Gatehouse Insights | Ben Phi – Advice on how to be a good manager & an even better leader
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Gatehouse Insights | Ben Phi – Advice on how to be a good manager & an even better leader


(upbeat music) – Thank you for joining me for another episode of Gatehouse Insights. And today, I have the
pleasure of chatting with Ben Phi, who is the managing director at Phi Finney McDonald. Ben, welcome to the show and
thank you for joining me. – Thanks for inviting me. – So let’s begin with
your legal career story. – Yeah. So I spent 14 years working
at Slater and Gordon. I started as a Junior Legal Assistant and basically worked my
way up through the ranks. In the end, I was the
head of class actions and group litigation in
both Australia and the UK before sort of going off
and starting a new venture. – Can you tell us about
your highs and lows of leading the teams? – Look, I mean, over 14 years you obviously have a lot of highs and lows. But by and large, it was really amazing and a
really positive experience. Even as an Article Clerk, I found myself thrown into
the James Hart enquiry, which was up in Sydney, and so I got to spend
10 months working with Peter Gordon and Ken
Fowlie and Jack Rush, QC, which was an incredible experience. At the time, Peter Gordon
was joking to me that the best case of my
life had been the first and it was only downhill from there. And he wasn’t right but I certainly saw
where he was coming from. So, yeah, incredible experience. But ever since then,
the opportunity to work in this area of law and to practise in class-action litigation, everyday is an exciting adventure. – Have you always done class action? – No, I started off as a
personal injury lawyer. Did asbestos litigation for
the first 12 months or so. Moved into commercial
litigation after that, primarily financial services. But then, sort of, found
my way into class actions. But got to the GFC and quite a few companies started collapsing and Slater and Gordon’s interest
sort of re-emerged after that. – How did you get your position as a legal assistant at Slaters? – It was actually after I was given an Article Clerkship. I called up their managing director and demanded a job for my
last year of university, and he obliged. So, yeah, it was fantastic
experience, though. I kind of feel that I did every single job that there was to do in that place. Putting together briefs
and some photocopying and all those sorts of things. I really enjoyed all of it. – So was that Peter Gordon that you– – Oh no, that was Andrew Grech. Going back many years ago now. – Yeah, wow, 14 years. That’s awesome. From your experience, what’s one tip you’d give lawyers that want
to manage and lead teams? – Probably the greatest tip would be are you sure you want to be a manager? They’re very different skillsets, and I do think that as lawyers we can kind of get a big preoccupied with the next step, with
the next rung on the ladder. People are often high-achieving and get very focused on climbing as many rungs as they
can as fast as they can. And I’ve encountered many
lawyers in my time who have got exactly what they wanted and then found that they hated it. It’s a very different sort of skillset. I think that to be a good manager you need to have strong empathy. You need to be able to
view your own success as a product of the success of your team and the success of your firm, and I think that some lawyers
are not great at that. So just that it’s not for everyone, and to be authentic to,
in a way, who you are and what’s going to make
you happy in the long-term. – What are some other skills that lawyers need to be a
really excellent manager? – I think that to be a manager, you need to listen more than speak, which I still struggle with. I think that you also need to have a long-term perspective, not get too sort of preoccupied on the short-term. Understand what your
immediate objectives are but to not fall into error and make sort of false steps because you get too preoccupied
with the next milestone or the next balance day. I also think that many lawyers as managers can frankly take themselves too seriously. They don’t pay enough attention to the kind of workplace and the
culture that they’re creating. They can get a bit lost in their own sort of stress and not necessarily understand that they’re kind of having an impact on
the rest of their team. So I think that many lawyers can be very
successful managers. They can be effective. They can make remarkable amounts of money and all of those sorts of things. But they can also create
a very toxic culture and leave behind a lot of victims, and that’s certainly not what
we are setting out to achieve. – For lawyers that don’t
want to take that next step, let’s say the firm’s pushing them to go to the position which is manager, what would you say to them
to let their firm know that that’s not what they want? – Well, I mean, first of all, it’s probably not a bad problem to have if people are desperately pushing you to have that next promotion. But second of all, I think that candour and good honest conversations is always the obvious starting point. It starts off by you have to now yourself, what you’re good at and what’s going to get the most out of
you and what’s going to make you and the people around you happy. And I think if you can’t
have that conversation with your direct superior
and more firm management, then you’re probably in the wrong place. – I want to move on to class actions. What’s been one big case, the most interesting
case you’ve worked on? – Well, they’re all big and interesting in their own different ways but probably the most
memorable case for me is actually one that I wasn’t running. I was a bit of a passenger. I was lucky enough to supervise
it towards the tail-end. And that was a class action, we call it the Fairbridge
Farm class action. It was brought on by half of a whole series of former child migrants, came across from the UK, and they suffered some pretty
