Sven Burchartz is a partner with Kalus Kenny Intelex, a progressive, commercially oriented firm, specializing in property, corporate and commercial, and dispute resolution in Australia and a member of the International Lawyers Network. In this episode, he and Lindsay discuss the collaborative method by which he brought his firm back to the office post-pandemic, how he feels AI will (and won’t) impact the legal industry, and why he still loves being a lawyer.
You can listen to the podcast here, or we’ve provided a transcript of the highlights below.
Lindsay: Hello and welcome to the Law Firm ILN-telligence Podcast. I am your host, Lindsay Griffiths, Executive Director of the International Lawyers Network. And our guest this week is a returning guest, Sven Burchartz, with Kalus Kenny Intelex in Melbourne, Australia. Sven, welcome back. It’s great to have you here. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself, and your firm, and your practice?
Sven: Lindsay, great to be back. We’re a firm of fifty people in Melbourne, Australia. We’re fortunate enough to be the ILN firm for Australia, and I’ve been really happy with the relationships we’ve made with everyone around the world. We’ve managed to think, to visit, and retain lawyers in every major continent, which is terrific. It fits our client base, which is avowed with private clients who are doing deals in various jurisdictions as well as dealing with overseas inward work. So, our work ranges from property, property in the developer space, funding finance, structured finance, and the building and construction space across to the commercial practice, which has a very interesting international flavor. We’ve got a couple of clients based out of Europe that we effectively do their in-house teamwork for, on all of their investments in their specific industry, but do a normal M&A, buy and sell transaction agreements.
We also have a dedicated estates and trusts team to deal with our clients’ asset and estate management, which is growing, and has some terrific young lawyers in it. We’ve also got a family law team. Unfortunately, family law conflicts are a fact of life, so we do a lot of that work primarily on the property side of things. Kids are an inevitable part of that, but primarily we help with their structuring and the major transactions in that. And then we have our disputes team, which has a sub-team, which is our employment law team. But our disputes team is by far the largest in the firm, headcount wise. And unfortunately, again, where there’s more than one person, there’s always going to be a dispute that’s potentially there, so we handle that. So out of the fifty people, there are thirty lawyers. My role is I deal with the economic aspects of the practice as well as some of the people stuff, but we’ve got various other partners who focus on various other administrative sides.
But I’m fortunate in advertive commerce to have to do with the economic parts of the practice, which I’m happy to say are going well. We’ve been growing well over the last three or four years. As we said in the last podcast. We grew through the COVID lockdowns, notwithstanding that we were almost subject to a police state set of conditions imposed by our government here, but we managed to go through that. I will say there is a bit of post lockdown or post COVID PTSD around, still. People are very weary. So, we’re having to manage that very carefully and be very, very aware of people’s energy levels. But yes, that’s us for the moment.
Lindsay: Yes, speaking of that, I find that, too. And one of the things I’ve talked to people a lot about recently is this push and pull about working from home versus being in the office, and the difficulties that we find, especially with some of the younger lawyers and the ability to train younger lawyers, who, you really want them to be in the office because there is something missing when you’re not able to just drop by, and see how they’re managing their cases, and have those conversations that you might just bring them into the office to be there for a client conversation, those types of things. So how do you manage that when there is really this PTSD from dealing with COVID, but you want to try and bring back that pre-pandemic ability to be together and be in the office?
Sven: We had great success in terms of people coming back into the office. We are now back in the office. If you want to be full-time, you’re full-time, but everyone is in four days. And we didn’t have any major issues about having that happen. And one of the main drivers was to get the work socialization going, because we have a lot of younger lawyers, and they absolutely need to have that ability to drop by an office or sit around together and workshop a problem. And you had to do it whilst you were locked away. But it’s certainly far from, in my view, in our view, the preferred best approach to what is a collaborative service. You need to have people thinking together, and the quickest way to do that is to be able to talk in person. So, we managed the transition carefully, and talked to our staff, and said, “Look, this is what we want to see, but take it at your own time.”
