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Big law firms embracing change in 2020

Big law firms embracing change in 2020

By Karin Derkley

Practice Management Technology 


Leaders of large law firms are embracing change, in terms of technology, their workforce and the way they deal with clients, they told the LIV’s Essential Briefing – State of the Profession at the RACV Club on Monday.

Allens managing partner Richard Spurio said change was the biggest theme for the coming year. "Whether it be in the form of technology, or the various forms of disruption to business, political uncertainty, or the increasing regulatory burden for our clients, it is important for us to help clients and our people see what changes are coming and navigate those changes."

Technology was seen by the panel as an enabler rather than a threat. Minter Ellison CEO and managing partner Annette Kimmitt spoke of the "great power you get with the twinning of the human capability with technology. That’s where the sweet spot is”.

Herbert Smith Freehills managing partner, Melbourne, Rodd Levy said any work that could be automated should not be done by people anymore. "We should be willing as people and as firms to move up the value chain to thinking about how we bring insight, judgment experience, how we build relationships – they're all the things that people should be focusing on so I think that presents great opportunities going forward."

The nature of the workforce is also changing, panel members agreed. Younger lawyers are less likely to accept unsatisfactory situations and more ready to speak up. "They want to be well managed by somebody who has an interest in them and in their career,” Hall & Wilcox managing partner Tony Macvean said. “They want to be fairly remunerated and if those things aren't part of their workplace experiences these days, they're much more likely to do something about it.”

Firms are having to rise to the challenge of what it means to provide a sustainable workplace. "Increasingly our ability to deliver and support much more sustainable ways of working and ways of working that support long-term health including mental health and wellbeing is going to be quite a defining problem for us to all solve in the coming year," Ms Kimmitt said.

Young talented people want to work in an organisation where they can thrive and that has values which align with their own, said Lander & Rogers chief executive partner Genevieve Collins. "We know there's great competition – outside as well as within the profession. It's not enough for law firms to just provide excellent training and quality work. The missing piece is that people want a great people experience."

Firms that were not in touch with their staff would not prosper, Mr Levy said. "It used to be that the staff would be expected to reflect the values of the firm – the top down approach. I think it's flipped so that now any organisation needs to reflect the values of their staff – in sustainability, diversity issues, flexibility.”

Law firms were also increasingly prepared to speak up about social issues and issues such as climate change. Ms Collins said there was now an expectation that firms should reduce their carbon footprint. "But there's also an influence and an advocacy piece," she said.

Nine out of 10 Australians expected not just the government but also organisations to do their bit around climate change, she pointed out. "And as lawyers we are in a privileged position. We have skills available to us and opportunities and resources and we should act on it."

Ms Kimmitt said her firm would be prepared to walk away from a coal company client that had no plans to transition into a low carbon environment. "If a coal company came to us that was absolutely saying we have no intention of transitioning, we're not even thinking about it, climate change doesn't exist, that is a client we would probably walk away from."

"But we are happy to work with clients who are thinking about the long term sustainability of their business and there's a role for us to play to support clients with that transition to support industries with that transition."

Also speaking at the event was Attorney-General Jill Hennessy who praised the LIV for its input into law reform. “I want to thank the Law Institute for always being such a constructive partner to consult in that work. It is a relationship that we value and one that genuinely leads to change in terms of the issues that government pursues.”

Victorian Legal Services Board CEO and commissioner Fiona McLeay referred to the battering the reputation of the profession had taken as a result of the Royal Commission into Police Informants. “That is a great shame because it undermines the important work that lawyers do every day, and it undermines public trust in the law itself.”

But the profession generally adhered to a very high standard, she said. “The reality is that most lawyers in Victoria operate with care and integrity. Most lawyers in Victoria strive to put the best interests of their clients front and centre.”

All proceeds from the event were donated to the Victorian Bushfire Appeal. 

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