Chat with Matthew Taylor

14 mins

Matthew is the co-founder and managing director of MET Designs, a social enterprise that aims to transform lives through education. He is also a policy manager at the Victorian Government and a member of the Global Shapers Community (an initiative of the World Economic Forum).

He started out as a commercial lawyer before pursuing his interests in social innovation and entrepreneurship full time.

Matthew is an engaging public speaker with a passion for making a difference. He blew our socks off when he presented to the public service on delivering social and environmental outcomes through government procurement.

I caught up with Matthew over coffee to find out more about his journey to date, his advice for students and lawyers, and exciting developments in the social economy and public sector.

Note: Matthew’s responses below are provided in his personal capacity and do not represent any organisation he is associated with in a professional capacity.

LB. Thanks for coming along for a chat with us Matthew. You worked as a commercial litigator for several years. Let’s start from the beginning (of sorts)—can you tell us a bit about why you chose law school?

MT. Thanks for inviting me! By the time I finished high school, I was quite certain that I wanted to study law. The more difficult decision was whether to combine law with arts or commerce.

Why did I choose law? I’ve always been insatiably curious. Growing up, I’d interrogate my parents and teachers about why things work the way they do, and a common response was “That’s the law!” So, naturally, I wanted to understand how this mysterious legal system worked—not only what the law is but also how laws are made and evolve over time. I was also influenced by people who had studied and practised law. I admired the way they thought, how they challenged received wisdom, and their active engagement in the community. I didn’t necessarily dream of being a lawyer, but I believed that a legal education would be worthwhile in any event.

Of course, there are also expectations about what you should do if you achieve good grades at the end of high school. If the world is your oyster, so to speak, law and medicine are often presented as the pearls. There was no precedent for law in my family, so it was primarily at school that I encountered these expectations. I was lucky that my desire to study law happened to align with them. Or perhaps I was thoroughly brainwashed from a young age?

LB. How was your time in private practice?

MT. I spent five years in private practice at large international law firms, specialising in commercial disputes and regulatory investigations and proceedings. My time as a lawyer was both testing and rewarding.

I had an amazing run of complex and engaging work, and relished the intellectual stimulation that it provided. I worked with, and learned from, exceptionally talented solicitors, barristers and clients. I made lifelong friends. I honed valuable technical and professional skills.

However, these rewards came at a significant cost. For many lawyers, especially those working for the largest or top-tier firms, law is a seven-day week profession. Some firms, or particular teams or practice areas within a firm, have better cultures than others. But the lived experience is often far from glamorous. Excessive office hours, a 24-hour email cycle, inflexible work arrangements, and an unhealthy fixation on billable targets are all symptoms of a managerial credo to “please the client at whatever cost”. Perhaps the most significant cost for lawyers is that important areas of our lives are often neglected, such as sleep, personal relationships, diet, exercise, leisure activities, health appointments and life administration.

An anachronistic business model and organisational culture has been a longstanding formula for profitability at many firms. But the industry is under increasing pressure to change. Pressure points include automation, limited opportunities for progression to partnership, and a marked shift in the values and expectations of younger generations. If traditional firms do not adapt, they risk not only failing to retain exceptional lawyers, but ultimately failing to attract them in the first place.

As testing as those five years were, at times, it taught me a lot about what is important to me. Therefore, I don’t regret my time in private practice, but nor do I miss it.

LB. Why did you ultimately leave the profession?

MT. Although my departure was sudden and unplanned, the circumstances that led to it developed over several years.

The more I progressed in my law career, the more I contemplated what kind of leader I want to be. I felt increasingly uncomfortable imposing the kinds of demands and conditions on others that I had accepted for myself. Unfortunately, there was limited room for dissent. Progressing to a leadership position would require me to accept and perpetuate the existing culture, rather than create real opportunities to shape it in a more positive and sustainable direction.

At the same time, I co-founded and managed a social enterprise in my “spare time” and felt a strong affinity with the entrepreneurs, changemakers and community leaders working in that sector. It was my involvement in the social economy that exposed me to a powerful idea that completely changed the course of my career.

LB. We’ll come back to that powerful idea a little bit later. Did you have a particular “aha!” moment about the direction you want to take your life while practising as a lawyer?

