Lessons from 2020 that can improve the legal landscape
The challenges that confronted the legal profession in 2020 can be turned into advantages that make the profession more technologically innovative, more accessible to the public and a leader in building respectful and supportive work environments, according to the new South Australian Law Society president.
Rebecca Sandford, who assumed the role of South Australian Law Society president on 1 January 2021, said the lessons learnt in 2020, a year in which the profession was significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and took important steps to address the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace, would be front of mind to guide the profession through 2021 and engage in public discussions on legal issues that are important to the community.
Ms Sandford’s key areas of focus for 2021 will centre on harnessing technology to improve the delivery of legal services and increase access to justice whilst also developing strategies to increase diversity, transparency and accountability in the profession.
Furthermore, lessons from 2020 also show the need to increase wellbeing, resilience and mental health support for the profession and improving the culture in the legal workplace.
Harnessing technology and enhancing diversity, accountability and transparency
Ms Sandford said the comparatively small size of South Australia’s legal profession meant it was agile enough to be a nationwide leader in adopting new technologies and other innovations to improve services, whilst still ensuring lawyers fulfil their ethical obligations.
“The need to adapt quickly to online and remote solutions to continue delivering high quality service to clients during the COVID-19 pandemic was a great demonstration of how important it is for us all to have a good understanding of technology,” Ms Sandford said.
“The considered adoption of suitable technologies by practitioners will have significant benefit for the community and has the potential to make legal services more affordable and easier to access.
“We have already seen efficiencies arising from the legal profession’s adoption of technologies and practices in response to COVID-19, leading to improved outcomes for clients, lawyers and stakeholders – for example, waiting times for workers compensation matters have significantly decreased as a result of initiatives adopted during 2020.”
Ms Sandford said she also aims to draw on and highlight the diverse viewpoints and the depth of experience of the profession as much as possible.
“I am also keen to ensure the Society continues to engage with the public on important legal topics. It is important that the Society is a part of public discussions on law and justice matters, and that we understand the views of those beyond the walls of the legal profession,” she said.
“In order to provide the best possible service to clients and advocate for the profession and the community, it is also important that the Society’s views are informed by a profession that is reflective of the wider community.”
Improving wellbeing and resilience of the profession along with workplace culture
The Society acknowledged that while it has developed and continues to manage a number of measures to support the mental health and wellbeing of practitioners, such as managing counselling and advice services, running mentorship programs and offering educational resources including a comprehensive wellbeing and resilience program and guide, there remains a stigma around mental health that inhibits some practitioners from seeking support.
“The past year has highlighted how important it is for us all to look after our mental health and I am keen to explore what more can be done to improve the resilience and health of lawyers, which will mean practitioners can better serve their clients and the community,” Ms Sandford said.
Ms Sandford also stated that one of the key tasks of the year will be continuing the important work of the Society and other bodies to address sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination in the legal profession.
“This is not an issue with a simple or single answer. It will require change at a number of levels and for all members of the profession to do our part individually and collectively to make the cultural transformation necessary to eradicate that unacceptable conduct in the profession,” she said.
“The commitment being shown by so many people to changing and improving that position gives me great hope and optimism that we will continue to rise to those challenges, as we each do our part to make the practice of the law safer, more welcoming and more inclusive in the future.”