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Cultural Alignment: Leveraging Events & Partnerships in a New Market with Natalie Di Donato

An interview with Natalie Di Donato, Events & Partnerships Lead at Law Squared

In an insightful conversation, Natalie Di Donato, Events & Partnerships Lead at Law Squared shares how her events background bolsters her role within strategic partnerships across multiple regions, including Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and beyond. Learn the value of cultural alignment, the pivotal role of trust and communication in fostering successful partnerships in new markets, trends and advice on securing partnerships in the UK (a notoriously more difficult market to navigate) and real-world examples of how a global leading law firm leverages partnerships to stand out in a competitive market.

Tell me about your background and how you became a partner leader in your current organization.

My background has always been in the events, entertainment and partnerships space. My previous roles have always relied on events and partnership leads working together and falling under one position as most events and activations I worked on had some form of commercial agreement attached which fed into the event or strategy. I got the best of both worlds of having experience and exposure across event portfolios and partnerships.

I moved across to Law Squared in 2022 to take over the events and community portfolio and within a year took on the partnerships portfolio due to a natural fit between our events and partner strategy. My role is now leading the events, partnerships and community portfolios across our offices in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney, New Zealand and London.

When you took on the partnership role, how did you plan to take on more partnerships beyond just events?

I was fortunate enough to have had quite a good relationship with Law Squared’s  partners prior to my role changing, as I had worked quite closely with them through the events and opportunities that we had worked on together. However, in saying that, when I took over the portfolio, the firm was going through a huge period of growth and as a team we had to sit down and re-evaluate what our objectives were, how our partnerships were going to contribute to our growth and success, and what our long term strategy was. This included looking at which partners were a good fit and would deliver value and alignment in our next phase of growth. 

We also had to think a little bit more about the activities that we were hosting and participating in to ensure that we were thinking beyond events and working with partners aligned to what we are trying to achieve. So, in summary both the firm and I had to adopt a more strategic approach and look beyond the events space.

The business sees the value in this role and understands how the right partnerships can directly contribute to our growth. In some organizations, events are seen as a nice to have, rather than strategic lever for growth and relationships. 

Was leveraging partners always considered integral for market entry and scaling the business?

We place significant emphasis on community engagement, which became even more important when we expanded to the UK. Partnerships naturally emerged as a key driver for our growth plan, not only in the UK, but across Australia. The ability to lean on industry leaders for advice, especially where they had presence and experience in the UK market has helped us to make connections, network and increase client engagement and referrals.

As a firm, we have a clear and ambitious mission; to change the conversations people are having about lawyers. Our exclusively fixed-fee model also makes us unique globally for a firm of our size and scope. Therefore, it is important that we build strong relationships with our partners so they also become our biggest supporters and can help us achieve our mission and bring that message to life with a broader audience. Being true partnerships, the relationship goes both ways, and we are committed to helping them achieve their business objectives.

When evaluating potential partners, do you prioritize cultural alignment with your business? 

For us, ensuring that our partners align to our mission and our ethos is paramount. When embarking on a new partnership, we take the time to really get to know our partners’ business – and vice versa. This alignment ensures that our partners can effectively assist us in our conversations, speaking our language in the market. 

Partnership opportunities often pop up, and we are always open to having a conversation and learning about their business or community and what they themselves are setting out to achieve. However, when it comes to a checklist or what we look for in those conversations, it's usually evident early on whether a potential partnership will be purely transactional or if it has the potential to evolve into a broader relationship where the partner genuinely understands our objectives and is willing to go above and beyond to help us achieve. Whilst formal partner agreements help create transparency and accountability, the best relationships in my experience, are those where both parties go beyond the official terms outlined to provide mutual value. It is really about supporting each other where you can.

Besides having a trusted relationship and aligned business ethos, how do you make sure that both parties continue to add value and generate revenue over time, especially when entering new markets that might take longer without the partnership?

The biggest factor in successful partnerships is communication. Being able to speak freely and openly is crucial. Naturally, there will be bumps in the road, such as miscommunications or periods of misalignment. It's important to have honest conversations during these times, sitting down and discussing the need to pivot or addressing discomfort with certain aspects of the partnership. Sometimes, my role is about picking up the phone and saying, "Hey, I'm concerned about this," or "We're looking at this and not sure if it's working. What do you think?" This openness is invaluable.

Regular check-ins are another critical aspect that can be overlooked. Even if there's no specific initiatives that month, regular touchpoints help ensure ongoing alignment and provide a space for suggestions and ideas to emerge. While managing multiple partnerships can be challenging, it's essential to make a conscious effort to keep checking-in to ensure the relationship stays on track. There's nothing worse than reaching the end of a campaign or project and having your partner express dissatisfaction that could have been addressed earlier. Transparent communication from the start and throughout the process is vital to avoid such situations.