MT. There was no “Eureka” moment! I didn’t consider myself on the path to partnership, but I wasn’t actively searching for opportunities outside the profession either.

While I was working on the Banking Royal Commission, I was presented with a job opportunity that I couldn’t refuse: I could help develop an innovative policy that would deliver social and environmental outcomes and make a real difference in people’s lives.

LB. It was good timing!

MT. Yes! Good timing and a leap of faith.

LB. In a rather multi-talented way, you mentioned that you started MET Designs while (I suspect) working rather excessive hours in a big firm. Can you tell us more about the story behind your social enterprise and its inspiration?

MT. The story of how MET Designs started reminds me of an African proverb: “the blessing lies close to the wound”. The idea for my social enterprise came to me while I was on “forced rest” to recover from illness. I got sick while I was working on a significant trial and, foolishly, I pushed through. When the trial was over, my health improved temporarily and then I got sick again. Eventually, I took my doctor’s advice to take time off work to let my immune system recover.

It was a low point for me, but I was determined to make the most of the circumstances. So I reinvested in some of my interests that didn’t require much physical energy—mainly reading, writing and art. I was reading The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka at my favourite cafe when, out of nowhere, I came up with a design concept to engage people in classic works of literature. As I tested the concept, I realised that it could translate to some unique products for book lovers. And if I was going to create products for book lovers, it seemed like an obvious choice to use any profits from the business to help others learn to read and write. That was the beginning of Metamorphosis or, as we now call it, MET Designs.

LB. I went on the MET Designs website and I thought, “wow this is amazing”.

MT. Thanks! The business has developed a lot since then. We started with a series of T-shirts and tote bags inspired by classic works of literature. But over the past few years, we’ve become a design collective that creates beautiful, quality products inspired by reading and ideas. We collaborate with emerging artists to transform books, ideas and quotes into products that tell a powerful story. Our product range now includes apparel, jewellery, stationery and art prints.

As a not-for-profit social enterprise, our profits support literacy programs that empower kids to reach their full potential and write their own story. Our mission is to transform lives through education. So far, we’ve supported innovative literacy programs run by our partner charity, the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation.

LB. MET Designs had a pretty exciting campaign earlier this year. Can you tell us a bit more about it and where you’re headed next?

MT. Recently, our team decided to focus on stationery and reimagine what is possible with these products. Our objective was to create premium, sustainable notebooks that are better for people and the planet.

To achieve this, we joined forces with another local social enterprise called Words with Heart and launched the project with a crowdfunding campaign on StartSomeGood. The sale of every notebook provides at least one day of education for women and girls in our region, and our profits also contribute to literacy outcomes in Indigenous communities. On the sustainability side, each notebook is crafted with 100% post-consumer recycled paper, eco-inks, green electricity and no harsh printing chemicals.

Our crowdfunding campaign finished in February and delivered at least 1,500 education days for women and girls in our region! Our notebooks demonstrated that consumers don’t need to compromise on quality or break the bank to do the right thing by people and the planet.

LB. Which is great because these days consumers are really looking out for a product that addresses all of these issues. So that segues into my next question, being—how do social enterprises balance making a positive difference to society, while being conscious that we might not always have the right or all-encompassing solutions?

MT. When we started MET Designs, we recognised that educational inequality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is a complex problem. I remember being shocked by the “Closing the Gap” report at that time, which concluded that there was no overall improvement in Indigenous literacy and numeracy between 2008 and 2015. We needed to find and partner with experts who had demonstrated their ability to make a positive impact.

That’s why we adopted the “fundraising” or “profit redistribution” model of social enterprise. This is where a business generates profits which are redistributed to social or charitable activities. The public is becoming familiar with this model because of household names like Thank You and Who Gives A Crap. This model inherently recognises that social enterprises do not have all-encompassing solutions. Instead, they directly support other organisations that are solving a problem or, at the very least, ameliorating its symptoms.

