformation and the Legal Profession
Alice Tay, Lawyer, NED, CATIC Mission Leader
Hello, everybody. Welcome back to a Conversation of Change. Today, I’m going to have what I think is going to be a really interesting conversation of change with a special guest who, when I first met her and we were seated across each other at a table, she posed a question to me, “What would I ever have to do with a change practitioner?” which kind of stopped me in my tracks because I was thinking, “Really? I would have thought your industry had a fair bit of change,” which then made me really curious around where are the areas that don’t necessarily use change management, and what are the implications for that? So not to get too far ahead, I’m delighted to introduce you to Alice Tay. Alice Tay is a lawyer, a regulator, a non-executive director, and a pretty smart lady, from all of the work I’ve been doing with her. Alice, welcome to a Conversation of Change.
Alice Tay: Thank you, Jennifer.
Jen Frahm: Alice, can we start back at the beginning a little bit, and tell us about how you got into the legal profession. What was your pathway into it?
Alice Tay: Quite simply, all my family come from the medical industry, and I didn’t want to be like them, and so being a good Chinese girl, I didn’t want to be an engineer either or an accountant. Well, law was the next obvious choice.
Jen Frahm: And what was that … Yeah, what was that journey like? Was it a fairly straightforward path?
Alice Tay: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I finished school, went to law school, got a job, and it’s been just a little bit over 30 years that I’ve been in the profession, and I have had a magical ride, absolutely magical. When you think about, certainly in the ’90s and the 2000s, people were talking about glass ceilings, in the profession, people were talking about the profession not being accommodating or not being, what’s the phrase for it, meeting the needs of women in particular, I’ve been fortunate enough to be in a firm and with partners who have always been supportive. There’s never been a feeling that, “Oh, well, she can’t do this work because she’s a woman.” From my partners, from the staff, or even from clients, I’ve never felt that barrier of being prevented from going the way I wanted to go just because I was a woman.
And in my firm, we don’t make a big fuss about the fact that, well, today we have six partners, four of whom are women, and we have been at a 50-50 split for … I can’t think. It’s been so long. And it’s not something that we boast about. It’s just something … That’s who we are, and it’s good. Very supportive in terms of people … in terms of staff wanting to take time off because of children activities. It’s never been an issue. So I think I’m one of those … And I admit there are problems in the profession, but I think I’ve been blessed working with this group or being in business with this group of people who think a little bit differently from your traditional law firm.
Jen Frahm: Yeah, yeah. Oh, that’s quite fabulous. Now, as I alluded to in the introduction, when we first met, we were sitting opposite each other at a table, and you said to me, “What would I ever have to do with a change practitioner?” which I lacked my usual eloquent self in reply because it kind of stopped me. Can we tease this one out? Can you start by telling me about your experiences with organizational change and the legal profession?
Alice Tay: My personal experience, I think the biggest change we made within our firm … Or two large changes that we made, and I think thinking about it a little bit more, it has been organic. One was not to work in silos, and it’s quite common for professionals to work in silos and have this concept of, “Hey, that’s my client, and I do everything that my client needs. Whether it’s a contract or a litigation or advisory work, I do that work.” So we decided a long time ago not to work in silos, and that means sharing our clients, in that they’re not my clients. They’re our clients.
The other major thing we did also was to work within industry groups. Now, that’s probably quite common for the big-city firms, but we are in, dare I say, rural Canberra, where we don’t have large, large firms. We’re a firm of 70, 80 people, and we are large in Canberra, whereas in the big cities, that’s a small firm. Neither do we have the breadth of work that the big-city firms do, and so to say that if I have a piece of work that turns to litigation, not only will I have to send it to a litigation partner, but I have to send it to a litigation partner within that particular industry. And that was pretty scary because, at the end of the day, it is we’re judged on how many hours we’ve worked. We’re judged on what our billings are like, but even that is changing within the industry.
And I think the way we overcame that fear was very much from trusting, trusting that we will all do the right thing by each other, and that is something that is really, really difficult to do, but we’ve managed it.
We’re not perfect, but we’ve certainly managed it, and I think that’s a big change. And of course, you’ve got little changes like I run a … what do you call it … a no-paper office, an electronic office. And that’s difficult also, especially in a law firm, where there’s paper everywhere. It doesn’t mean that we don’t use paper. We do, but we certainly don’t have files. And when you come and visit us, you’ll see I have space allocated for me for my files, which is empty because we don’t have them. And again, that for us is major.
