What post-COVID looks like for government lawyers
Government lawyers in the post-COVID legal landscape will have a suite of challenges to consider as the law and their clients adjust to the new normal.
Behind the scenes of every policy debate, new piece of legislation and all amendments to social distancing restrictions during the global pandemic was a team of government lawyers. As the legal landscape adjusts to a post-COVID world, these lawyers may be seeing the most change and challenges to their normal working practices.
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Amid the new working-from-home practices, government lawyers – named the “unsung heroes” of the pandemic – have needed to adjust to pressures on their clients to deliver lifesaving results. Although this may slow as Australia emerges from the pandemic in the next few months, the pressures and new standards of working may continue as is.
During the NSW Law Society’s “Government Solicitors Week” conference, NSW Public Service Commission general counsel Sarah Sandstad said the pandemic was the time to be proud of the work from government lawyers: “It’s really forced us to come quickly to thinking about difficult issues and how to tackle them and I think it is amazing how we have all been able to work effectively and productively during that time.”
While the pandemic and the additional working requirements have been “gruelling” over the last year, Ms Sandstad said it has shown that these lawyers have a “huge amount of resilience”, which will be particularly important while they adjust to the new normal.
Flexible working to encourage diversity, way of life in government
Speaking at the conference, an Australian Public Service Commission general counsel Sayuri Grady said new flexible ways of working – from adjusted hours and part-time – have been on the minds of government lawyers for some years now but it was during the pandemic that they have been “forced into this trajectory of flexibility”.
“Having to work from home, having your own office set up [and] trying to look after the workforce while being affected by what is happening was quite an experience. It really shifted the thinking in the Australian public service about what it means to perform the role in terms of moving into the next phase and developing that idea of flexible working into a more complex, considered way of thinking,” Ms Grady told the webcast.
About 18 per cent of government lawyers work part-time or flexible hours, according to NSW data, but this has exponentially increased with the COVID-19 pandemic and will likely continue into the next phase. Ms Sandstad said it has been a “great success” for government lawyers and could see more diversity in the profession with more choice.
“It brings so much richness to all our lives if people do have the opportunity to go and do different things. I don’t think it’s a traditional working mum issue anymore. There is a lot of richness that people can bring to the community and to their work if they have the opportunity to manage their working hours and their personal lives,” she said.
“When implemented well, it obviously increases diversity because it means that people can work at different levels and still do all the things that they want to do.”
Ms Grady said that the positive thinking to come out of the lockdown was that more of her team were likely to take up flexible working arrangements after offices open back up again. In NSW, Ms Sandstad said that most lawyers have indicated they would like to return to the office but will also consider working from home a day or two a week.
“What is really important is that you do bring your whole self to work in the sense that it’s not about what hours exist in the office or what time you’re there, it’s about knowing what you need to deliver and being able to do that in a way that works for you and has maintained your whole health, from work through to home life,” said Ms Grady.
“That reaps rewards for everyone. It means you can perform at your most effective all the time, it means that you can rest and recover, it means you can do your job better.”
Changes to working practices, from employment law to client pressures
The baseline for government work has changed with the pandemic as lawyers change the focus to policymaking and drafting responsive legislation with a COVID focus. The changes have come from either in-house demands for legal assistance in critical and complex reforms or assisting a public servant or minister with their unique demands.
“Your value as an in-house counsel is going to be front and centre as government law focuses on coming out of the pandemic,” said Ms Grady. “It’s really important that your in-house lawyers have your baseline technical skills but they also have an overlay skill that enables you to communicate your advice effectively and make sure that you can influence the organisation’s legal risks in a positive and impactful way.”
As a government lawyer, Ms Grady predicts there will be a new focus on employment law as it becomes more complex and more difficult post-COVID. The employment law of the past has become irrelevant with new flexible ways of working, a renewed focus on mental health and a changed way of communicating with employees.
Government lawyers should also expect a new lens from working in policy or from the changed practice. Ms Grady said that there may need to be “sidestep or two” in a long public service career to assist the sector with any necessary legal demands.
“It’s so important to really, deeply understand the pressures that your clients are under. Your legal advice is only one component of many things that they have to think about when they are making their decisions,” Ms Grady explained.
Ms Sandstad added that budget pressures are likely to affect working practices during the next few years as the economy adjusts to the pandemic. For government lawyers, that means ensuring the work they do supports agencies to drive critical change.
“We need to be more and more clever about how we provide legal services as clients are very demanding and that will continue,” Ms Sandstad said. “We need to make sure that the legal services we provide are clear, succinct and rather than identifying issues we are helping the client who will be under pressure and short-staffed to deliver.”
Mental health front and centre post-pandemic
Between floods, bushfires and the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, lawyers from all parts of the legal profession, but particularly government lawyers, did not have any reprieve from increased workloads and the pressures to deliver. This has left a strong impact on the mental health of government lawyers and will be a focus going forward.
“People are – and particularly with the second wave – very tired and very worried,” said Ms Sandstad of the changed conditions. “We’re getting to a state of managing that.”
Now more than ever, it’s important that managers are checking in with their employees to ensure that their mental health is not deteriorating under work pressures. While the lockdown may end soon, Ms Grady cautioned that it will not mean these pressures will come to an end. It may instead worsen with an increased working load and new focus.
“Each person’s experiences of the pandemic are going to be different. They are going to come out of it with their own feelings and thoughts, they’re own personal background and they’re own issues,” said Ms Grady. “It’s something that we need to think about in terms of mental health issues, performance issues, leave issues, all of these things.”
Managers will need to be particularly sensitive with the notion that the last year meant different things for different staff and they may not respond the same way to tasks.
“We’ve been able to deliver so effectively in a high-pressure environment on what has needed to be done, but at the same time we have been personally impacted by these things as well. It’s a testament to what government lawyers have done,” she said.