So, we didn’t issue an edict and said, “Right, you’re back in, in four days and that’s it.” It started with two and said, “Let’s build it up.” And we used language, which is acceptable, and was understood, and said, “Look, we’d like to see you more in the office than less in the office.” So, they started to build the pendulum that way. People got comfortable. And then it perpetuated itself. People enjoyed the experience. And I remember my own experience was when I came back, I had to adjust. Even, and I thought, “Yep, no problem. It’s going to be great. I’ll be back in the office.” But my routines changed so far fundamentally again. And so, I know that I had almost, not an anxiety, but a pensiveness about being back in the flow of the office. So, I figured, “Given that I figure I’ve got a reasonable level of resilience, how much our people be feeling?”
So, we took it nice and easy, but ultimately people just didn’t filter in. We then worked alternate days with teams, so we had whole teams in, whole teams out. And our current practice is that there’ll be a team not in the office each day of the week so that we have mainly people in, but then people say, “Well, look, I want to come in.” So, it really is a case of, “Manage yourself.” But it took, to be honest, it took probably 12 months of a gentle transition.
We know that, and we saw other law firms and other professional service firms do what we thought to be crazy stuff, and just issue edicts, and probably treat them the way they did at the start of the pandemic, which said, “Right, we’re going to slash all your salaries, and we’re going to pull back to 60%.” And a lot of that arm-waving panic stations routine, which unsettled so many people, whereas we went the opposite way and said, “No one’s losing their job. If we need to put money in, we’ll put money in.” Thankfully, we never did. But you have to teach people and treat people with respect, and bring them along, and when they understand, and when you are open with them as to why you think this is a good idea, unless it’s a really bad idea, they recognize that it’s a good idea. So, we’ve done all right. It’s thankfully behind us now.
Lindsay: Yes, no, that offers a lot of comfort and that does help. So, what would you say then is your biggest challenge at the moment, and how are you working to deal with it?
Sven: Biggest challenge? Oh, look, I suppose it’s dealing with the lack of economic certainty that that’s been created in the US. I’m sure it’s the same as it is here. Your Fed has cranked interest rates through the roof. It’s caught a lot of people unawares. And same here, our Reserve Bank is your Fed. They don’t have much in their back pockets. So, what they tend to do is bludgeon the economy because they’ve got nothing else. And that is impacting the confidence of our clients, their industries, and I also think the confidence of our staff because they’re wondering what’s going on.
That said, we haven’t noticed any drop-off in work, and we certainly haven’t noticed any change in that type of work. So unfortunately, I’m old enough to remember the late ’80s, early ’90s recession, and every GFC, and other event that’s happened since. And it’s nowhere near those sorts of things. I think the economy has learned how to, and particularly governments and institutions have learned how to respond to these things without ripping them up. So, banks are being a bit more responsible, governments are being far more responsible, but it is quite a challenge for people to understand that two years ago everything was rosy, and money was cheap, and all of a sudden the breaks of being yanked on. So that’s pretty much the only challenge that we have. Otherwise, the firms move along very nicely. We’ve got a great team. Our clients are happy and healthy.
As I was saying earlier, we don’t see, and a lot of my work is dispute work, and when it gets really bad, the disputes work becomes quite defensive, whereas I haven’t seen that yet. That said, law is always the first to see the green shoots and the last to see the brown grass. So, we, as an industry, tend to lag conditions, but then see the early signs of improvement. So that’s pretty much it. Otherwise, we’re all happy, and healthy, and raring to go.
Lindsay: That’s great.
Sven: Again, it’s probably, as I said earlier, it’s, I think managing and understanding people’s energy levels, and being very responsive to the early signs of fatigue, making sure that the work is allocated properly, supervised properly, because the greatest challenge for a young lawyer is to get the supervising lawyer to actually check the work in a way that’s timely. Client pressures are up there, turnarounds fast. We’ve all learned to live with a scourge of email, and the fact that everything’s required immediately, and some deals don’t respect the clock, in fact, the big deals don’t respect clock, peoples’ lives. So that’s a little bit more of an awareness thing.
