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Work practices: Post-pandemic expectations – what is working and what is not?

Work practices: Post-pandemic expectations – what is working and what is not?

By Alice Cooney

COVID-19 Practice & Procedure 


COVID-19 is shifting perceptions of what it takes to practise law. this pandemic is a turning point.

  • The idea that you must be present to be productive has been demolished by the pandemic. 
  • The pandemic has highlighted two things: the varied skillset of lawyers and supervision with technology is effective.
  • Some new lawyers are finding the isolation is impacting their ability to learn effectively as they are no longer able to turn to the person next to them for quick answers to their questions.

It is hard to imagine that a young lawyer could comfortably begin sentences with “back in my day”, but the pandemic of 2020 has made that a reality.

When I was 16 my grandma started law school at the age of 70. I was impressed, although too young to really appreciate it. She would get up at 5am and study for a few hours before reverting back to usual grandma things. I remember the adults talking about her having to undertake a mandatory wholly-online subject at the age of 73. She had worked as a social worker and was a mother of six, so I had not seen much of her on the computer. It was her personal battle and it is with pride that I speak of my grandma who graduated as a young lawyer at the age of 75.

We all expect our own career battles. I didn’t think that I would face one until I had reached a point in my career when I was really senior or the technology of the courts had surpassed my knowledge or I had turned 70 – but this pandemic is a turning point.

Change can be imposed on us, or we can choose it. A transformation of our skillset can be welcomed or resisted. Success is what we make it. With the hindsight of almost nine months of pandemic life, what should we keep doing as lawyers and what should we be immunised against?

Culture of ‘presenteeism’

This pandemic has shifted perceptions of what it means to be a productive lawyer, regardless of whether you are still in training or your reputation is established. We have a profession that requires you to show up to that meeting and to fight peak hour traffic to attend court on time believing that advocacy is only effective in person and that a client will feel better supported only if you are there. I recall a story where a lawyer was flown to Japan for a lunchtime meeting and returned home in one 24-hour period, just because the prevailing wisdom was that someone should be there. At the time I thought that was so glamorous, until I considered the toll on your body.

The fiction that you must be present to be productive has been demolished by the pandemic. You might prefer to be there, you might find it easier, you might miss the four solid walls of your office, but you don’t have to be there, and that is a huge change for lawyers.


The photo outside the Supreme Court, the lunch hosted by the mover, the ceremony, the austerity of the building – we miss it. Young lawyers want their day of commemoration at the Court in the time-honoured tradition of a formal court hearing. Tradition is the foundation of our legal practice and while we might be able to cope with losing some traditions (like the removal of wigs), others are too great a moment to lose. The Supreme Court of Victoria and the Victorian Legal Admissions Board should be commended for their work in continuing admission on the papers, but – when we can – I hope we celebrate together as a community. The digital arms of the profession are wrapped tightly around the 2020 new lawyers and our learned friends are just as important and honoured (even if they didn’t get the courtyard photos those of us admitted previously were afforded).

Supervised legal practice

The Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner (VLSB+C) monitors compliance with supervised legal practice, making sure our new lawyers are trained and supported as they commence their career.1 Not only is the restriction intended to protect the community by ensuring that we have lawyers of the highest calibre, but it also provides support to young lawyers at a time when the learning curve is steep.

The Uniform Law does not define supervision, however the VLSB+C considers an appropriate supervisor will:

  • be appropriately experienced
  • not be subject to supervised legal practice restrictions
  • provide regular support and feedback sessions
  • have authority in respect of work performed by the supervised practitioner and be able to direct, amend, override or intervene in relation to the legal work performed.2

The VLSB+C policy does not specifically require the supervision to occur in person, but before the pandemic a remote supervision arrangement required prior approval from the Commissioner. This requirement has been suspended and a COVID-19 template plan released (

While this article is not calling for the VLSB+C to review any policy, some new lawyers may be better supported by not needing approval to be supervised remotely. This may include those who have come to the law with previous work experience, those who care for children or family members or those who have a disability or a geographical restriction. Two things the pandemic has highlighted is the varied skillsets of lawyers and that supervision with technology is effective.

Flexible working and training

Flexible working arrangements are a great step forward for the profession and had already been embraced in many workplaces. Most young lawyers, however, do not work flexibly. The competition for employment means the culture of presenteeism is reinforced from the start of your career. There is great rigidity in how most believe that training should be delivered: you will only learn if you are present and modelling best practice can only be done when you can directly observe.

Optimal learning is said to be based on 10 per cent verbal instruction, 20 per cent watching the behaviour and 70 per cent doing the work.3 How does this work in an environment where you get 1 per cent verbal and 3 per cent watching (sharing a screen over video), and just trying your best to get through the day? New lawyers are finding the isolation is impacting their ability to learn effectively, with one saying, “I don’t always know if I am right because I cannot ask the person next to me in the office or discuss concepts with my colleagues". Flexibility in work can be brilliant, but those who still don’t know how they best work in a legal environment are finding the transition to a remote world very difficult.

Mental health and working from home

The gleam of access to court from my lounge room has quickly worn away after months of seeing accused’s faces and countless Zoom meetings. A prominent member of the profession recently told me, “our home is our work now, we are no longer ‘working from home’”. The legal community has taken positive steps recently to better support each other in the complexity and constant pressure of our work. The forced removal of subtle supports like coffee with a colleague, walking to court or meetings and being able to leave work at the office and to travel home, has and will continue to have a far reaching impact.

Given all these pandemic changes, the most important focus is to stay connected to colleagues. Everyone is having some form of personal battle and although we are not all in the same boat, we are in the same storm. The pandemic will not be the basis for all transformation in the profession, but we have been given an opportunity to change how and why we work. I hope one day my grandchildren might be proud of how their grandma negotiated these challenges. ■

Alice Cooney is the YL president and a Criminal Division lawyer at the County Court of Victoria.

  1. Legal Profession Uniform Law 2014 (Vic), s49.
  2. Law Institute of Victoria Ltd v Maric & Anor [2008] VSCA 46 (19 March 2008) and Cornall v Nagle [1995] 2 VR 188 as noted in Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner’s policy – Supervised Legal Practice, p3.
  3. Morgan W McCall Jr, Michael M Lombardo and Ann M Morrison, The Lessons of Experience: How successful executives develop on the job, 1988, Simon & Schuster.

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