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‘We can’t just pretend that nothing has changed’

Transparency is of the utmost importance in a post-pandemic working environment, as legal leaders increasingly need to connect with employees and reassure them amid further lockdowns.

user iconLauren Croft 17 August 2021 Big Law
‘We can’t just pretend that nothing has changed’
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Malika Chandrasegaran, partner at Herbert Smith Freehills, Dr Alice Orchiston, a UniSearch expert at the faculty of law and justice at UNSW and Professor Pamela Hanrahan, a UniSearch expert and professor at the faculty of business at UNSW spoke recently on The Lawyers Weekly Show (on an episode produced in collaboration with Unisearch) about the legal environment post-pandemic and the value of leaders being more open and honest.

Particularly when working from home, legal leaders need to make sure their employees feel comfortable coming forward with any concerns, which can be done through open and honest communication.

Ms Chandrasegaran said that one of the main lessons HSF has learnt throughout the pandemic is the importance of having open conversations, regularly.


“I think one of the most important things is to be having conversations with our people and conversations regularly and really open conversations,” she said.

“When we were at the heart of lockdown the first time around, we had a group of graduates who I think probably for the entire first rotation worked from home. And we asked for feedback and we did get feedback that it was difficult for some lawyers who felt that their desk and their bed were right next to each other and there was just no separation.  

“I think the important thing is to be very conscious of that and to encourage people to be open and to talk about that.”

Dr Orchiston agreed that transparent, open conversations and reassurance were one of the “most essential” things for leaders to be aware of, particularly as cities across the country are plunged into further lockdowns.

“If leaders are connecting with employees and they are providing that reassurance: that this is difficult for everybody, not just pretending that we can keep on keeping on, because that attitude has the potential to really alienate people and make them feel even more disconnected and isolated from the rest of their team,” she explained.

“I think that that really goes towards ensuring that there’s that connection maintained between managers and staff, which is just the checking-in sort of component that you’d have when you’re face-to-face because you usually see each other pretty regularly.

“We can’t just pretend that nothing has changed and this isn’t affecting people’s lives dramatically because virtually everybody’s been dramatically affected by this just irrespective of where they live, just what we’re seeing and consuming, the news, it’s a really, really stressful time.”

As lawyers are constantly stretching themselves thin, Professor Hanrahan said, it’s become more important than ever to reassure the younger generation of lawyers.

“Being a lawyer is not like a regular job. As professionals the reason we do this job is that we’re constantly learning new things. We’re constantly stretching ourselves. We’re constantly applying our skills and expertise to new situations to help our clients, and that sense of professional development, we really have to protect that at the moment,” she said.

“The worst thing that we would want to have happened out of this disruption is for a generation of young lawyers to feel like, ‘I’m not getting that on-the-job learning’ or that, ‘I’m doing great work, but I’m not being noticed for it because I’m just drafting something and it zips off electronically, and I’m not really seeing the process by which that work product has been developed.’”

Professor Hanrahan added that to combat this, senior lawyers need to be thinking about the type of training they are providing younger lawyers with, in addition to having honest conversations with them.

“You have to be a bit more deliberate about the training that you give to your more junior colleagues. I think now for more senior practitioners, it’s just remembering if somebody sends you a piece of work, don’t just amend it and send it back to them,” she said.

“Sit down, and you use those work tools to actually sit down and go through the work with them and explain why you’re changing things or what you’re correcting. And that’s an important way that people learn. And I think we have to be more conscious of that, more deliberate in doing that, and not just assume people are going to pick it up along the way, which you can do when you’re physically in the office.”

Whilst HSF is currently on an “agile 60 policy”, which means that everyone spends at least 60 per cent of their working week in the office, Ms Chandrasegaran said that junior lawyers in particular having been choosing to come into the office more – but that people’s circumstances often differ.

“I think we’ve got to understand different circumstances with different people. And some of it is being cognizant in terms of people’s kind of wellbeing and mental health and understanding that the impacts are broader than just the work that they might be doing,” she said.

“I think it’s our responsibility to hear what our people are saying, to understand it, to try and find solutions where we can, and really just be empathetic. That’s I think the most important part of it. You can’t separate people’s lives from their work selves. You’re one, you come, you bring your whole self and you bring all of the circumstances with you, and I think that’s important to recognise.”

Likewise, Dr Orchiston added that what works post-pandemic for one workplace may not work for another.

“It’s about finding what works and it’s going to depend on the different workplaces, a lot of really individual feedback, talk about workplace assignments, type of work you’re doing, the size of your team, where you’re located, all these sorts of things,” she said.

“But I think the positive thing is that we now have this conversation going where most employers are far more open to these ongoing flexible work arrangements than perhaps they were before.”

Ms Chandrasegaran has found that at HSF, the leaders have found that “role modelling” open communication has been key in ascertaining what will and won’t work for the firm post-pandemic.

“I, alongside sort of other leaders in our team, we’re pretty open about our own challenges. And I think that that encourages people to also be open about their challenges and it’s about being authentic and being curious and actually just being open,” she said.

“It’s about getting that strong message across and being open about your own challenges and about being curious I think are two of the most important things and being empathetic, I guess it’s about really listening.”

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Malika Chandrasegaran, Alice Orchiston and Pamela Hanrahan click below: