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‘Employee wellbeing is front and centre’ in 2023

After learning a number of lessons throughout the pandemic, creating a supportive firm environment focused on staff wellbeing will be of high priority moving forward, Gilchrist Connell managing principal Richard Wood told Lawyers Weekly.

user iconLauren Croft 13 January 2023 Big Law
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Mr Wood has been the managing principal of the firm since day one — and has seen Gilchrist Connell grow from two small offices in 2008 to five offices and over 250 staff.

“Our priority [this year] is to digest the enormous growth we have experienced over the last two years, whilst maintaining our culture (our sense of identity and differentiation) and continuing to identify and convert the opportunities we see — and have planned for — cropping up in the short to medium term,” he said.

“History shows us that as economies tighten, the work from our core sector — insurance — increases. We need to be able to meet existing demand and plan for that increase, so we’re focused on positioning for that.”


In addition to growing throughout the pandemic, Mr Wood said that the firm has also benefited from a greater sense of trust from their employees and said that it “just makes sense to create a supportive environment” to work in.

“In our most recent engagement survey, our people confirmed that they know the firm has their best interests in mind when making key decisions and that our leaders are interested in their wellbeing. This is something that we focus on every day, so it was great to receive this positive feedback based on our efforts and intent reflected in the survey results.

“The approach we took during COVID continues to apply now that we have opened up. We are continuing to implement programs that reinforce our care and commitment to our people. We have implemented a comprehensive lifestyle offering through our EAP provider, partnered with CancerAid, have listened to our people on flexible working and are exploring other leave entitlements to assist them to do good work and have a life,” he said.

“We will continue to listen, and respond, to the needs of our people and the market and strive to continue to attract and retain our exceptional people with our strong employer brand driven by our commitment to culture, personalised approach to mentoring and career development opportunities, as well as the opportunity to work with leading corporate clients.”

Following a turbulent three years, Gilchrist Connell’s growth strategy has remained in place, as well as progressed, according to Mr Wood.

“We remain focused on digesting the growth we have achieved to date and complementing this with further investment in key practice areas and geographic locations, priorities which are informed by client demand.

“Clearly, employee wellbeing is front and centre. We invest heavily in the programs and tools needed to equip our people to be their best selves. A recent example of this is the training of mental health first aiders to provide on-the-ground support in each of our locations. Connected to this, we are focused on working with our people on resilience-related support. We can’t stop the world coming at our people, but we can equip them to handle it,” he explained.  

“We pride ourselves on our ability to move quickly to implement good ideas that benefit our people. The recent government announcement to expand government parental leave entitlements caused us to consider whether perhaps we could still do more to support our people. The short answer was ‘yes’, and so we immediately increased our primary carer paid parental leave from 18 weeks to 26 weeks and the secondary carer paid parental leave from four weeks to eight weeks.”

Throughout this year, Mr Wood said that maintaining the “wins” the firm had with flexible working and culture throughout the pandemic would remain a priority. Most staff at the firm have returned to work in a hybrid working arrangement, without any specifically mandated in-office days.

“We don’t have a ‘one size fits all’. If people are doing their jobs effectively and achieving whatever goals they might have set for themselves, then we trust them with their work situation. We see benefits in both work from home and working in-office, with the osmosis and energy that comes from that,” he added.

“We don’t view this type of work arrangement as a request but rather a natural advancement in work/life balance to give the best to and get the best out of our people. Our people are the heartbeat of our business, and so it just makes sense to create a supportive environment where we get to do good work for clients with people who value the things we value.”

In addition, there are a number of longstanding issues the Australian legal profession needs to be continually combating.

“I see few issues facing the legal industry today that are new. They are the same issues that have always occupied the minds of managing partners — how to delight your clients and keep your people happy, while balancing those often-competing demands in a way that results in a profitable business. I concede that some of the external, macro factors at play today may be different; however, fundamentally, this balancing act is what all firms are grappling with — trying to keep the place performing at peak levels while staying sane and riding out whatever weather comes over the horizon,” Mr Wood explained.

“My observation is that the profession is still viewed as elitist in many ways, and I think we need to have regard to our ability and duty as lawyers to encourage society to engage in the many issues it faces in a civilised and constructive manner. We are trained to negotiate outcomes from varied and often competing positions, and this ability is of value in a society that increasingly seems to want to shout louder and louder, rather than talk and listen, to each other.”

After spending 35 years in specialised private practice, Mr Wood said there were a number of challenges on the horizon, namely, staff retention and ESG commitments.

“Convincing younger generations of the merits of a career in private practice, and the longer-term focus that naturally demands, will become increasingly challenging against the much more immediate, and no doubt equally attractive, career alternatives. We will also continue to see the relevance of ESG and sustainability compliance for the big end of town clients and the public sector,” he said.

“This relevance will extend to all businesses as part of their social licence to operate. Whilst ESG and pro bono [have] always been the right thing to do, it will be a requirement for the profession, which, of course, will need to be priced in both the operating costs of the business and factored into the pressure on its practitioners.”

And whilst the macroeconomic factors and long-term planning came to fruition resulting in the firm’s “strongest year ever” in 2022, both in terms of revenue and staff growth, Mr Wood said that “maintaining that momentum two years in a row would be remarkable”.

“Nevertheless, approximately 85 per cent of our firm’s revenue is derived from the insurance industry, and while our clients in that sector aren’t immune from economic downturns, history tends to show that the level of work exported to firms like ours increases slightly during harder times,” he explained.

“Beyond this, resourcing remains a challenge. Having the talent to meet client demand is key. Being bigger allows us more leverage to meet this challenge, allowing us the resources to punch above our weight and compete. We must retain a clear focus on the things that matter to both our people and our clients and allow delivering on these priorities to differentiate us in a crowded market.”