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Legal landscape shift

News

Cite as: April 2015 89 (4) LIJ, p.24

The challenges facing the legal profession, and the power of association took centre stage at the LIV Conference of Council. 

Change was the buzzword at the LIV’s Conference of Council in February. “Our focus for 2015 is putting change into action,” LIV president Katie Miller told delegates.

“Lawyers are alive and well and our numbers continue to grow each year . . . but we are a profession under threat.”

Ms Miller said when clients recognised they had legal problems they often asked government, accountants, friends or family to help solve them. Clients were uncertain about lawyers’ pricing and service delivery and it was impacting on the legal profession’s relevance, she said.

This had been reinforced by the Productivity Commission’s recent report on Access to Justice which found that, for middle Australia, “legal services are now well and truly beyond reach”.

Lawyers themselves were leaving the profession because of increasingly “hostile” working conditions.

“We have high rates of mental health issues and there are aspects of the profession that make us unhealthy – the billable hour, the adversarial system, the fact that we are dealing with clients at some of the most vulnerable times of their lives.

“We have high attrition rates, particularly among lawyers who are sick of the juggle between family and work.

“The space left by dissatisfied lawyers and clients is being filled by non-legal entrants, who are using technology to provide the services that lawyers have traditionally provided.”

It did not follow that lawyers were no longer necessary because they provide more than just legal services, they are “a fundamental part of the fabric of our society”.

The “tsunami of change coming” presented challenges to lawyers and the profession. Information about the change was needed, Ms Miller said, and then the confidence to turn it into action.

“We get that confidence from each other – that is the power of association . . . by talking with our peers, finding out what each other is doing and taking the ideas that work and implementing them in our own practices.”

There were three strands of discussion at the conference: the business of law examined disruptive innovation versus the traditional approach to legal services and asked whether artificial intelligence would replace lawyers; the role of professional membership bodies; and workplace cultures, including the prevalence of bullying, harassment and discrimination resulting in anxiety and depression, and how to drive change.

New law

If anybody doubted the legal landscape was shifting, they weren’t after delegates heard about Google Ventures’ backing of Rocket Lawyer, the online legal services provider, Shake Legal, the online legal document provider, and Corrs Chambers Westgarth’s recent launch of Orbit, a legal resourcing business where a lawyer seeking flexibility fills a temporary in-house counsel role for clients and other businesses.

In a panel discussion, legal director Jamie Prell explained how Advent Balance married the needs of their team of 140 lawyers, of whom 60 per cent work part-time including many parents with young children, with those of clients. Two Advent lawyers worked part-time to pursue furniture-making and script writing. “We second lawyers to clients when clients need them. Clients don’t want legal services for no reason. It works for lawyers because it gives them the ability to work with different clients when it suits them. We work to a fixed price, the cost is lower because you are not paying for overheads, all of that is provided by the client. We are filling a need, we have turned staff into a variable cost and that works for many firms – and we have a bunch of very happy lawyers.”

Mr Prell said the workplace needs of the business was one of Advent’s biggest challenges and the company had a large human resources department.

Lawyer Laura Vickers told how she operates her bespoke firm Nest Legal from home – and into the night to meet the needs of time-poor clients – and virtually. “I do conveyancing from the zoo, and regularly work from 11-12 at night,” Ms Vickers said.

“It’s a blueprint for the future, not a threat. It’s a service designed around a particular client, which is busy parents generally, but it’s been embraced by many others who want something outside the usual model. I designed what I wanted in a lawyer, it’s all done by text and email, my prices are fixed and when contact is needed, they meet me so relationships develop. My clients want to know somebody is in their corner, it can’t be solved by computer logic. It’s not a digitised, dehumanised service. I don’t think I’ll be replaced by Google,” said Ms Vickers, who had start-up costs of less than $1000.

Cultural change

In the session, Workplace cultures and driving change: who would want to be a lawyer?, delegates heard from Clayton Utz partner and Law Council of Australia president-elect Stuart Clark, who said the time for asking whether there was a problem with law firm culture was “long gone”.

“We have a problem,” Mr Clark said, referring to the anxiety and depression, bullying, harassment and discrimination which plague the legal profession.

“There are many who don’t accept there is a problem but there are enough who do and are willing to do something about it. The decision-makers, law schools, LIV and larger law firms see it as an issue and desperately want to address it.”

Mr Clark said the critical factor in change of mindset and culture is leadership, from law societies, judges and heads of firms.

“Leaders have to lift the values themselves. Leaders of the firms have to stand up and make it clear that there will be consequences for those whose behaviour is not acceptable.

“Without that, nothing will happen, we will continue to see high levels of mental health issues and women leaving the profession and unhappiness at high levels in a profession I genuinely love. It’s a tragedy there are others in the profession who are not getting that, we are losing them from what is a wonderful profession.”

Members of the Large Law Firm Group had met about the issue, Mr Clark said, establishing working parties and sharing information, practices, solutions, targets and data.

“We want to see unconscious bias training become part of the CPD offering. Flexibility is a critically important issue. Large firms realise they have to set targets and report against it. A symposium is to be convened. We know we have a problem. Now we need to start to fix the problem, provide assistance and support to smaller organisations.”

Former LIV president Reynah Tang, who is a director of the Wellbeing and the Law (WATL) foundation, observed that “there can be significant differences in culture even between large law firms if the culture and values are set and shared among a partnership”, with “hyper competitiveness, power imbalances and the absence of collegiality” being a hallmark if “firms place income generation above values”.

He doubted “the effectiveness of regulation to effect change”, which instead “has to be driven by the hearts and minds of those in the leadership of a firm, and maintained by recruiting and retaining those that share the appropriate values” and seeking to “change the mindset of, and perhaps weed out, those people that bring behaviours that corrupt the culture, even if this will sometimes result in a short term cost.”

Mr Tang said ultimately, “the aim is to get to a point where mental health and wellbeing is second nature in every part of the legal profession . . . but I suspect that will be a long journey.”

LIV lawyer and the driving force behind its mental health policy, Laura Helm, said with 55.7 per cent of lawyers anxious and depressed, the issue needed to be dealt with at a profession-wide level.

“What’s needed is cultural change. To achieve this we need to reduce the stigma, encourage individuals to seek help, have employers accept responsibility and better manage mental illness in the workplace,” Ms Helm said.

“For individuals, it’s about self-awareness and self-care. It’s about finding the right fit at work and establishing effective coping strategies when you get stressed.”

Professional associations

In the final session, on professional associations, delegates heard from leaders of state and national membership organisations who are transforming their groups to achieve more robust membership, thus enhancing the opportunity to deliver greater benefits to members.

CAROLYN FORD

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