How important is trust when establishing and maintaining partnerships and how would you recommend building it in the beginning? 

Trust is perhaps the most important factor for a successful partnership. If you have chosen the right partner, someone who understands your goals and aligns with them from the start, trust may come naturally. In other cases, where the parties are less well known to each other, it’s something that comes with time and by demonstrating that you are a person and a firm that’s transparent and takes its commitments seriously. 

Patience is also crucial. Depending on the size of the business, the partnership might be your sole focus, but your partner may be juggling other elements, activations, or campaigns internally. It is important to be patient, especially during difficult conversations. There might be pressure from other departments or internal shifts within your partner's organization. Be conscious of this and remember that this is a partnership where both businesses are navigating their own internal dynamics. 

My advice is to err on the side of trust and patience; remember that they have their own business to run and if you’ve put the time into building a strong relationship and keeping the lines of communication open, most things can be managed. 

How do you approach partnerships with different types of organizations? E.g. smaller organizations versus larger enterprises.

The size of a business isn’t a core consideration for establishing a partnership. The value of a partner, whether they are a small or large business, comes from their alignment and ability to add value to our mission. If their network or target audience aligns with ours, it can be an incredibly valuable partnership, regardless of their size.

Far more important is alignment with our values and mission. Once this is established, we would look at other factors, such as their network, opportunities, and how prepared they are to invest in a long-term partnership.

At Law Squared, our partnerships range from Pride in Law, a small not-for-profit group, to the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, a cornerstone of Australia’s rich cultural heritage and much larger organization with multinational exposure. Pride in Law aligns with our passion and values and they always support us, so we naturally want to support them. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra partnership is a world-class organization that helps increase our reach and exposure. An important value-add of partnering with the MSO is being able to reward and recognise our clients through bespoke classical music opportunities. Both organizations share our values and understand our goals and we value each partner enormously. 

How do you measure the success of your current partnerships? 

Tracking the effectiveness of partnership activities can be challenging because so often it is about trying to measure something that is intangible; for instance, how do you measure ‘good will created’?  Our approach is to track who we are engaging with, and how we came in contact with them whether that’s through events, client referrals or via digital channels. 

This data helps us to better understand our customer lifecycle and ensure our network is invited to the most relevant opportunities. We use Salesforce, our CRM platform to help us track this data.

As a firm, building effective relationships with businesses takes time —it can be months or even years before someone we meet turns into a client needing legal support. For instance, someone might attend an event, then have a coffee catch-up and six months later reach out for legal support. By capturing these touchpoints in Salesforce, we have a better understanding of what initiatives are most successful and ultimately assess the ROI of our partnerships. 

Tracking marketing communications is somewhat easier. We can measure open rates, clickable links, and other digital metrics. The key is to understand how individuals enter our ecosystem and then track their journey through to becoming a client, and eventually, an advocate. 

How do you address the challenges of measuring partnership success, especially considering the difficulty in pulling and sharing the necessary data? Additionally, how important is executive-level support that understands long-term partnerships?

Businesses are under increasing pressure to justify spending and so I feel very fortunate that our leadership team at Law Squared value engaging in in-market activities that build stronger relationships. At the end of the day, clients want to work with people they like, so providing them ‘value’ through events or content (be that in the form of networking connections, money can’t buy experiences, or useful knowledge) helps us foster positive relationships and build credibility.

Even before someone becomes a paying client, we believe in giving back to our community, whether that is by inviting them to networking events or providing them with relevant introductions or free content. If we look at the longer term, say a three-year period, we find that the individuals we initially gave time and attention to are often the ones who become return clients and refer to themselves. This approach demonstrates the value of investing in relationships and building trust, which ultimately brings returns.

When entering new markets, how do you leverage the value of partnerships from an opportunities perspective to a new audience, shortening the sales cycle and creating immediate trust with customers in new markets?

Law Squared isn’t a hard sales business. Instead, we aim to build credibility with our partners, who in turn refer us to their network. A referral is always more powerful when it comes from someone else! In a new market, this is enormously helpful for helping build brand awareness and create warm introductions. 

This again highlights the difference between purely transactional partnerships where there's a formal agreement, and partnerships where the other party genuinely wants to help us succeed. The latter is where the real value lies. When partners believe in what we do and think it's in their client's best interest to work with Law Squared, they are more than happy to make introductions. 

These relationship-based partnerships are crucial, especially when entering a new market. They provide long-term benefits and are more meaningful than just having a transactional agreement. While purely transactional partnerships can provide some logo placement opportunities or other more superficial introductions, the deeper, relationship-based partnerships are what truly make a difference.

After the last four weeks spent in the UK, have you observed any differences in how the UK and Australia engage partners? 