Jen Frahm: It’s interesting because one of the goals for many companies is move to a place where they have an inherent change capability, and one of the goals for many of us, as change practitioners, is to move organizations to a space where they don’t need us. We make ourselves obsolete, and you’re describing an environment where change practitioners are obsolete. You’ve identified trust as a really big component. Can you take us back to perhaps the change around the moving outside of silos? Who introduced that, and how was it introduced?
Alice Tay: I don’t think it was any one person who introduced it. I think it comes to the issue of culture and how we wanted to work, and we are a … At that time, we were an equal partnership, so we shared equally in everything, and so we should share equally in work also and support each other. And this issue … That was really strong in our culture, that we supported each other all the way. In the legal industry, as in all industries, you have your ups and downs. Some years you do extremely well, and other years you don’t. And we’ve always had a really, really supportive culture, and I think that’s probably the genesis of how we came to work outside silos. The other thing also is that the practice of law has become more and more specialized, and to be a really good practitioner, you can’t be an expert in everything, and so you needed to make a decision as to where you wanted to be an expert in. And that, I think, also drove our thinking to an extent.
Jen Frahm: Okay. In terms of the legal profession, do you see that change is escalating, that you’re seeing more change than you’ve ever seen before, or is it relatively stable in terms of the volume of change coming through?
Alice Tay: I see change happening. I was talking to a client of mine who is in the real estate industry, and we were talking, interestingly enough, about change and the changes in the real estate industry, and he said something really interesting. He says, “I see a future in which this concept of having offices will no longer be there, and that people will be doing transactions through the internet.” And he told me about their offerings, and he said, “Oh, by the way, Alice, we sold three properties just recently without any human intervention.”
Jen Frahm: Wow!
Alice Tay: And to me, wow, indeed. That’s amazing! That is so amazing! And I know that they’ve been using a lot of bot technology, but the things that they have been able to do, it’s just so amazing. And when we talk about change and, of course, the question is how do you think it’s going to affect your industry, because all of what we call the offices, the real estate agents and people who work with them, they’re also invested in their client list and basically … you’re moving away from where you’ve got clusters of agents to individual agents with services supporting them and that is a big change. And I think he said to me, which just blew me away, he said, well change is coming and we should back ourselves to be the first in that.
Jen Frahm: I love that.
Alice Tay: And I went, whoa! That is amazing. And then you look at the motor vehicle industry where more and more people now are living in flats or very small houses, you go to work using public transport and every so often, you might need a car. Or, you might be the young people of today where they skip jobs every two, three years or maybe every year, they change things really quickly. And so, they wouldn’t want to buy a car and have a car for the five, 10 years that people of our generation do, so maybe we should be thinking of a subscription model whereby you pay a fee and that’s happening already and that’s technology that drives all that, that makes it possible.
And so I’m seeing change happening all around me and as I said, the legal industry is going through a huge amount of change and whether we acknowledge it or not or it’s something that just happens organically will be really, really interesting you know.
The way we do our work has changed, I remember my first day at work where I was a graduate lawyer, not only did I have my own office, I had my own secretary and today you’d be lucky if you shared, you are one of five or six that shared one support assistant. It’s just changed, we had Dictaphones, we had people at our beck and call, all that’s gone, we’re all so self sufficient.
The way we deliver services have changed also, probably five years ago, I would have written you a 10 page advice, today, I would have sent you an email with five dot points and that’s how much it’s changed. And I think the way consumers consume legal services have also changed, you know. Lawyers are no longer held on this high pedestal where their word is law, they are seen more and more as a business partner where you sit down and you come to a resolution or way forward, I shouldn’t use the word resolution, but a way forward on a particular project.
So it’s very interesting time for the legal industry and I don’t know whether the legal industry has its eyes open to see what’s coming.
Jen Frahm: It has me curious then, so you’ve talked about the power of trust and support and a somewhat egalitarian model, albeit of people in high status as enablers of just being able to respond organically to change. Has that been your experience with the boards that you sit on? I think you’d mentioned the change that the National Heart Foundation had been through.
Alice Tay: Yeah I think so, I think the boards that I sit on are mainly not for profit boards and they’re quite different. The directors of the National Heart Foundation are independent directors and I think when you have that independence, like we’re not the bestest friend ever and we’ve gone through a rigorous selection process to be on the board and we’re there to contribute and we all bring distinct skills to that board as opposed to the smaller not for profits where you’re there to do good, it’s different, it’s really, really, different.
