The changing face of the legal profession

While restrictions are being eased in Victoria and life in Australia is approaching some sense of ‘COVID-normal’, many of the changes necessitated by the pandemic have left a lasting impact on the way we live and work – and the legal profession is no exception.

Woman working from home

Different impacts at different career stages

Joel Barolsky, Senior Fellow at MLS and Managing Director of Barolsky Advisors, says the shifts in working arrangements within the legal sector since the pandemic started have affected people differently depending on the stage of their career.

The people who have experienced the biggest negative impact are early career lawyers – law clerks, law graduates, first- or second-year lawyers – who would normally get quite a lot of direct supervision.

“What’s happened with the pandemic is that because these people have often been out of sight, they’re out of mind. They have not been getting the same level of attention, training, or supervision – which is an important part of their learning process.”

Mr Barolsky says mid-level lawyers have generally been very busy, with many having to balance caring for young families or other family members. At a more senior level there has been the ongoing need for high-level legal advice, but it has varied from practice to practice.

“There will be some practitioners who have never been busier in their lives, for instance senior partners in employment law helping their clients with a range of employment-related issues – redundancies, change of roles, employment contracts – a whole raft of things given the changes that have happened.

“Then there are some areas where it’s been less busy, such as insolvency. Because the government has put moratoriums and constraints around which businesses can be made insolvent, they’ve actually had very little work on – so there are pressures of sustaining a practice.”

Mr Barolsky adds that many senior lawyers have had to become a lot more adept at managing and leading their people remotely.

“They’ve had to be more conscious of connecting with their staff and more deliberate in the way they lead and manage their teams – they can’t just take it for granted that they’ll connect like when they’re in the office together. For some that’s been hard, but for others it’s been a revelation and they’ve gotten to know their people a lot better.”

MLS Senior Fellow and Managing Director of Barolsky Advisors Joel Barolsky

Flexibility away from the office 

Another dimension compounding the changes is that when many firms moved to work from home, they became more reliant on cloud-based technologies for document storage and communicating.

“For people who have already moved down that path it’s been seamless, but in some firms there are partners who were very reliant on paper and legal secretaries or assistants – they almost hadn’t adapted their work practices for 25 years. Suddenly they don’t have their secretary at hand, they’ve had to work with the cloud system, and it’s been a very steep learning curve.”

Looking to the future, Mr Barolsky thinks legal firms will be more comfortable with flexible working arrangements, possibly as a combination of working from home and from the office.

“There’s an appreciation that people can still be highly productive not working in the office – and I think that is going to be a permanent change for the better.

People are recognising the benefit of flexible work for individuals and adjusting the system to make it work best for people in the firm.

While the primary benefit of this is flexibility for staff, Mr Barolsky notes there’s also potential for savings on occupancy costs. “Perhaps the office doesn’t need to be as big if you’ve got only a proportion of your workforce in the office at any one time.”

However, Mr Barolsky says there’s a risk that firms could lose their social fabric and sense of community and connection.

“If you have more people working from home and not bumping into each other or having a chat over coffee, it runs the risk of becoming all about the work and less around the human side. Firms need to be very active in making sure people still feel connected with their colleagues and wear the ‘club colours’.”

A positive shift 

On balance, Mr Barolsky says the changes are a positive shift.

“Legal workplaces are becoming more attuned to individuals’ personal needs, allowing people to work where they need to, or attend to other priorities in their lives. If it’s done well, it could be very powerful and positive.”

Echoing these sentiments, MLS alum Kate Marshall, who is the Head of KPMG Law at KPMG Australia, says the pandemic has had a positive impact on the way lawyers do business.

COVID-19 has provided a shift in the way that we work in a permanent and positive manner – including allowing people flexibility around where they are working from as well as flexibility to move beyond traditional business hours.

“We have also become better at keeping in touch, checking in, and collaborating effectively. The legal profession has been big on being seen to be present and for some, there was a lack of trust that those working from home may not be focussed. I have never believed this but 2020 has proven it, and productivity across the profession in many areas has increased.

“As a mother of three I have been pushing for this for a long time, but we have shown so clearly in 2020 that you don’t need to be in the office – you can manage your work commitments around other priorities and still look after your clients.”

Kate Marshall

MLS alum and Head of KPMG Australia's law practice Kate Marshall

Ms Marshall says another positive side-effect of the pandemic has been the ability to break down geographical silos. “We can provide the best team for the client – whether that includes people from Perth, the UK or Singapore. I really hope we can maintain this as it is such a benefit for the client and for each of us as we get to work with new wonderful people who can provide a different perspective.”

She says there has also been a shift in what people respect and look for in their leaders.

Resilience and empathy, plus the ability to lead through uncertainty, will in my view remain valued in a way that these attributes may not have been in 2019.

Mr Barolsky says that at a more macro level, that value of the work lawyers do has clearly shone through during the pandemic.

“People have talked about the demand for lawyers reducing over time, but the evidence would suggest that in times of crisis and change, lawyers – both in-house and external – have really shown their value and the contribution they can make,” he says.

“With the pandemic and recession things have been turned upside down, but at least in the shorter term that hasn’t had a material impact on legal demand – if anything it has increased it.

“That advisory role, that counsellor role, that risk manager role – all those things that lawyers do are critically important, and even more so in these times.”