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Workplace law special edition: Legal firms: A look to the future – The year is 2031 . . .

Workplace law special edition: Legal firms: A look to the future – The year is 2031 . . .

By Chris Molnar

COVID-19 Interviews Workplace 

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Ever wondered what a law firm will look like in 10 years? Chris Molnar looks to the future to interview managing partner of mid-sized, full-service firm Champion Premier & Goodluck (CPG) Michelle Champion.

Since 2021 CPG has achieved record growth in revenue, staff numbers and high rates of employee retention and satisfaction. The LIJ wanted to find out how this was achieved and what the future of the firm looks like. 

Your firm has seen record growth over the past 10 years along a number of indicators. CPG is known to be an innovative firm and a desirable place for lawyers to work. How did this start?

The COVID-19 pandemic was a key catalyst for change – the pandemic had a very deep impact on the partners and staff at the firm, as it had on the community generally. Lockdown, isolation, working from home and risks to health and safety led us to ask some questions about the firm. The most important question was why? – in particular, why are we here working together as lawyers? The answer to that question identifies, beyond the billable hours and the other work we do, why the legal work we do is significant to us and gives us a cause and a means to be focused and engaged.

Why did the pandemic do this?

It stripped us back to the basics. Gone were the long lunches, drinks after work, corner offices with a view, interstate and international travel, client entertainment, gym sessions around work, socialising etc. What was left was the legal work and our identification as a firm, often experienced remotely, and all of this had to be sufficiently worthwhile for us to stay together and grow. The pandemic ended the old, not always good, working habits and we wanted new habits that made us value ourselves, and be valued by others, as lawyers. The pandemic had a very bad effect on many people but it did provide the opportunity for significant change. It caused us to pause and ask ourselves what was important to us individually and also as a firm.

What else was pushing change?

The expectations of lawyers as to their working environment had fundamentally changed, and this was so before the pandemic. The increased proportion of women in the profession, the push for flexible working conditions, the #metoo movement and the greater consciousness in the profession around health risks such as bullying, all contributed to a sense that our firm, like much of the profession, had to do better. The answer had to be more than just putting out another policy or updating our website with fine words and photos – we were looking for deep, genuine and sustainable change that came from the bottom and went to the top.

You mentioned the #metoo movement. Why was this important?

It was clear even in 2021 that despite greater awareness in years past of the adverse consequences of sexual harassment, work still needed to be done in raising understanding, identifying harassment and intervening to stop harassment. Surveys at the time and media reports of harassment in the profession all pointed to a strong need to do more. What was correct for dealing with sexual harassment was also true for other adverse behaviour in the workplace such as bullying and discrimination. Power imbalances in the workplace exposed staff to adverse behaviour that affected their health, quite apart from the damage to the firm caused by absenteeism and reduced productivity. Staff desired work relationships that valued their views and contributions, treated them with respect and gave them opportunities to grow and develop.

What did you do first?

A key initial step was to understand from all parts and levels of the firm, both lawyers and non-lawyers, what was important to them. We conducted surveys and focus groups, but more useful was for each manager and supervisor to sit down and simply listen to each of their reports for as long as it took. This was time-consuming but it meant that every person participated and had ownership over the process and the outcome. This high level of involvement spread awareness but also developed a degree of consciousness across the firm that there was an opportunity for change and that change would happen.

What themes emerged from these discussions?

This was the interesting part. The variety of responses made us realise that a key strategic part of the firm’s future approach required goals, systems and career paths that could manage this variety. While there were common themes around respect, inclusion and safe working environments, equally valued was diversity. For example, there were different views about working from home and, moreover, it was recognised these views could and would change as staff progressed through their career. Another example was career goals, which also change over time – for some being a partner was important, for others it was being able to step into and out of the firm, allowing them to achieve other objectives, whether that be education, travel, other work or simply spending time with family. Creating the space for that to occur became an important objective of the firm. Our extended discussion on what was legal work set up the platform for an agreed approach on how we can best optimise service delivery, collaboration among colleagues and workflow on the one hand with work flexibility, including remote work and varied working hours and days, on the other. By answering the question what was legal work first, we were able to approach work flexibility on a shared understanding of what the business and our clients needed.

How did lawyers answer the why in 'why are we here working together as lawyers?'

For our firm, in two main ways. First, there were the lawyers who valued above all else collegiality, group dynamics, group creativity and shared work and ownership, all of which is available through legal work, mentoring and professional development. However, we needed to find the time and the processes to make this happen in an effective way in circumstances where there was equal pressure to work remotely. Second, there were lawyers who valued the difference that their work made to their clients. That difference could be spelt out in various ways – depending on the client and type of work – but the relationship and connection with the client, and the sense of purpose was all important. The recognition and articulation of that difference was important to that sense of purpose.

Why do lawyers want to work at CPG?

I would like to think that in our firm we recognise, celebrate and are passionate about what we do as lawyers – not just the billable hours – but what we achieve as lawyers. Now, that could be a number of things – it could be a unique legal insight, a problem solved in a difficult factual and legal problem, a successful litigation outcome, a successfully managed reduction in legal risk, a satisfied client or a good outcome from a difficult mediation. The common theme in these matters is what we achieve as lawyers. This is not to say that other parts of the job, such as administrative tasks, billable hours or marketing are not important. They are. But they are also all done in other jobs, other professions and in other industries. We needed to recognise what was important to us as lawyers.

What about the working relationships at CPG?

Working relationships based on a healthy and safe environment sit at the core of what we do day to day. We need all staff, lawyers and non-lawyers, to respect each other and value each other’s contributions. We need to collaborate closely to achieve solutions in often trying and difficult circumstances. Adverse behaviour is not okay and staff should feel comfortable to raise issues, knowing that they will be dealt with confidentially and sensitively.

How do you use education to support your approach?

We understood immediately that we needed new skills – our lawyers need to understand how to communicate with each other effectively, how to delegate, how to consult, how to run a project team, how to mentor, how to assess performance and how to achieve superior performance. These skills don’t come from law school, so we invested time and money to source the right courses and programs. We quickly found that new skills and insights immediately gave staff better understanding on how their behaviour can impact others. 

Moreover, we understood the importance of education in developing a strong career path. We wanted to develop practitioners so that whether their stay with us was long or short, and we wanted it to be long, they were better practitioners with stronger skills from their time with us.

What was your approach to the health concerns of your staff?

The COVID-19 pandemic challenged our understanding of the health needs of our staff. First, we needed better knowledge on how new external pressures, including lockdown and remote work, impacted on our staff’s physical and mental health. We already had a strong tradition of using a bottom up consultative approach as the foundation of our occupational health and safety risk management framework. Using this foundation, we identified additional potential hazards, including unsafe home work environments, isolation, lack of mentoring and coaching, and lack of physical exercise and poor diets. We were particularly mindful of the importance of sustaining mental health in difficult and challenging lockdown conditions, particularly where face to face contact was considerably less. Controls were developed to manage these risks. This included developing additional programs to educate staff, particularly supervisors, to have a better understanding of the risks and how they can be managed. A suite of other measures was introduced, including health and meditation programs, but the most important was to upskill supervisors in the safe management of their direct reports and how to recognise mental health problems. These extra capabilities have served us well post-COVID-19, and our surveys and focus groups, which track staff wellbeing and work satisfaction, have shown that we have made very significant improvements over the past 10 years.

How was technology used to support your staff with the changes over the past 10 years?

The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to rely on technology to remain operational. New skills needed to be learned and videoconferencing opened up new opportunities to work, including client meetings, professional development, meetings with colleagues and court appearances. It meant more staff could be included in work activities regardless of geographic considerations, health issues or what other commitments they had such as parenting or caregiving. We were mindful, though, that collegiality and dynamics did require face to face activities, and we were careful to balance both online and in-person activities. We were aware that with increasingly more sophisticated IT software programs, it was important to source programs that had the needs of the end user in mind so as to reduce administrative time for lawyers inputting information – time that would otherwise be better spent on legal matters. The objective was to have integrated, intuitive and simple marketing, word, finance, time recording and database programs and tools that could be easily operated by the least capable IT user. The efficiency gains from this approach were very significant. 

The COVID-19 pandemic brought forward videoconferencing usage about five years. We quickly commenced using platforms such as Webex and Zoom, and the use of these platforms endured after the crisis was over. Videoconferencing was adopted as the primary means of communication for many meetings with clients, court appearances and marketing events such as webinars. This created efficiencies for clients and the firm, particularly as travel costs, including travel time, were effectively eliminated. However, we still found that complex, lengthy discussions were best undertaken in person.

What does the future look like?

We are very confident in our future. We have laid down the basis for continued growth and development, particularly with respect to our staff. Above all else we believe that CPG is a great place for our staff to work. Technology has been and will continue to be an enabler but it doesn’t replace the people part of the legal profession. ■


Chris Molnar is an LIV accredited specialist in workplace relations and a partner at Kennedys.

 

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