And to be honest, it’s probably one of the greatest positives out of the whole COVID experience is that we’ve had to and had to accept that we must be very responsive to how our people feel, and also support them and say, “Listen, you’re a bit stronger than that.” If somebody’s feeling a little bit down, you give them support and you let them understand how they can manage it. So, building resilience rather than letting the snowflake melt, say, “Okay, let’s just build something around you that supports you to understand that life’s not really that easy.” And yes, it’s unfortunately difficult sometimes not to fall into a paternalistic pattern, particularly with younger lawyers. So, you’ve got to be a little bit, “Okay, this is hard, but that’s part of becoming a more senior practitioner, so let’s work out how we do it.”
Lindsay: That’s true. Yes. I found that as I become older, too, you can very easily fall into that, that wanting to pat people on the head a little bit and take care of them. And it really, as you say, it is a fine line between doing that and taking care of people, but also helping them to grow up within the firm and moving towards the idea that, “Unfortunately, just because you do the right thing, good things aren’t necessarily going to happen to and for you, and you’re going to just have to sometimes buck up, and do the hard stuff that’s around you, and get through it.” And that’s just the way life is and works.
Sven: It is, indeed.
Lindsay: Yes. And as you said, you’ve been through the GFC and other financial crisis, and sometimes that’s just the way the market is. It’s going to have its ups and its downs, and you have to prepare for it, and move through it. And just because things are rosy this year doesn’t mean that’s going to be true next year, and that’s fine and normal.
Sven: Look, when we got locked down, one of the first things we said to our staff was, “Look, again, unfortunately the more senior people in the firm, it’s not their first rodeo. And so, we know how to deal with it, and we know how to batten down. And generally, it’s a two- or three-year cycle from the time that it gets terrible to the time that it stops being terrible. And you just have to make sure that you’re strong enough to get through it.” Yes, it’s an unfortunate effect of being older now.
Lindsay: Yes, it’s true. You do get more resilient, but sometimes you’re a little tired of being resilient, too.
Sven: Yes, true. That is true. Leadership takes energy.
Lindsay: Yes. But yes, you’ve got to have it. What would you say is the biggest area related to your practice or the practice of law that you’re curious about?
Sven: That I’m curious about or that the firm’s curious about?
Lindsay: No, that you’re curious about?
Sven: That’s a hard one. One of my clients does a lot of work in the cryptocurrency space. In fact, they transact. They transact the majority of their value shifts as between them and their customers between, using crypto. So, they don’t use traditional fee at all. And talking to them, they use crypto, particularly Bitcoin, as a currency. And understanding that is a challenge, because your traditional view of crypto is said to be an asset class and people speculate on it. Whereas this client in particular is trying to push their space, and it’s a big space, into saying, “Look, you must be able to use crypto to buy and sell things and to give value for services.” And they do it in a very transparent way. So, it’s not some sort of pre-regulated gray market. It’s all, they declare it, they pay the taxes, do everything they need to do.
But I think that’s an example of technology, and crypto not being a technology, but it’s based on a technology that does away with traditional fear. So, I find that fascinating. And I watched a podcast the other day where he was on a panel, and it was quite novel, even for the panelists to hear that he wants to turn it into money, effectively, money. Will you ever be able to buy a loaf of bread with a percentage of bitcoin? Yes, not soon, but the other transactions you can.
And then there’s the whole Chat GPT thing, which I find frankly hilarious. It is the funniest thing I’ve ever experienced. And people say, “It’s terribly frightening.” And it can be and certainly will be. AI is fascinating and also concerning because even the originators of AI are now worried about what it can do. It’s crazy. It’s like a scientist comes up with this great concept and then loses sleep about what might happen with it, like, “Seriously?” But ChatGPT had a lot of lawyers here running for the hills, and go, “Oh, it’s terrible. Life is over.” And all I see there, and I talk to our staff about it because it’s something that they’re interested in. And I say, “Look, ChatGPT does nothing more than aggregate and spew out information that it’s grabbed from somewhere and make it sound half plausible.”
