ESG, the competition for quality talent, diversity and net zero targets are all key areas of focus for Allen & Overy moving forward, according to the managing partner.
In conversation with Lawyers Weekly, Allen & Overy managing partner Jason Denisenko reflected on what the firm has learnt from the pandemic – and shared what he thinks will be the most pressing issues for the legal industry moving forward.
Whilst the pandemic presented a number of challenges, it “spurred on” A&O’s “existing culture of engaging with clients” and being trusted advisers to them outside of specific work.
“This was an opportunity to step back and to reconsider how we work with one another, and how we can do this better. It was really about people and balance – for example, making sure our new joiners were made to feel welcome to make up for a lack of face-to-face interaction, but not burdening them with an overwhelming number of virtual introductions and meetings,” Mr Denisenko said.
“Of course, like other firms, we’re confident that hybrid working is here to stay, and our people are enjoying the ability to embrace the best aspects of working from home and the office.
“The challenges of the past few years, hard as they were, also brought out the best in many of our people and fostered a stronger community mindset. Our pro bono and community investment programme has grown significantly since the pandemic began. Both the number of volunteers and volume of pro bono hours in Australia have increased – the latter by over 1,000 hours in the 2020-21 financial year alone.”
A&O have already announced a promotion round this year, promoting 57 global lawyers to counsel roles and 39 new partners globally, including Saranpaal Calais as the newest partner in the Sydney office – who is the first turbaned Sikh partner at a major law firm in Australia, in what the firm called “an important cultural milestone” – and something that Mr Denisenko said was an exciting step forward.
“A&O is seeing work flowing through in areas we didn’t see five years ago, for example in the digital assets space, the new challenges our clients are facing in ESG and accessing international capital markets in new ways and formats. It’s an exciting time, with new areas to explore,” he added.
“Having long been well-known for our work in M&A, we’re seeing the nature of it change through the domination of tech deals and are evolving accordingly – our lawyers working in this are becoming far more conversant in various fields of technology. It is why we are excited about Saranpaal’s appointment to the partnership.”
Moving forward, people and culture are top of Mr Denisenko’s priority list – in addition to diversity and inclusion and ESG issues.
“We’re focused on achieving the new gender targets we’ve set for A&O Australia, and on continuing to make solid progress on diversity and inclusion. We know greater diversity and inclusion will drive high-performance culture and greater innovation, so I see it as an absolutely critical point for us in 2022 and beyond.
“Ensuring good wellbeing and mental health for our people is also a top priority. A&O signed the Mindful Business Charter last year and we are focused on collaborating with our clients to create a shared agenda for the mental health and wellbeing of our teams in 2022,” he explained.
“A&O will continue to prioritise the growth of our work in ESG, renewables and technology. Our ESG team continues to grow and help clients meet their own ESG targets, and we’re seeing an ongoing boom in sustainability-linked project financing as well. Having always had a strong reputation in the energy space in Australia, I’m very proud that we’re expanding that work to renewable energy, with our team working on several industry-leading projects in hydrogen and waste-to-energy plants. We’ll certainly be prioritising these areas in the years to come.”
This is something that law firms across the board will start to focus on – as net zero targets become increasingly important.
“Globally, A&O has committed to a 50 per cent reduction in absolute carbon emissions by 2030. Our independently assessed greenhouse gas emission reduction targets have been approved by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi). The approved targets will address the direct carbon emissions made by our firm and our people globally, as well as the indirect emissions from our worldwide supply chain and the goods it purchases,” Mr Denisenko added.
“Firms will need to envision sustainability as critical for clients and their own business – not only do we need to be able to advise clients on how to be leaders in their own industries, we need to take responsibility as links in their supply and value chain and contributors to their net-zero commitments, not just to our own.”
Lastly, Mr Denisenko said that the “competition for talent will continue to dominate the legal sphere” and that drawing in talent is a critical focus point for A&O and other BigLaw firms.
“Finding and retaining people who have the ability to adapt to the legal services market and the farsightedness to grab on to the opportunities firms provide them is critical,” he said.
“However, it’s also important for firms not to get too distracted by new talent, and we remain focused on recognising and rewarding our existing employees — not merely in terms of remuneration, but through career progression, opportunities to work in different markets, respect and learning, and continually evolving our platform to provide opportunities over the course of a career. We take nothing for granted with our staff, as the demand for Australian lawyers globally is immense — they are highly recognised for their quality training, work ethic and global mindset.”