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Adaptation and the profession

Cite as: March 2013 87 (3) LIJ, p.04

By Reynah Tang, LIV President

Lawyers need to embrace change and diversity to meet the challenges ahead.

As a profession, I believe we need to embrace change and diversity if we are to respond to a dynamic and evolving legal profession. If we don’t, we risk being relegated to history like lamplighters.

In recent years we have witnessed some fundamental changes in the law – and the way it is practised. We’ve seen brand name Australian firms absorbed by US and UK firms. We’ve seen many firms incorporate – and even list on the stock exchange. And we have seen firms adopting outsourcing, delegating discovery and due diligence to companies in India and other low cost jurisdictions.

All of this would have been unthinkable at the time I started practice in the early 1990s. But the changes don’t end there.

Now, we face the real prospect of legal services provided in your supermarket. In the UK, recent regulatory reform has cleared the way for what’s called “Tesco law”.

Change is upon us and it affects us all. We could fight it by imposing barriers but I think that’s the wrong approach. Instead, we need to embrace it and adapt ourselves.

I’m the first LIV president with an Asian background. It seems obvious to me that the legal profession needs to better engage with our region, where much of the world’s economic growth will be generated in coming decades. To do this, we need to broaden diversity within the profession, which remains predominantly composed of men who by and large share the same or similar cultural and educational backgrounds, particularly at the upper echelons.

While the Workplace Gender Equity Act 2012 is now in place, the gender battle is by no means over. However, I believe the diversity discussion needs to expand to include culture, gender, sexual orientation and disability. We need to dismantle barriers to broader participation and address the real issues of stereotype threat and implicit bias. On this point, I note that my step-brother, who shares my surname but has no Chinese ancestry, recently mentioned his concern that having a Chinese surname may have adversely affected his employment prospects.

The federal government’s Asian Century White Paper (http://tinyurl.com/82nk4on), released in October last year, suggests that “by 2025, the region as a whole will account for almost half the world’s output”. It “will be the world’s largest producer of goods and services, and the world’s largest consumer of them”. We are physically part of the region, but to participate, the paper says “Australians need an evolving set of Asia relevant capabilities that are both broad and specialised”. As a profession, we also need to look at how we develop such capabilities to ensure we can grow into Asia with our clients.

We also need to find new ways to practise. It seems to me that the general practitioner is under threat on a number of fronts and we increasingly need to specialise to compete. This is the sweet spot – where a premium is paid for “bespoke” legal services – that Richard Susskind identified in his seminal book, controversially entitled The End of Lawyers. But given that legal problems are rarely confined to one area of law, we also need to develop the capability to come together to solve our clients’ issues. We need to do this in a way that works for a diverse profession, particularly those who need or want to work flexible hours or remotely. And we need to identify innovative ways for small law firms to change in order for them to prosper in the new-look legal landscape.

I believe all of this change needs to be accommodated in a way that reduces national, and possibly international, barriers to movement of lawyers, and minimises associated regulatory burdens and costs. The division of the Australian legal profession into separately regulated state markets, each with their own idiosyncrasies, made perfect sense in the early days of federation. However, it is inconsistent with modern day practice where you can provide advice from anywhere in the world with wifi or mobile access.

Many would say that the proposed national legal profession reforms were flawed from the start because, while they addressed some of the barriers, they would actually increase the regulatory costs. Hopefully, the pared down model profession reforms – to apply initially in Victoria and NSW – will show that the benefits can be achieved at a minimal cost and we can convince other states and territories to join the scheme. It should be possible. As a tax lawyer, I look on with envy as the accountants with whom I work and often compete can arrange an effective national professional standards scheme, while the protection of lawyers depends on the state or territory in which they operate.

There is much to be done. However, I am excited by the year ahead and looking forward to taking steps to address these and other challenges that are before the legal profession in Victoria.

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