And it’s funny, I saw, saw these reports of these lawyers in the US who put together a paper and quoted non-existent authorities. It was just the funniest thing. And I thought, “How are you going to talk your way of this, you idiots?” But I always come back to, “What do our clients want from us?” And as lawyers, they want judgment, they want experience, and they want guidance. And artificial intelligence will give you an outcome or a product, but it will not give you a considered answer.
And I said, “So we must not be uncomfortable. We can fully automate a lot of stuff, like forms, and other bits and bobs, aggregating stuff, that’s fine. But until human beings absolutely trust machines, and they never will. People come to us for our judgment. So that when you say to a client, ‘Look, I’ve looked at all your options. This is the best way to go.’ And that’s informed through life experience, mistakes. Judgment isn’t just the reformulation of raw data, it brings intuition, experience, and all that sort of stuff.”
So that is the thing that I probably find most curious. The crypto thing is just fascinating. I watch my client do it and say, “Hey, mate, you’re a real trailblazer, here.” But the whole AI and ChatGPT makes me laugh and then be concerned at the same time. But it’s certainly not going to make us irrelevant. In fact, more so, I think what will happen is in time, some aspects of legal services will be more automated and perhaps AI driven, but the important stuff which matters to people will never be a machine. Some people may go, “Look, I’ll go there, that’s fine.” And my view is, “Look, you’re on your own, then. And in fact, look, come back to me when it goes wrong, and I’ll help you fix it.”
Lindsay: Yes. For a very big fee.
Sven: Yes, exactly right. And I always say, “Whilst I’m not cheap, it’s actually cheap insurance, and I generally get more right than wrong.” So that’s my response. That’s a bit rambling, but there you go.
Lindsay: No, and I totally agree with you. I was talking about it earlier with somebody today, and I think it’s very interesting what you said, and I fully agree with you. I think it will automate the things that lawyers don’t need to be spending their time on, and it will elevate the things that lawyers are really important for, which is the advisory piece. The thing that I wonder about, and this is what I raised with somebody earlier today, is the training piece. Because as you say, what clients will come to lawyers for is that experience, but if the way you’re gaining that experience is through the things that are being automated by AI, how will we get the younger lawyers to the point where they’re gaining that experience? So that’s the piece I’m curious about, how are we going to get those younger lawyers to get the experience that you have already?
Sven: That’s the thing. I remember back when I was a young litigation lawyer, and the crap work was the debt collection, and it was the low-end stuff, and we had a couple of institutional clients, and we were collecting card debts, and all that sort of stuff. And it was not great work, wrong reflection, but it taught me all about court process, and dispute dynamics, and settlement. So, there is that issue about that the basic hack, early work, I don’t know, if it’s debt collection, or if it’s doing basic transactions for conveyancing, or straightforward leases, any of those very routine, repetitive types of jobs, they do teach you, because you know about the law.
So, I think what will have to happen is that our teaching methods and our teaching points will have to adapt, and we’ll have to say, “Look, okay, the machine’s going to do it up to this point. But at that point, a judgment’s got to be exercised.” And I think clients will want that. They’ll take an automation point, and they’ll say, “Okay, at this point I want a lawyer, I want a human being to exercise some judgment.” And I think it’ll just mean that we teach our younger lawyers differently if automation starts to become a great feature, which in time it will.
Lindsay: Yes, no, I agree. That makes sense. Switching gears a little bit, tell us something interesting about yourself that most people don’t know.
Sven: Gee, I actually looked at this question, I thought, “Now, what can I answer here?” As far as the people that know me, and my circle, and my colleagues, but if I can answer it in the context of the ILN members, they won’t. Also, I have raced cars for 25 years.