horrific institutional abuse. Sort of middle of last century. And in that particular matter, I mean, the clients to a single person were just absolutely fantastic, just really lovely and genuine people who had really endured a lot at a very young age and without parents. And so, yeah, to be able to be involved in a case that
represented them was fantastic. And I think the most
memorable part of that case was that it wasn’t only
the damages resolved that was achieved for them at the end, it was the fact that the government and the primary defender apologised. And to sort of see a group of people who’d been through so
much actually receive that form of acknowledgement, it’s pretty rare in litigation. So, that’s why it’s result really does sort of stand out for me. It was a very big testament to the team and the firm for running that case. – Was that through Slaters? – It was, yes. – How long did that case run for? – It went for several years. It was very hard for lots of interlocutory
motions and contests, applications for de-classing and the like. I guess that kind of journey can sort of, on the one hand it made
the result sweeter, on the other hand it was also bittersweet because the tactics that were applied by the defendants through the majority of that case had meant
that, unfortunately, there were a few clients who
didn’t live to see the result. So, yeah, slightly sombre
moment for that, as well. – Now, I want to shift
us to your new firm, Phi Finney McDonald. Can you share a little bit about your journey leading up to it, what made you start it, and what clients and work you’re doing? – Sure, well, I mean, we’ve established ourselves as a class action law firm, that’s what the three founding
partners are best known for. But really it’s kind of nice to have the freedom to do any type of litigation. We’ll focus on class actions, obviously, but not just share-holder class actions, institutional abuse claims,
other types of claims, and also different forms
of complex litigation. We already have a flourishing
pro bono practise, which is not necessarily what you do when you just started a new firm but it’s something that’s
really important to us, and it’s really nice to
be able to get involved and give back to the community. In terms of what brought us here, a strong desire for self-determination to take back control of our own destinies, I think is the best way of putting it. – What type of pro bono
work are you doing? – We’re doing a lot of
asylum-seeker work at the moment. Which is an area that is a point of passion for most of us. – How do you find your clients, get this type of pro bono work? – Many through referrals. There’s no shortage of people in society, unfortunately, who need legal help, and if we can make our skills available then I think it’s important. It’s part of our
professional ethics to do so. – And you’ve recently set up in Sydney. So you’re now in Melbourne and Sydney. What are your future plans
and dreams for the business? – Look, we don’t operate to any particular growth target or KPI
or anything like that. It’s one of the pleasures
of being a bit smaller. We’re going to measure
our success based on, I guess, the results that we deliver. That’s why we hope that
we’re going to be successful. All that said, I do feel that we do have some unfinished business
in the United Kingdom. – [Louise] What is it? – Look, I mean, I was only
there for 10 months in the end and I think there are
some good opportunities that we would be interested to explore at the right time in the future. – Can you share your experiences working in the UK and Australia? What’s the differences? – I think there are a lot
of similarities, actually. The people over there were fantastic. The courts themselves
operate quite similar rules. I think that Australians
are often regarded as being perhaps a little bit more sort of aggressive and a bit
more sort of adventurous. But that said, I think the differences are sometimes overstated. But yeah, it was an incredible experience and one that we certainly
learned a lot from. – [Louise] Will you practise there again? – We’ll see, we’ll see. – And before we wrap up, can you share what you love about your work? – I love all of it, and as a, I guess, founding partner it’d be pretty disappointing if I didn’t. But no, I enjoy the management aspect. I’m one of the lawyers that actually enjoys that type of thing. So I enjoy those aspects. Also though, there’s a good sort of sense of energy about the workplace. There’s a real sort of common endeavour. We get to set of focus very much on our clients and our work and delivering. We’re a really good quality legal service, and, yeah, there’s a really good sort of positive vibe at the moment, and one that we’re going to definitely try and maintain into the future. – What got you into law to begin with? – I always wanted to be
an architect, actually. – Really?
– Yeah. So I think I was one of
those people that took law almost as a sort of
secondary generalist degree. It was only part of the
way through my law degree that I actually began to sort of see it as a potential vehicle to do some good, to actually affect some positive change, to make a difference to people’s lives. My focus had been on
politics and student politics and other things like that, along with many of my
other contemporaries. But, yeah, I began to sort of see law as something that wasn’t just
and instrument of oppression but one that could also be an instrument that could be used for some
pretty profound change. So, yeah, that was the shift. I still would like to be an architect, but I might have left a bit early. – Oh, you can always still do it. Will you ever think about picking it up? – You never know. – Ben, this has been wonderful. Thank you for joining me. – No problems, doll, thanks for having me. – Now Ben and I would
love to hear from you. What is the biggest insight you’re taking away from today’s conversation? Please comment and share below and let us know what you think. And if you like this episode, please subscribe to our channels and share this video with your friends. And thank you for watching and I’ll catch you next time
on Gatehouse Insights. (upbeat music)

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