Twice the law in half the time: Demetrio Zema talks passion, entrepreneurship and shattering stereotypes.
In the November issue of BucketOrange Magazine, we catch up with Demetrio Zema – serial entrepreneur, lawyer and founder of the ‘new-gen’ law firm, Law Squared. Having founded and co-founded six businesses, worked with corporates, SMEs, entrepreneurs and ASX companies, Demetrio had the idea to use his first hand experience of the challenges and opportunities facing young Australian entrepreneurs to found a forward-thinking firm dedicated to helping millennial entrepreneurs and small to medium startup owners succeed. Since its launch in February 2016, Demetrio’s meteoric rise has seen him take out prestigious industry awards such as the 2016 LexisNexis Legal Innovation Index, with his new firm described by the Huffington Post as “Australia’s most innovative law firm.” It’s an intimidating list of achievements. So how has he done it? We unpeel some of the mystery in this month’s feature interview.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and what made you decide to pursue law as a career?
“To be honest, I never wanted to be a lawyer. In fact, I initially wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy. A Bachelor of International Relations is what I needed but, in the interests of broadening my knowledge, thought that a law degree might come in handy too. I studied a double degree in Law/International Relations at Latrobe University and participated in a 4-month internship at the Australian Embassy to the Holy See in Rome after graduation. I completed my Practical Legal Training at the Leo Cussen Centre for Law and was offered a position as an insurance litigator at a prominent mid-tier firm. After a couple of years, I moved on to another mid-tier firm as an Associate in their Commercial Litigation Team. While I am undoubtedly grateful for the experience I gained during my time in the traditional world of the law, I recognised that in times that are dominated by millennial clients and controlled by technology, the legal industry was, and remains, frozen in time. Email and instant messaging are key aspects our daily lives but law firms, lamentably, remain ‘stuck’ in the traditional mechanics of client engagement. A traditional law firm, with its dictaphones, typists and word processing pools sits awkwardly in today’s modern world of fintech and millennial businesses that want and need their lawyers to be present, adaptable, relevant and, of course, personable. I established Law Squared earlier this year – a firm that I hope will offer millennials, entrepreneurs and SMEs services that traditional firms are, simply by their very nature, unable to offer.”
Was there a clear moment that shaped your decision to found your own ‘new-gen’ law firm?
“My dream job throughout much of my younger years was to work for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). However, a passion for business was instilled in me through my family’s involvement in business. This passion led me to participate in the Melbourne start-up and entrepreneur scene soon after I finished high-school, which in turn led me to start my first business at 21. I continued to be involved in the entrepreneurial scene, while studying law at university. It was during this time that I realised there was a gap in the legal market with respect to the provision of legal services to entrepreneurs.
After a few years working as a lawyer, I thought that maybe I could fill this gap by blending my entrepreneurial and legal skills to create a law firm dedicated to assisting entrepreneurs, and changing the way entrepreneurs and businesses engage with lawyers. Sure, there are a number of ‘new-gen’ law firms and ‘law tech’ platforms out there. However, the former type generally don’t span beyond one or two people and the latter type offers a vastly different service to what Law Squared offers. Through conversations with friends working in traditional firms, I was also made aware of the job dissatisfaction epidemic affecting so many young lawyers. I was motivated to create a firm that could not only provide a holistic service to budding and established entrepreneurs but also offer a nurturing environment for young lawyers.”
Who does Law Squared cater to and what is your point of difference?
“Law Squared is driven by outcomes and success. It is a firm for serial entrepreneurs and SME business directors looking for a law firm they can trust. This is one of our main points of difference. We are also dedicated to providing multi-dimensional and holistic services to our unique clientele – our approach is not the ‘cookie-cutter’ kind. Instead, we provide a quasi-partnership to our clients. We aim to provide an authentic way for clients to engage with lawyers. We seek to achieve this by working closely with, and as part of, our clients’ teams. We provide strategic advice and proactively manage daily legal requirements. Our commitment to partnering with entrepreneurs and SMEs is not limited to our current clients. We extend this commitment to the wider-public by hosting free events that range from ‘social events’ to ‘legal seminars.’”
What do you enjoy best about your work?
“I’m a big believer in mentorship and ensuring that young lawyers are well-supported from the start of their careers. I make it a top priority to ensure that my team is happy and are in a positive work environment. One of the greatest aspects of my job is to mentor and support my team members and watch them grow, both individually and collectively.”
What has been the hardest aspect of launching your own firm?
“The greatest challenge has, without a doubt, been time management. With a number of projects on the go, along with a rapidly expanding team and client base, time management has been critical and, unfortunately, the hardest hurdle to overcome prior to and after the launch of Law Squared. I try my best to overcome this challenge by prioritising my team and ensuring that they are as well-supported as needed which, in turn, equips them to support our clients in achieving their desired outcomes.”
What has been your greatest achievement?
“Witnessing my vision come to fruition and take off in such a short space of time. Although Law Squared is less than one year [old], we are in an exponential growth stage. Our firm now employs nine people and we are set to increase by another three team members by end of November 2016. Our growth and rapid expansion is a testament to the trust our clients have in us and the success of our service delivery model.”
Who, or what, inspires you?
“I’m inspired by entrepreneurs. Every day I am fortunate to meet with entrepreneurs who are disrupting an industry, creating a new business, or an opportunity for others. Risk-taking is almost synonymous with entrepreneurship, and being an entrepreneur often means that someone has sacrificed a steady pay check, personal capital and used immense passion to create change and opportunity. Those who are propelling change in their industries and who are determined to make a difference are a great source of inspiration to me.”
What do you think makes a good leader?
“A good leader must create and maintain company culture, be a symbol of moral unity and live the values that hold a company together. Most importantly, a good leader is responsible for conceiving and articulating the goals that lift people out of their preoccupations to carry them above the conflicts that tear company culture apart, and unite them in the pursuit of objectives that are worthy of their best efforts.”
What is your ultimate dream that you would like to achieve through your work?
“My ultimate dream is for Law Squared to be the catalyst for changing the way entrepreneurs and directors engage, and work with, lawyers. We’ve all heard horrendous jokes about lawyers and, more often than not, when we introduce ourselves as lawyers we are pre-judged by a reputation that years of tradition has bestowed upon us. Most businesses or corporates find themselves engaging a lawyer as a last resort, usually when a dispute has reached a critical point. The notion of engaging a lawyer as a last resort is largely due to the reputation traditional lawyers have. Now we are at a time when small businesses are driving the economy and the traditional law firm model is not doing any favours for small businesses. Law Squared has eliminated inefficiencies like hierarchies, charging by time and measuring our peers or the firm’s success based on money, rather than outcomes.
If we can be responsible for a change in conversation about lawyers, then my dream will have become a reality.
You started your first business at 21, have several years of experience working as a commercial lawyer, are actively engaged with the non-profit sector and also divide your time between Melbourne and Sydney. With so many professional commitments, do you have time to maintain interests outside work?
“Well … I sleep little. I find that rising early each day for a run or gym work out is critical to my ultimate mindset and keeps me professionally and personally focused. It also gives me time to see friends or colleagues for early morning meetings so that I can spend the weekends with my family and on the strategy and growth of Law Squared. When you are passionate about what you do, it becomes part of your life so that your personal and professional worlds blend.”
Where do you see yourself, or your business, in five years?
“Such a difficult question. Twelve months ago I wouldn’t have thought I would be where I am today – and yet here I am. I hope in five years to find myself, and my business, in a positive and healthy state with growing teams in Melbourne and Sydney.”
Do you have a favourite expression, saying or philosophy?
“Where do I start?! I think I can break it down to three. Firstly, concern yourself not with what you’ve failed in, but what is still possible for you to do. Secondly, (as clichéd as it sounds) you must love and be happy in what you do. You can get paid the best money with fantastic perks, however, if you are not truly happy, then do something about it. Thirdly, ‘Here we go!’”
What music helps you lawyer at your best?
“I enjoy commercial house and electronic dance music. While it might not seem like the best type of music to help you focus, it’s the genre that keeps me most upbeat and my concentration levels highest. According to my team, I am a terrible singer (and hummer), so I often absorb myself in some good tunes, particularly when focusing on a significant advice or area of litigation.”
Why do you love the law?
“I love the law because my team and I now play an active role in the day-to-day businesses of our clients. From starting-up or incorporating a company to assisting in a capital raise or large acquisition, we play a vital role in the lives and businesses of our clients. Achieving these outcomes is what makes me love the law.”
What is your favourite legal series or movie?
“During university I watched the entire series of Boston Legal. I loved Denny Crane and was misguided to think that law firms actually operated this way. Ending the day with whiskey and a cigar is common practice … isn’t it?! [laughs].”
What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
“The best advice I have received came from my dad. Unfortunately, in July this year he passed away. Since his passing, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the advice he often gave me. When I put together a business plan for Law Squared, I gave him a copy and asked for his thoughts. I received the plan back in a couple of hours, dripping in red ink and mark-ups. Across the top he had written ‘What is it you are trying to achieve? And why will anyone care?’
His advice was to learn from my mistakes, to grow from my failures and to strive to make a real difference – not for the sake of my own ambition or vanity but to enable me to reach my full potential and to help others along the way.
He constantly reminded me to be true to what I set out to achieve and to ensure I make a positive impact. He taught me to be a leader, to believe in others and to believe in my own vision. He taught me to set myself apart from the rest – this is the best advice I have ever been given.”
What is your favourite law hack or life hack at the moment?
“Paperless – everything paperless!
Removing paper, and the clutter it creates, is my favourite life hack at the moment. As I float between Melbourne and Sydney on a weekly basis, I have slowly transitioned everything in my personal and professional life to paperless. I scan all my documents, save them on cloud computing storage and shred the document. This means that I can be anywhere in the world for personal or professional reasons and have immediate access to all my data and documents.”
What is one piece of advice you would give a young Australian who is looking to break the mould, as you have, and forge an alternative career pathway in their chosen industry?
“For those with an active mind who are looking for an alternative career pathway, having a strong mentor and leader in your workplace is critical. Many say you should work for a good company – I believe that you should work for a good leader. Having a leader whom you trust and respect, and who values you and your efforts, far exceeds the satisfaction gained from working in a ‘named’ business. We spend large amounts of our time at work and it is important to be working in an environment where you feel valued, challenged and are provided with opportunities.”🍊
BucketOrange Magazine / November 2016