Sven: Yes, a long time and lots of competitions, GT cars, I’ve raced Mustangs, but mainly my vice is Porsche race cars. And I’ve done that for a long, long time. And I also am a part owner of a race team. So, in the US you have NASCAR, and here we have Supercars, which is effectively a lot like NASCAR. So I’m a reasonably significant owner of a Supercar team here, which employ, which I think we’ve got 60, 70 people, four drivers, four cars. So, it’s a very big team. It’s called Tickford Racing.
And I got involved in that because I helped the then owners acquire it from Prodrive in the UK, and I sat on their advisory board. And then one day, one of the owners says to me, “Look, now, you’re good at this. You’ve got something to add. Would you like to become a part owner?” And I should have taken the question home to my wife, but I was a little bit fast and said, “Yeah, sure, that sounds like a great idea.” And then came home and said, “Cille, look, I’ve done this thing.” Anyway, it worked out well. It’s a very successful team. But she’s used to it because I also have a habit of buying cars and then telling her. But thankfully the cars that I buy tend to be good investments which I can drive around, but so perhaps that’s something the membership doesn’t know, that I race cars and I’ve got part ownership in a very big racing team.
Lindsay: That’s so fun. I love that. I’m going to have to tell my dad. He’s really going to love that too.
Sven: Yes, no, it’s great fun. And to be honest, it’s also, having done it for so long, and at one point I actually owned a race series, I ran it for Porsche back in the late 2000s.
Lindsay: Oh, cool.
Sven: Yes. Well, again, another bright idea with a man, mate of mine and I, probably a few too many beers in and said, “Hey, John, do you reckon we should do this with Porsche?” So, we rang them up and they agreed. So, for three years we ran that. But it’s actually, I do have a lot of contact within Motorsport. So, it actually was the genesis of our sports law practice, which is a very niche practice that I and the two other lawyers in the firm pursue. So, we do a lot in Motorsport, but we do a lot of sponsorship and talent management stuff. And just before this call, I was working on a deal where a client of ours is sponsoring an English Premier League team, and this is the fourth one that we’ve done. So, we get that sort of work about, but it’s also, it all came from Motorsport because Motorsport is sports, it’s got all the elements of talent, sponsorship, and all that sort of stuff. So, I do get a lot of work from being involved, which is nice.
Lindsay: That’s very cool. Very nice. Awesome. Who has been your biggest mentor over your career?
Sven: In my early career, a fellow by the name of Michael Thornton. He’s passed away now, unfortunately. But he gave me my first big break in the law firm that I then became a partner of for 23 years. And what he taught me was to look for the things in other practitioners that you can learn from, and adapt, and make yours for your own style. And he was a very grown-up guy, and he recognized some of his partners as people who perhaps aren’t setting the same, shining examples. So, he would quite diplomatically say, “Look, you know what they’re doing? You might want to not do that.” But what he taught me most was when I was a young lawyer, gee, how old was I, 24, 25, was putting trust in capable people and good people. So, when I joined him, he was running a practice which involved a lot of trial work, a huge amount of trial work. We were acting for an insurer in relation to injury claims that were on the fraudulent end of the spectrum. So we were a specialist firm that deal with insurance fraud.
And here I was as a 25-year-old, and he said to me, “I’ve been doing these for ages. Here, have my file load in this.” And I thought, “That’s fantastic.” So, I immediately inherited sixty-five fraud cases, all of which were running. The client’s policy was never to settle. So, for three years we were doing this work, and I ran, I don’t know, two or three years, I ran sixty trials, sixty-five jury trials. And now, what that taught me and how he mentored, he was always there with the safety net if I was wobbling and falling over. And what I didn’t know is he was in constant contact with the claims managers, letting them know that he was around, but letting me go, and not make mistakes, but giving me the freedom to do the work.
And they were long, long days as a young lawyer, but they made me understand how to manage workloads, how to manage clients, how to manage courts, judges, opponents, witnesses. Back in the day when we didn’t have mobile phones, I used to walk around with a big bag of coins and call all my witnesses from a payphone in the court. It was crazy stuff. But it was wonderful because what it taught me is to give people space and latitude to develop as themselves, as their lawyers, trust them. And if they’re good, they will know what their limitations are. So, Michael was, I think, singularly the biggest influence in shaping the way that I practice law and work with my staff.