The National Heart Foundation has gone through tremendous change in the last 12 months, we were a federated body that comes with all the good and bad things of federated bodies and we move to a unified organization on the first of July this year. So our transformation process took a year but not that, it was a year from start, go, to completion, this particular process took a year. We have tried over many, many years to be one organization unsuccessfully and I’ve often thought about what is it that has made this particular transformation process successful, and that I think has a lot to do with, first and foremost, our members wanting it to happen.
But the other thing also is that we actually have a transformation team and the job of the transformation team is basically to go out and talk to all our staff members and our key stakeholders as to what’s happening and to bring them along on the journey and also to get feedback on how they’re going and their journey and I’ve never really thought about that as a change process, but of course that’s what change is, isn’t it?
Jen Frahm: Yep.
Alice Tay: I’ve lived through that without really understanding what it is, but of course that’s change and it’s been a tremendous success to be so organized, to have a board that is very supportive of our CEO who is wonderful and having a CEO who just understands it and puts in the resources to make this happen, has just made it a success. And it’s ongoing, we haven’t stopped on the first of July and we anticipate that the change process will go on for at least the next two years while we bed down our people and we bed down our programs and we deliver on our strategy but it’s an exciting journey to be on.
Jen Frahm: Yeah it sounds like it’s been massive.
Alice Tay: Oh it’s huge, yeah.
Jen Frahm: To be so successful in such a short period of time also is really impressive. You mentioned the CEO supporting the resources, do you see him as a leader of that transformation or a change leader?
Alice Tay: Absolutely.
Jen Frahm: Is it a him or her, beg your pardon.
Alice Tay: Oh it’s a him, it’s a him, yep. No, no, no, absolutely, absolutely. And I think he has been, mind you I haven’t spoken to him about this but I think he saw the vision of what he wanted the organization to be and he drove it that way. And I think you also have to be very thick skinned about the decisions that you make to drive a slow moving organization, it’s like turning a bit boat. And, he was brave enough to say, this is the way we need to go, the board has said unify and he’s been brave enough to do it and I think he’s been brave enough to bring in the expertise that he needed to make it happen. And, our transformation office, which is essentially two full time people plus staff as we needed to come in, that is a newly created role. So we went out and recruited a person to do it and I think that’s the best thing we ever did.
I often say to my clients who are looking at large projects, that they should bring someone in to do it so that you don’t take resources away from your business as usual things. And again, that’s really change isn’t it and I’ve never thought of it as change.
Jen Frahm: These conversations are never scripted and we’ve got to a really excellent point because you’ve just answered your question of me, in terms of whatever would I do with a change practitioner, well you would bring them into a transformation team. But you also, which I’m very grateful for, highlighted the perils of the language that we use, so if I’d said to you that I work in transformation, you probably would have had a stronger understanding straight away as to the work I do, so I thank you for that, that’s a good lesson.
Now Alice, we’ve met through the upcoming Listen, Learn, Connect China Australia Trade Investment Council trade mission, which you are one of our fearless leaders. Can you tell me why that’s so important to you?
Alice Tay: Yeah, I went to China last year with a good friend and we went to the China hi tech fair in Shenzhen, I think it was in November. My background, I am Malaysian Chinese, my parents grew up in colonial Malaysia so I’m post colonial, we speak English at home and anything that is white is good and anything that is not white is bad and that’s the sort of, you’re laughing, that’s what colonialism does. And so I grew up in that sort of atmosphere where the white man does things so much better than us Asians could ever… so much better than us mere Asians could ever do, and we basically are just copycats. That’s the sort of, I guess heritage that we have. And even being in Australia, you don’t think very much about China. You hear about China, the economic growth in China and the like, and you’ve got this vision, or I have this vision of China being steady, smelly, squat toilets everywhere. That’s my vision of China. Sure, they do electronic stuff and factories, but they are not really good..
When we arrive in Shenzhen, the one thing that really, really blew me away was how green it was, and how clean it was. It was just like, hey, am I really in China because this is not what I think China should be. And this is just little Shenzhen, right? This is not Shanghai or Beijing where we’re going to. Then I noticed that there were no motorbikes. You’ve got this vision of Asian cities with motorbikes. There were no motorbikes. Then I thought oh, maybe because it’s we’re in an innovation district, and so therefore there were no motorbikes. But there were no motorbikes. There just isn’t any motorbikes.
In Shenzhen, being a relatively new city, have a transport that’s all electric. They use electric cars, electric buses, electric bicycles, and there’s so much green in it. You always think of China cities as being polluted. It’s not. The fair was huge, absolutely huge. We only spent about, or I only spent about half a day at the fair, but what we also did outside the fair was to visit some of the innovation centers, and we also visited a company called HTE and of course we wanted to visit some other companies, but we couldn’t because everyone was at the fair, but HTE was large enough, they accommodated us.
