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The trends reshaping legal workplaces

Following the global COVID-19 pandemic, a number of new trends have emerged as firms look to increase their diversity and adopt hybrid working environments.

user iconLauren Croft 25 August 2021 Big Law
The trends reshaping legal workplaces
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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 post-pandemic trends to be aware of in a legal working environment and what will become more important moving forward.

The importance of open communication

With the pandemic bringing up a range of workplace issues, the trio said that legal leaders increasingly need to connect with employees and reassure them amid further lockdowns – and stressed the importance of open, honest and transparent conversations.


Dr Orchiston said that it was “the most essential thing” for leaders to be aware of post-pandemic, particularly with many people still working from home across the country.

“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 said.

“If [employees] can hear that message from their manager, that’s so, so important. And 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.”

This is particularly important when training new lawyers, according to Professor Hanrahan.

“Sit down and go through the work with them and explain why you’re changing things or what you’re correcting,” she said.

“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.”

Ms Chandrasegaran added that HSF has a number of strategies to ensure staff, especially more junior staff, feel comfortable coming forward with any ideas or concerns.

“It’s about having an environment that allows them to come forward and offer that solution. But certainly, I think that when people offer solutions or suggestions about how things might change, that is extremely valuable,” she said.

“At the moment, I’d say that half of the strategies that we’ve got in place for dealing with connection and other things, a lot of those ideas have come from junior members of the team who’ve got great ideas and who’ve bought it forward. And for senior lawyers and leaders, it’s about creating the environment that allows people to come forward with solutions, and to come forward with suggestions.”

New workplace rights amid flexible working arrangements

Ms Chandrasegaran said that post-pandemic, there have “been a number of very interesting and different practises that have emerged” in regard to flexible working and workplace rights. At HSF, the firm has adopted a hybrid working approach.

“What we’ve decided going forward is we’ve implemented an agile 60 policy for basically post-pandemic operations. So that’s a benchmark that people will work in the office for an average of 60 per cent of their working time,” she said.

“The idea behind it is to give people the flexibility to really design a working pattern that suits them, suits the teams, and suits clients. And some may be in the office more and some may be in the office less, and during critical phases, you might be in the office more.”

And according to Dr Orchiston, whilst there isn’t currently any legislation on the shift in flexible working arrangements, employees are expecting this hybrid-working arrangement more and more.

“At the moment there’s a review of some awards looking at how certain jobs can be made more flexible that way, because some people there’s already been policy changes within their workplace so that provides a source of rights and obligations in relation to flexibility,” she said.

“There’s certainly conversations going on across the board where employees are now expecting a greater flexibility and having those conversations with employers, some employers are still lagging behind on that.”

However, she added that Australia may see broad legislative changes that introduce flexible working into employee workplace rights.  

“It’s about finding what works and it’s going to depend on the different workplaces. 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 they were before,” she said.

“We’ll continue to see evolution and we may actually see legislative changes as well that apply broadly. There were existing rights to request flexible working arrangements but those are quite limited to employees with disabilities, parents with children under school age, older workers, and things like that.”

Increased diversity and inclusion initiatives

Perhaps one of the biggest post-pandemic trends in firms will be the rise of increased diversity in firms, particularly due to flexible working arrangements and additional parental leave entitlement.

Ms Chandrasegaran said that making diversity and inclusion a priority means that firms can attract, and retain, the best talent possible.

Diversity and inclusion are paramount. It’s so important; we want to attract the best talent and that best talent comes in many forms and we’ve got to remain an attractive workplace in order to do that,” she said.

“Our clients absolutely value diversity and inclusion, and more importantly, it means that we work in a workplace where people feel like they can bring their complete selves. And as a firm I think we value that, and we’ve sort of put a lot of resources and thinking and time into making sure that that actually bears out in what we’re doing and it’s a journey that we’re on.”

Dr Orchiston added that whilst diversity in the legal sector is improving, “there’s still a lot of firms that are very much stuck in that traditional model where flexible work was frowned upon”.

“I’ve got friends who are working with partners who have a view that if you’re allowed to be in the office, then everyone’s in the office and that’s how it has to work,” she said.

In respect of things like in additional leave allowances I think we don’t need to be that persistent about it. Particularly if you’re in a better, well-resourced firm, there’s more scope to have things like paid leave for other types of activities and things like that.

“But hopefully now we’ve entered the new working world where people will be thinking about creative strategies to streamline work processes and ensure that people have many more opportunities than they had before for individual things, which were not accommodated for perhaps in legislative assembly.”

In addition to being on a “journey” to increased inclusion and diversity, HSF has an “open door” policy as well as a number of strategies to address different circumstances.

Ms Chandrasegaran said that “understanding that people have different circumstances that need to be taken into account is really important” – and said that it comes down to not only having the right policies in place, but also having those open and honest discussions.  

“If we talk about parental leave, for example, I think that having gender-neutral parental leave policies, that’s really important. That’s something we’ve been doing for a while. I was on parental leave just last year and the value of having that time is just enormous,” she said. 

“There’s plenty of other areas to look at and to continue to look at. And as I say, I think we’re on a journey and we’ll continue to look at all sorts of different ways that we can truly encourage diversity and inclusion. We’ve got various actions for change, we’ve got programmes in place to encourage, I guess, different backgrounds of people to come in at different stages. 

“I think it’s about creating opportunities for different people to contribute and kind of, for example, we have a different member of the team lead our team meetings every week so that everyone gets the opportunity to be visible and to stay visible. So, I think it’s really about thinking about different strategies that can be put in place as well.”

Professor Hanrahan said that these policies not only create a more flexible, positive working environment, but also a better firm culture too.

“It’s not just about formal entitlements. It’s about work culture as well. You don’t want to be in a situation where you say, ‘Well, we offer parental leave and that’s available to new parents, whatever their gender,’ and then discover that only women take it, that even though it’s available to men they’re not taking it. That would suggest to me that there’s a cultural problem in the organisation,” she said.

“Hopefully the fact that people have learned that they can be away from the office and still be visible and valued, means that we’ll have better take-up on those arrangements than perhaps we've had in the past or even take-up than weve had in the past.

“Theres been some research in the US about where theres a gender difference about people wanting to return to the workplace after theyve had the opportunity for flexible work. And we are seeing a little bit of gender difference, but happily amongst younger lawyers, its more even, so men and women are more likely to want to continue to work flexibly at the more junior end of the profession.”

Dr Orchiston added that she hopes this trend will continue, particularly as firms begin to return to the office.

“This is a really wonderful opportunity for us to take stock of the way in which we work and evaluate how we can do it better and how we can be more accommodating of peoples family lives. And also ensuring that we can balance that boundary between work and home life when it comes to working remotely and working flexibly,” she said.

“But it is hopefully going to be continuing conversation where workplaces to retain and attract good staff will have to be more accommodating of employee preferences for flexibility, and we’ll have to work out better ways of doing this because otherwise people are going to look for other employers. And I think we will see movement in the legal market based on the ways in which flexibility is dealt with.”

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: