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Persons of Interest: Peter Carew

Peter Carew’s highly successful law firm is all about people, in the way it manages its staff as much as it deals with its clients

By Steve Packer

Looking back on more than 30 years working in the difficult, emotion-charged area of family law, Peter Carew is typically plain-speaking about his motivations and methods.
“I chose this field because we constantly deal with people, and I happen to like people,” says Carew, the principal of Carew Counsel Solicitors, a leading Victorian family law firm he established in 1979.

As for family law being an emotional challenge, he says it certainly is for the clients, but not so much for the lawyers, and he draws on a horse racing allusion.
“We’re engaged to be objective, and while we have enormous empathy for what people are going through, they don’t come to us to be a jockey. We’re there to train them and guide them in the right direction, to get them through a difficult period of their lives in the least amount of time and in the most cost-effective way.

“You can’t go home every night for 30 years with your client’s problems on your shoulders. When you walk out the door, you shut it all down.”
Carew’s door at Carew Counsel is in the Marsh Centre, in central Melbourne’s Lonsdale Street. Unusual for a legal practise, the firm’s 15 lawyers and many support staff have a ‘flatline’ management structure. Everyone from the receptionist to Carew comes to a meeting every two weeks where decisions are made collectively.

“The day I walked into my first job, my employer walked out, so in many ways I’ve never had a boss,” he says. “One of the good things that came out of always working for myself is respect for people I work with. I’ve never enjoyed the idea of the ‘how to do it’ being sent down from above. People own change if they’re part of it, and they resist and avoid change if they’ve had no input into it. So we’ve been able to move with the times, but I think we’re unique that way.”

The principle extends to the entire staff going away together each year so they can sit down to create a strategic plan for the next 12 months. This year they went to Darwin for a long weekend.
“That’s about setting the direction the bus is going in. Then we hand over control to the bus driver – the office manager – who either cracks the whip or dangles the carrot to help achieve the collective goals.

“From my point of view, each month I sit down and review the accounts with the office manager and the accounts manager, but it takes no longer than an hour. If you plan well and stick to your plans, and adjust only when necessary – because there’s a strategic reason for doing it – you head in the right direction and maintain that direction.
“These are troubled times for a lot of businesses, but we’ve had growth of nearly 25 per cent for each of the last seven years. I’m very fortunate with the people I work with and what we’ve achieved.”

“Persons Of Interest” By Steve Packer, View: A magazine for Bank of Melbourne Private, 02 Summer 2013.