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Legal landscape must move past pre-COVID-19 state

The profession shouldn’t move back into a pre-pandemic state and instead must move forward to take on new challenges once the pandemic is over as COVID-19 has forced a change in the need to adapt, according to the South Australian Law Society president.

user iconTony Zhang 27 January 2021 Big Law
Rebecca Sandford
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Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, Rebecca Sandford, president of the Law Society of South Australia, said whilst the pandemic has affected some sections of the profession more than others, the ramifications of this global health crisis will be felt by a number of law practices for years to come.

“The impact of the pandemic will continue to be felt throughout the coming year as we continue to adapt to the changes introduced to our lives over the last 12 months, Ms Sandford said.

Looking ahead, Ms Sandford said one of the greatest challenges the profession faces is being able to meet the expectations of clients in an age of rapidly advancing technology and an environment where people demand affordable and timely legal services.

 
 

“COVID-19 has highlighted the urgent need to reckon with technology and quickly adapt to new ways of delivering services,” she said.

“But technology also represents one of the biggest opportunities for the profession to deliver high quality services in innovative ways and adopt creative problem-solving solutions, and when used well and ethically, allows us to provide greater and faster access to justice and legal support than we ever have before.

“The profession is steeped in tradition, and we should retain and embrace the positive traditions that guide us as purveyors of the law, but we must also ensure we don’t continue to do things just because that is how they have been done in the past or because change is daunting.

“It is clear to me, especially since COVID-19, that all lawyers need to have at least a basic understanding of technology, and those who persist with outdated modes of delivering legal services are likely to fall behind; as time goes on, having that understanding is becoming a critical part of being able to deliver competent and effective legal services.”

As lawyers start adapting towards a post-pandemic world, Ms Sandford said the profession needs to accept that things will never go back to the way they were before the pandemic.

“The world has irrevocably changed and the profession has to change with it, she said.

For example, a lot more business will be conducted virtually, whether that be court hearings, legal consultations, or the execution of contracts. There will always be a place for face-to-face interactions, but some of the innovations that have been adopted to deal with the pandemic are here to stay.

For the profession in South Australia, Ms Sandford noted that many lawyers and firms were quick to pivot to more flexible, technology-enabled practices to overcome COVID-19-enforced restrictions, and a number of these changes led to new-found efficiencies.

“The same went for courts and tribunals who were forced to move a number of their practices and procedures online, and with the cooperation of the legal profession, found that a number of matters were dealt with more expeditiously,” she said.

“Lawyers should retain those new practices that worked well, fine-tune those that had potential, and review those that didn’t quite work. Firms should regularly review, and where appropriate, update their operating models to ensure they stay ahead of the curve.”

Working on mental health and wellbeing will also be crucial and Ms Sandford said it’s no secret that these issues are widespread among the legal profession.

“Lawyers consistently rate among the top few occupations with the highest prevalence of mental health problems, and this has only been exacerbated by the pandemic,” she said.

“I know that all law societies take this issue very seriously and provide extensive mental health support to practitioners, which is absolutely commendable, but I believe more can be done to provide more assistance, individually and collectively, to support practitioners experiencing mental health issues, and to identify contributing factors and change some of the habits and behaviours which are prevalent in legal practice but can prevent us from operating at our best.”

Increasing advocacy for a changing profession 

Ms Sandford, who is now the youngest Law Society president in the association’s 142-year history, has taken on the presidential role in a year where, for the first time, the majority of law society presidents around Australia are female.

“I’m very proud to be a part of this historic occasion, and looking forward to what can be done at a national level as well as locally to progress issues affecting South Australian practitioners and the broader community,” she said.

“Our role is to advocate for the best interests of the profession, and that means listening to the views, concerns and recommendations of the practitioners we represent. I believe it’s critical to canvas a diverse range of views so that our advocacy can best reflect the interests and experiences of the profession and community.

“In my view, we should actively work to increase diversity and inclusivity in the profession, especially in leadership roles, and do our best to hear and learn from different perspectives. Decision-making is most effective when an issue can be looked at from every angle.”

Ms Sandford said she is also keen to highlight the role of a lawyer as a trusted adviser, and to see other law society presidents also continue to do so.

“Every law society president invariably has to respond to skewed or misguided perceptions of lawyers. It is not an easy job to change those perceptions, but I think it’s a challenge that law societies should continue to embrace – we can serve an important role in helping to increase understanding about the way that the justice system works and why,” she said.

“The legal profession is one of the most highly regulated professions and is subject to stringent ethical guidelines. Most lawyers are conscientious, diligent and very capable advocates for their clients, and the profession provides an incredible amount of pro-bono assistance every year across a range of sectors. And most people who find themselves in a legal problem will end up in a far better position with the assistance of a lawyer than without one.”