Lindsay: Wow, that’s really incredible. He sounds like a wonderful lawyer and a wonderful person.
Sven: Yes, he had the best laugh. Did you ever watch, what was it, there’s a cartoon character called Muttley, and-
Sven: … in the US. Yes, he sniggered like Muttley, this giggle, this absolutely childish giggle, and he found the weirdest shit funny. And sorry, I shouldn’t swear, I suppose, but-
Lindsay: That’s fine.
Sven: I’ve got a bit of an off the wall sense of humor, so I was always making him laugh, which was great.
Lindsay: That’s great.
Sven: Because he’s a wonderful man and I miss him.
Lindsay: I bet. I bet. He sounds wonderful. So along those lines, then, what is one of the most important lessons you’ve learned along your career?
Sven: Never forget humanity, the human part of your clients’ experiences. Doesn’t matter how hard-nosed, if it’s the big M&A deal, try and understand the people in the deal, and what’s motivating them, what they need, what they’re looking for, what their motivations are, and understanding that transactions and disputes involve people and emotions, and inevitably lawyers get tangled up in that. And therefore, you need to manage your own emotions. Even when you feel like being a cheer squad for your client, you shouldn’t be. You should be an advocate and an advisor. So, the thing that you have to bring to it is emotional intelligence, empathy, sometimes sympathy, but understanding everyone for what they want and recognizing that life’s not a battle. It’s actually about generating some decent outcomes, even in the most torrid piece of litigation.
Your job ethically, I’m no deep reader, but Mahatma Gandhi was a lawyer. And I remember reading a book, probably at high school, studying it, but he said, “A lawyer’s primary ethical obligation is to settle disputes. It’s not to fight them.” And so, bringing that into the commercial space, it’s to get an outcome that works for everyone, but ultimately understanding that’s not PSYOPs, it’s understanding people and then saying, “Okay, how can I tailor what I do professionally and non-professionally?”
Lindsay: Yes, very true. Just wrapping up, then, what is something that you’re enjoying at the moment, not to do with work or anything on this podcast?
Sven: Oh, well, we’ve just finished a two-year project building a house down on the coast. And we’re in it, which is fun. We’re down here for three weeks with my wife, Cille, and the two boys. So just being here, after having not had the house, and then looking at my rolling five-year plan, and saying, “Okay.” Because five years ago I said, “Look, I’ve got this five-year plan that means that I’ll be doing less work.” “Yep, okay.” So, I’ve reset that, and I’ve started another five-year plan. But I’m enjoying it. It’s beautiful sea air. The kids love it. They’ve got their bicycles down here. And so, I enjoy coming back down and leaving the city behind, but still working, which is good.
Lindsay: Always working.
Sven: Yes. Look, to be honest, it’s part of my fabric. I think I’m not a person who defines themselves by what I do, certainly. And I don’t say, “I am a lawyer.” No, “I’m a person, I practice the law.” But yes, it’s never far away, particularly when you’re an owner of the business, you’ve got lots going on.
But I can say this in closing, I absolutely love being a lawyer. I’ve never regretted doing what I do and fixing things up, being it a deal or a dispute, I still love being a lawyer. Every client that brings me something I learn from, I’m curious, “How the hell did you get into that? And tell me about your business.” So, you learn so much about what actually happens in the world by understanding your clients, and what they do, and how they make money, or how they lose money. So, unfortunately, just not outside the law, but I still love being a lawyer.
Lindsay: I love that. That’s great. Well, thank you so much again for joining us. I really, excuse me, enjoyed our conversation. And thanks so much to all of our listeners. Please take a moment to rate, review, and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. And we’ll be back next week with our next guest. Thank you so much.
Sven: Thanks, Lindsay.