However, social enterprises can achieve impact in different ways. Some social enterprises create social impact by providing training, employment and support for people who face significant barriers to finding and maintaining a job. Vanguard Laundry Services and STREAT are great examples of this model. There are also social enterprises that deliver goods or services that address an unmet need in the community. A good example is VisionSpring, which aims to provide affordable glasses to hundreds of millions of vision-impaired people in low-income nations.

LB. What are, in your view, the biggest challenges right now that social enterprises can help solve? I must admit it’s a huge question!

MT. The social enterprise sector is broad. You’ll find different business models, operating at all functional levels of the economy, and tackling all sorts of problems. Unfortunately, we are spoiled for choice when it comes to problems to solve. You don’t have to look very far to find the standard that you are unable to walk past. That’s the standard you should work to change.

However, I have an important qualification. The scale and complexity of some of the challenges we face are unprecedented. Social enterprises are not a panacea to the world’s most complex problems, but they may be an important part of the solution. We need to recognise that, while social enterprises can change lives and improve communities, their capacity to shift the conditions that hold these problems in place may be limited.

With the best of intentions, social entrepreneurs may apply quick fixes that make a problem worse in the long-run or, alternatively, solve one problem while contributing to another. An example of this is where a social enterprise produces consumer goods to solve a social problem, but harms the environment in the process. When it comes to solving complex problems, it’s easy to identify symptoms, difficult to diagnose root causes, and harder still to prescribe effective and sustainable interventions. More than ever, we need to encourage collective impact, with deep engagement across sectors and organisations that share a common interest in addressing complex problems.

LB. Through your work in the social enterprise sector, you became interested in the concept of “social procurement”. You’re now supporting social procurement through your work in government. Can you explain what social procurement is and why it’s important?

MT. Over the past decade, social procurement has been frequently identified as an opportunity for growing the social enterprise sector. This is because governments and businesses can buy many goods and services directly from social enterprises. However, social procurement is much more than this.

Social procurement is when organisations use their buying power to generate social value above and beyond the value of the goods or services being procured. Social value creation can involve reducing negative impacts and delivering positive outcomes.

In Australia alone, social procurement has been described as a $600 billion opportunity for social change. It recognises that the purchasing decisions we make have a profound impact not only on the economy, but also the environment and the community. By making small changes to the way that organisations procure goods and services, they can harness the power of the marketplace to change the world.

LB. How are the skills that you learnt as a lawyer relevant to running a social enterprise and your policy work in government?

MT. The core competencies of a commercial lawyer are readily transferable and highly sought after elsewhere. I frequently use my skills and experience from my legal career in my current roles, but tailored for different audiences and clients. These include commercial awareness, attention to detail, analytical and logical reasoning, researching and distilling complex information, strategic problem solving, and strong interpersonal and communication skills.

One difference is that my public policy and social enterprise work involves developing and managing a wider range of stakeholder relationships, so emotional intelligence is extremely important.

LB. Do you have any advice for lawyers who want to leave the profession, but are not sure how to?

MT. It’s important to focus on the source of dissatisfaction. Are you dissatisfied with the culture of your organisation or the type or subject matter of your work? It may be your manager or team or practice area, rather than the legal profession, that you want to leave. For example, working long hours in a negative environment can tarnish any activity that you’re inherently passionate about, and perhaps that passion can be rekindled elsewhere. 

Before deciding to leave the profession, reconnect with why you studied and practised law in the first place and remember that the profession is broad. It’s easy to lose perspective on this in private practice. There may be an alternative legal career that more closely aligns with your values, priorities and interests. Common alternatives are practising in-house at a corporation or in a government department or agency.

If the solution does lie outside the law, there are so many options. You’ll find ex-lawyers in public policy, politics, diplomacy, advocacy groups, journalism, academia, civil society and even further afield. A challenge that some lawyers face is that they haven’t actively maintained their interests and activities outside work, so they feel trapped or ill-prepared for a career move. If that’s the case, it’s helpful to focus on your competencies and experience and how these translate to different roles and settings. If you find a role that interests you, reach out to people in that space, especially if they’ve successfully transitioned from law.

One last thing I’d recommend is to give yourself time and space. If possible, a short break or extended holiday can provide perspective and open up the diary to job hunt, seek advice and pursue options. Doing these from a time-poor position, with limited headspace, is far from ideal.