The one thing that really blew me away was what they call the Now technology that is available right now, but not available here. Things like, you can build a house, and this is in the public gallery, this isn’t even in the experimental, what they’re working on. You can build a house where there are no wires, no wiring at all in the walls. No power points, because everything is controlled using your phone, and it’s all wifi enabled. Can you imagine that? And you could go in, and you could just say, “Turn your lights on.”
We think Google Home is amazing, right? But they can do so much more. And I said, “Oh, when is this technology available?” And they said, “It’s available now, but you can’t have it. You live in Australia.” They were working on, so when were we there? November. They were working on 5G technology, and I think by now they would have rolled out 5G technology.
They were working on, they were trialing what they call wireless charging. You may have heard that BMW, the new electric cars, have this thing that goes down from the car onto special roads that makes contact, and that charges the car through that contact point. In XTE, what they were trialing, so this is trialing, and they were rolling out in certain parts of Shenzhen, is there are charging plates in the road, essentially about maybe 100 meters from the stop lights. When you stop there, your electric car automatically charges without anything coming down. That’s Now technology.
Jen Frahm: How clever.
Alice Tay: I know, and I’m going, “What? Why are we not doing it? Why can’t we have it?” And they look at me, and they said, “Not only are we fiber to the home, all across China, but we are also going to be 5G very soon. That is so amazing.
Alice Tay: So what makes China different from here? We started more or less the same time down this innovation pathway, and the fiber to the home, our experience is quite different. So I asked them, “We have difficulties rolling out fiber to the home. How did you guys do it?” And he just looked at me, he says, “The government said we will have fiber to the home. And so we had fiber to the home.” That’s the way things happen. And then you wonder, do we need to live in a society like China, where you might have watched our foreign correspondent, I think it was last week, where they had that social calculator. Are we prepared to-
Jen Frahm: Is that the trade-off?
Alice Tay: Yeah. They’re really interesting questions.
Jen Frahm: They are. They are. Alice, what will successful change look like to you as a result of the trade mission?
Alice Tay: I think I would like us to understand a little bit better what the Chinese mentality is. How it is that they manage to do the things that they do, money not withstanding. And of course, they have huge amounts of money that comes from government behind them. We don’t. We don’t have that sort of government. So what can we do? Is it the Chinese work ethic? Is it the Chinese way of thinking that if it doesn’t work this way, let’s find another way to do it? If it doesn’t work, let’s find another way, and another way, and another way. Instead of saying oh, didn’t work. Fail. I don’t know, I really don’t know.
Alice Tay: But for an overseas Chinese, I am proud is not the word. Astonished is not the word. Blown away. Blown away by what’s happening there. And I wouldn’t beat the Shenzhen. I don’t even know what’s happening in Shanghai or Beijing or the other cities. It’s not just China. I don’t know what’s happening in Korea, and I don’t know what’s happening in Japan. So how are we going to compete? How is little Australia going to compete? And what do we need to be able to compete successfully?
Jen Frahm: I think that’s really powerful questions when we’re looking at what does change or transformation mean for Australians in the future? And we do tend to, we have a very Australian-centric view of our industry, and I think these questions that you’re asking are really quite valid. And if we want to future-proof, and it’s not even future-proofing from a defensive perspective, it’s future proofing from an opportunistic perspective.
Alice Tay: Absolutely. It’s all that, opportunities, and I think we should stop thinking about, and again, as a lawyer we are so risk-adverse. And we don’t look at the opportunities in risk, and this is something that we need to do. So instead of saying, like for example. Instead of saying we have to protect, we have to protect, maybe we should be on the offensive. How do we join, how do we make it better? How do we build up a better society at the end of the day?
Jen Frahm: Yeah, indeed. Alice, this has been an excellent chat. Thank you.
Alice Tay: Oh, enjoyed it. Thank you.
Jen Frahm: Final question to you. How can the listeners help you? What would you like of any of the listeners listening in terms of a way of help, thoughts, support for your future endeavors?
Alice Tay: I like listening to differing viewpoints. I think that would be really helpful, so by all means, link with me through LinkedIn. I do Twitter, but not much. But certainly exchange of information is really, really important. Even catching up, whoever you are, to talk about things because I think through networking, we make ourselves better, we make our businesses better, we hopefully make society better, which is what I’m passionate about. To make this world a better place, to make the community I live in a better place.
Jen Frahm: That’s wonderful. Thank you, Alice.
Alice Tay: Thank you, Jen.