We need to appreciate the cultural differences when working in a new market and adapt accordingly. For us, the main difference between building relationships in Australia and the UK is probably due to the size and speed of London versus an Australian city. We’ve found it takes more effort to get that initial meeting because everyone is busy, more dispersed and already has existing relationships. As a new player in the UK, it's been invaluable to have partners help make those warm introductions. 

Additionally, the way clients and businesses engage with events and partnerships varies greatly. In the UK, people are very strategic about what they attend, looking for specific value or benefits. They want to understand in advance the tangible value they will gain from attending an event. The UK market is saturated with opportunities, such as numerous legal conferences, making it crucial to clearly communicate the unique value and experience our events offer.

To stand out in this competitive landscape, our partners have been helpful in creating relevant and appealing experiences that motivate potential UK clients to attend. This underscores the necessity of on-ground relationships with partners who understand the lay of the land. 

When you return to Australia, do you anticipate any challenges in managing partnerships remotely from there? 

I manage most of our partnership conversations from Australia, but our team in the UK is extremely hands-on. I ensure they are always looped in and have some form of relationship with our partnership contacts. This ensures that if anything urgent arises, our UK team can address it directly.

This level of coordination isn't common in all businesses, but we have designed our ways of working to support collaboration, even at distance. Even though our UK lawyers are primarily focused on their legal work, they understand and appreciate the importance of partnerships for our growth. Therefore, they are always willing to help out, whether it’s attending an event on behalf of the firm or having face-to-face meetings with partners when necessary. 

How do you perceive the importance of physical presence and face-to-face interactions in building trust and credibility with partners, especially during your four-week stay in the UK? 

I don’t think you can underestimate the value of having team members on the ground when entering a new market. Physical presence not only allows for more impactful face-to-face interactions that are essential for building trust and demonstrating commitment, but also accelerates your understanding of the local market and culture.  When local partners and clients see that you are serious about expanding and investing time and energy into the market they are more likely to take you seriously and be willing to support your efforts.

Having someone physically present in the market shows dedication and helps solidify relationships that are vital for successful expansion.

From your experience in the UK market, are there any emerging trends or notable differences in the world of business partnerships that you believe could influence practices in other regions like Australia? 

Nowadays, there's a noticeable shift towards bespoke partnerships, diverging from the traditional transactional approach. Factors such as market saturation, growth objectives, available partnerships, and community engagement influence this trend.

For us, when pursuing larger partnerships or sponsorships, we are really focused on customized solutions that play to our strengths and objectives. This involves breaking down what each party can offer and identifying synergies that position us as market differentiators. Similarly, we welcome partners' input on their needs and objectives, fostering open conversations to craft unique collaborations.

This emphasis on ‘uniqueness’ stems from the increasing costs associated with partnerships and the need to ensure every investment delivers tangible value. Additionally, in the UK market, there's a strong inclination towards niche networking opportunities; whether that’s within FinTech, women in tech, or other sectors, we’ve found targeted engagements yield much higher value for participants.

I think the trend towards bespoke partnerships reflects a more strategic approach to the partnership and sponsorship portfolio, where collaboration, niche engagements and ‘money can’t buy’ experiences are highly prized.  

What aspect of your role as a partner leader do you find most rewarding?

For me, the most fulfilling aspect is knowing that my role directly contributes to the firm's overarching goals. It's immensely satisfying to witness the impact our efforts have on the firm’s growth and in turn, how that can positively shape the legal profession more broadly. 

I also feel fortunate to be part of a team that values individual expertise and trusts each member to excel in their respective roles. This creates a sense of empowerment and autonomy, allowing us to make informed decisions and drive initiatives forward independently. This mutual trust underscores the firm's commitment to nurturing talent and providing opportunities for growth and development, which is crucial for retaining staff and fostering a thriving work environment.

What advice would you offer to individuals aspiring to become partner leaders?

Recognising when partnerships have run their course: It's natural for businesses to outgrow certain partnerships or for partnerships to outgrow the business. While it can be challenging to let go of a partnership, it's essential to understand that evolving strategies and priorities may necessitate ending or pausing certain partnerships.

At times, this realization can feel personal, leading to questions about whether enough value was extracted or if sufficient nurturing was provided. However, it's crucial to accept that not every partnership will be a good fit at every stage of the business' growth. Being open to new partnerships and understanding that partnerships evolve alongside the business is key.

Managing multiple partnerships requires a delicate balancing act: Some partnerships may demand more time and attention, while others run smoothly in the background. It's essential to maintain open and transparent communication with all partners and ensure regular check-ins to keep relationships healthy and strong.

At Think & Grow, we work with founders to source and leverage partnerships in the new markets they're looking to expand into to make their market entry a success. Get in touch to see how we can help.  


ARTICLE by Aisling Curley, Head of Partnerships and Ecosystems, 14 July 2024

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