LB. Stepping back a little in the timeline, do you have any advice for students who are either considering law school or are at law school, but suspect that law might not be their passion?

MT. At the end of high school or law school, there’s a lot of pressure on students to answer the question, “What are you going to do now?” It’s natural to feel intimidated or ambivalent. Understandably, some students feel stuck at these crossroads, paralysed by the inculcated belief that they can do anything, the reality that it’s impossible to do everything, and the fear of missing out or making the wrong decision. If this resonates with you, I have a few pieces of advice. 

First, law school and legal practice can be very demanding, so it’s important to reflect on your motivations. Extrinsic motivations shouldn’t be discounted or dismissed, but they’re less likely to satisfy and sustain you in the long-term. If your primary motivation is that it is expected of you, or that you’ve already invested so much to get here, I consider these to be red flags.

Secondly, think less about what you want to do next and more about how you want to do it and who you want to be. There is much more to being a lawyer than matters of law. The degree or practising certificate doesn’t define you. It’s what you do with the privilege of having it. What problems need solving? Who will you help? And to what end? 

Thirdly, remember that nothing in this world is permanent. As monumental as these choices feel in the moment, you can change courses and careers. At the very least, starting your journey down one path will change your vantage point and reveal other paths that were once hidden from view.  

Lastly, “follow your passion” is popular but problematic career advice. Many people haven’t found a passion by the time they need to decide. Others, like me, are passionate about many things. Passion is a strong emotion and a fickle guide. You can be passionate about an idea or a job one day, and uninterested the next. So if you’re going to follow your passion, make sure you have a good plan. And a backup plan! If you haven’t discovered a passion, don’t wait for it to find you. There are many valid reasons to choose a course or career, and discovering your passion is not a prerequisite. At most, passion is part of the equation. This is recognised by the Japanese concept of “Ikigai”. In the West, it’s been depicted as the sweet spot between what you love, what you’re good at, what you can be paid for, and what the world needs. This is a much more useful framework for finding meaningful work, if you’re lucky enough to have the opportunity to choose.

LB. That’s great advice because people often try to fit in a box or a narrative—but that doesn’t necessarily match up with who they are as a person. So, on to the next question… I know you read a lot.

MT. I own a lot of books, and try to read them.

LB. Can you recommend one book you’ve read recently that changed your perspective about the world?

MT. One book that recently changed my perspective was “The Entrepreneurial State” by Mariana Mazzucato. Through a series of well-researched case studies, she debunks myths about the public and private sectors and demonstrates that an entrepreneurial State has made visionary and high-risk investments in innovations that have shaped and even created markets. 

Since I finished reading it, I’ve been thinking a lot about how public policy can be used to give direction to economic growth and innovation. Growth does not just have a rate. It has a direction. Where do we want our economy to take us? What is the proper role of the public sector in fostering long-term, sustainable economic growth? These are not only economic questions—they are cultural and ethical questions. 

LB. If you could turn back time, what do you wish you could go back to tell your past self about?

MT. The time machine question, haha! I don’t think my past self would have been very receptive. I was probably too stubborn and self-centred to heed the advice. But let’s play out this hypothetical: if I sat down with my adolescent self over a coffee, just like this, I’d relay some key messages from the future.

First, actively design your own life—lest the system design it for you. I received this advice early in my legal career and it served me well. But it also applies to life as a whole. There are lots of things we can’t control but, as best we can, we should aim to design our lives proactively, strategically and deliberately. And re-evaluate often. 

Secondly, surround yourself with people who help you flourish and inspire you to be your best self. There have been times where I haven’t paid enough attention to this. 

Thirdly, invest more in people and the community. That’s where the most meaningful dividends are earned. 

LB. Not in legal tender.

MT. Haha! Priceless. 

The final point I’d make is to redefine the metrics of failure and success. This is a hard task for people who struggle with perfectionism. To try and not succeed is not the definition of failure; real failure is not having the courage to try in the first place. Success is not only measured by the ends achieved, but also the means used to achieve them. Reframing failure and success in this way might have levelled some of the peaks and troughs I’ve experienced over the years to get where I am now.

Keen on supporting MET Designs? Check out their shop here.