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Taking the virtual way out

News

Cite as: May 2015 89 (5) LIJ, p.18

Lawyers are not waiting for law firms to get serious about flexibility - they are going out on their own.

Flexibility has become a buzzword for law firms seeking to retain talent but with online opportunities at their fingertips, many lawyers are no longer willing to wait.

And they no longer have to, with bespoke virtual law firms giving lawyers seeking a better work-life balance, particularly women with children who face career stumbling blocks, the chance to work from anywhere at any time.

Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner Kate Jenkins has highlighted in recent media reports that the discrimination experienced by mothers is compounded after their first child as once supportive employers decide they have done enough.

LIV President Katie Miller said 10 years and more ago, many of these lawyers would have left the profession.

“I think that’s why you’re seeing so many new practices starting up. I think it’s people who might have dropped out . . . now saying, ‘I’m going to design a practice that works for me’,” Ms Adams said.

Kirsten Adams, convenor of Victorian Women Lawyers which launched its Flexible Work Protocols in April, said offering flexible work options was increasingly expected by employees.

“That includes men and women caring for children, employees with other carer responsibilities or outside commitments, and the generation Y cohort that enters the law with a healthy appreciation of the work-life balance,” Ms Adams said.

Large Law Firm Group policy director Pat Garcia agreed that an increase in the number of female lawyers, who now make up 60 per cent of law graduates, and changing attitudes meant firms no longer debated the business case for workplace flexibility, it was accepted.

“There is an understanding that flexible employment arrangements do work. We’ve seen the shift in many of the big corporates – ANZ, Stockland, CBA, NAB and Telstra,” Mr Garcia said.

“It is often observed that female lawyers coming back from parental leave are the firm’s most engaged and most productive workers.”

Mr Garcia said firms were taking action, introducing dedicated flexibility managers, educating partners, and using technology to allow employees to work remotely and online.

However, Ms Adams said while many law firms had flexible work policies, practice groups that encouraged staff to adopt them were in the minority.

“Many practice groups not only do not support flexible work for their lawyers but they actively discourage it – either directly or indirectly,” she said.

The ability of smaller online firms to offer clients cheaper services and out of hours access to experienced lawyers means flexibility is no longer just about keeping staff, it’s about keeping up with the competition.

Ms Miller said the law was a knowledge profession with many aspects easy to share online. She said the day could come when lawyers ask themselves why they are getting into a suit and travelling into the city to sit in a room with a computer while clients will ask why they can’t just speak to their lawyer on Skype.

For these five lawyers that day has already arrived.

Belinda Donaldson

Donaldson Legal

Juggling one child with her legal career had been difficult for Belinda Donaldson but it wasn’t until she had two, and the eldest was in prep, that the pressure became too much.

“To get out of the office to pick up at 3.30pm, it was so frowned upon, it just looked as if I was half a day in the office,” Ms Donaldson said. “Invariably, I would then clock back on once they had gone to sleep and I’d be fielding calls and emails all through the evening, but traditional law firms kind of like your body to be in the seat.”

Running 10 minutes late one day, Ms Donaldson arrived to find her son lying exhausted on the classroom floor.

“That was the moment I just thought ‘I can’t fit all this in any more’,” she said.

She quit her job and slowly began to take the steps towards becoming a sole practitioner. And then the work started to flow.

“I was absolutely petrified and it wasn’t about whether I could do it or not, it was more about the finances.”

Key retainer clients have given her a secure financial base while her networks, particularly on social media, have helped her attract new ones.

Her flexible workload and hours allow her to fit in with clients’ needs; be there for her children’s pickups and dropoffs; and even manage to fit in some morning exercise.

She said everything lawyers needed to start their own firms was now “at their fingertips” and she doubted she would ever work at a law firm again.

“I query whether there’s going to be a way for big law firms to hold on to talented people when they start families,” she said.

Fabian Horton

ConnectLaw

Starting his own online law firm, ConnectLaw, in 2010 was for Fabian Horton as much about meeting clients’ needs as his own.

Experience in rural practice and a keen interest in IT led him to conceive of a virtual law firm when few existed.

“We saw that technology, and the internet specifically, offered better ways of connecting to certain people,” Mr Horton said.

“We get clients saying, ‘Look if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have seen a laywer’.”

Mr Horton, the chair of LIV’s newly formed technology and the law committee, said flexibility around when he worked has been a bonus but was not a driving force for ConnectLaw’s creation.

Rather, it was the ability to provide legal services to people who may not otherwise have access to a lawyer and to be able to do it from anywhere that appealed.

Mr Horton, who has one child, only sees about one in 20 clients face to face – some live interstate or overseas and communicate through email and online forms.

“It has given me the freedom to do a lot of other things,” Mr Horton said.

Kate Ashmor

Ashmor Legal

Kate Ashmor’s passion for community service means she’s never going to find herself swamped with free time, regardless of how flexible her workload.

The former City of Glen Eira councillor, former president of Australian Women Lawyers, board member of the Alola Foundation and other NGOs, current chair of her local Bendigo Bank branch, and mum to a three-year-old daughter last year added managing director of Ashmor Legal to her bulging CV.

“I sought more time and flexibility to do other things away from the law and was struggling to find a way to do everything that I love doing,” Ms Ashmor said.

Ms Ashmor strategically planned her move from government lawyer to running a one woman suburban practice.

To stave off feelings of isolation, Ms Ashmor remains heavily involved with her local community and aims to have one face to face meeting each day while fitting her flexible work schedule around a “full dance card” of commitments.

“My clients couldn’t care at all that I might do work at 10 o’clock at night or on the weekend instead of at 9am when I’m at childcare playing with my daughter or I’m having coffee with a colleague from a not for profit organisation,” she said.

“When you do the work, where you do the work doesn’t matter. It’s that the work gets done.”

Leonie Chapman

LAWyal Solicitors

Marrying legal and IT skills has helped make Leonie and Craig Chapman’s pairing a professional as well as personal success.

The couple founded LAWyal (pronounced loyal) Solicitors in 2013 when they decided to use her experience as a lawyer and his experience in IT to create a virtual law firm.

“We saw a gap in the market for online outsourced inhouse legal services in the banking, finance and corporate industries,” Ms Chapman said.

“However, the key driver for launching LAWyal was our ever growing young family and the need for flexibility and control with work, so that our careers fit in around our family.”

Mr Chapman created a unique Cloudbased software for the firm that allowed the pair to work from anywhere at any time while offering clients a secure online portal with access to all their matters.

Ms Chapman said the couple now worked harder than ever but still managed to put their sons, aged between 18 months and five years old, first rather than a corporation.

“We have seen a rise in lawyers looking to do the same thing and think the virtual lawyer will be something top tier firms will need to watch out for in terms of competition in the near future,” she said.

Renee Ford

Ford Legal

“What’s the worst that could happen?” – a simple proposition but powerful enough to drive Renee Ford to set up her own firm.

“If you are wanting to start up your own practice but are apprehensive, I say go for it and have a leap of faith,” Ms Ford said.

Quitting a longstanding secure job to start a business with no clients was at first daunting but Ms Ford said she has no regrets.

“For me I felt that if it didn’t work out, I could always get another job,” she said.

Already skilled at multi-tasking as a mother of three, Ms Ford has found that she is not only the principal lawyer, she’s the receptionist, accounts person, debt collector and secretary. “You wear many hats,” she said.

At the same time, Ms Ford said being a solo practitioner had given her a sense of control and achievement. She said her fear that clients would be deterred by the lack of a swish law office had proved unfounded with the ability to contact her directly outside of normal office hours a drawcard for business.

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