DLA Piper’s Managing Partner on Diversity, ESG and Global Big Law

Amber Matthews is Country Managing Partner for goliath law firm, DLA Piper, and one of Australia’s most esteemed legal leaders. Thomson Reuters spoke candidly to Amber about her leadership approach to Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG), passion for diversity and inclusion (D&I) and leveraging DLA Piper’s global network.  

With offices and influence in more than 40 countries and boasting the highest number of M&A deals in the world for 12 years running, DLA Piper is Global Big Law personified.

Amber Matthews is driving its presence here in Australia, by leveraging the global trends and applying them locally to benefit clients. “We all live in a globalised world” says Amber. “When you work at a firm like DLA Piper, you feel that every day from the types of clients we act for to the way we communicate across the global firm.

Embracing diversity and inclusion

As Chair of APAC’s Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Committee, it is clear this is a subject close to Amber’s heart and the heart of the firm. Amber recognises the importance D&I plays in feeding the future of the firm. “Having a more diverse partnership is part of our goals so (you have to) build that into your pipeline and really develop people throughout their careers.”

Project Elevate is an international program offered to people from underrepresented groups, such as gender, ethnicity, ability, sexual orientation and socioeconomic disadvantage, where associates are matched with senior executive sponsors who help develop and connect them to others. As a sponsor herself, Amber proudly states that many of the firm’s recent partner promotions within the firm have come through this program.

Managing Partner, Amber Matthews

Raising the bar on ESG

“Whilst law firms have been advising clients on ESG-related issues for many years, it’s now being brought to the forefront due to a range of societal, scientific and geopolitical reasons.”

Enquiries are ever-increasing and DLA Piper is committed to supporting their clients in achieving their ESG goals and transition to a more sustainable future.  All sectors are experiencing different ESG pressures and challenges so gaining sector-relevant insight helps the team tailor advice to clients and offer more practical solutions.

DLA Piper launched a sustainability report this year, and a further progress report only recently, outlining a target to reduce the firm’s emissions by 50% by 2030.  An extensive and collaborative ESG materiality assessment was conducted in each global office to ensure localised nuances were captured in the development of the strategy.  Amber is confident in the firm making a significant imprint on the social pillar too by improving access to justice.

In response to the Afghanistan and Ukrainian crises, DLA Piper lawyers are advising people who have been displaced to apply for humanitarian visas to seek safety in third countries. Some of these projects are done in partnership with clients who have also committed to creating positive social change in their communities.  

Closer to home, to address the racial inequalities for First Nations People, DLA Piper is also involved in litigation that challenges the pension age on the basis that an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person has a lower life expectancy that a non-Indigenous person, and therefore does not have the same rights of access to social security.

The objective of this case is to bring about positive government action to close the life expectancy gap for our First Nations People.

“It’s really about understanding where you can make the most impact as an organization under each element of the ESG spectrum and then being committed and disciplined to seeing it through.”

A culture of wellbeing

At the heart of DLA Piper are the people and Amber is passionate about creating a culture of engagement, while fostering mental health and wellbeing.

“We focus on how we can attract and retain the best people” she says. “That means we have to show that we trust our people, that we value them and that we will invest in developing them.” Amber’s mantra is about empowering people to fulfill their career ambitions by creating interesting and sustainable careers in law.

The war for talent continues, with roughly one third of Associates across the industry (32%) having left their firms in the past twelve months according to Thomson Reuters 2022 State of the Legal Market Report. This is further validated by 50% of firms who cite talent attraction as a major challenge, therefore Amber’s culture strategy helps position the firm as an employer of choice.

“The welfare of our people is also paramount” states Amber. “If we are not looking after our people, we can’t deliver well to our clients (either).” Amber champions a global program for mental health called SPEAK, which helps people identify where a colleague may be experiencing mental health challenges and creates a network of ambassadors across the firm who people can reach out to.

The firm encourages active and open communication around wellbeing and stress management and has ramped up its support offering through online tools such as Unmind and Sleepfit, as well as engaging with the Positive Group for mental fitness and stress management training. This has amplified during the last 12 months as lawyer workload continues to increase industry wide.

Deepening client relationships

Getting to know clients and their businesses in a much deeper way is a priority for the values-led firm, and they do this by harnessing deep legal expertise and sector knowledge.

Engaging in strategic conversations is key and Amber conducts regular “client listening meetings” to better understand specific client insights and challenges. These meetings are “critical business conversations” says Amber, “which aren’t focused so much on the legal issues the firm has been advising on, but (rather) about better understanding the context in which they arise and the strategic priorities of the client.” 

This valuable insight enables lawyers to pre-empt future challenges and help with horizon scanning in a credible and powerful way.

Document automation improves efficiency and talent engagement

“Technology is a great enabler to maintain and grow relationships” says Amber, who embraces technology solutions such as document automation for precedent documents, to improve the firm’s delivery of services to clients.

Legal firms have historically equated inefficiency to costs however it is intrinsically tied to improving job satisfaction too, particularly as the talent squeeze continues. This calls for firms to take tasks away from lawyers that may be mundane or repetitive, and automating them.  DLA Piper has had a legal project management team in place for the past few years and established a legal service delivery centre in Perth earlier this year.   

Amber will increase digitisation throughout the firm to continue leveraging the built-in efficiencies and talent benefits.  With competition in the legal industry stronger than ever, Amber surmises the firms that embrace technology and are innovative in the way they use it will get a clear advantage.

Deploying strategic levers to drive growth

The Thomson Reuters report shows a 6.4% increase in the demand for legal services during the first half of FY22, however this demand contracted in the 2nd half, indicating uncertainty. Amber is driving growth for DLA Piper through a renewed focus on their key sector strengths as a point of differentiation.

“We want to advise within the sectors we have deep expertise in, such as energy and natural resources, technology, insurance and construction and infrastructure. (This is) where we are well-hedged both in geography and practice strength and can differentiate our offering in the Australian market.”

Advice to graduate lawyers

“The (fundamental) role of a lawyer is still largely about maintaining a fair, equitable and functioning society” says Amber, “both in the business community and the world.”

The Country MP advises first-year lawyers to keep an open mind in their choice of legal roles.  “You never really know where your career in the law can go and I recommend lawyers take whatever opportunities they’re presented with, as it’s a great way of learning.”

From an employer perspective, Amber has seen more “lawyers looking to be part of organisations that have a very clear purpose. Our purpose is to make business better through helping our clients solve their most difficult problems. When we do this, we can make a positive impact on society at large.”

“It’s a real privilege to be a lawyer.”

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