Goodbye job applications, hello dream career
Seize control of your career and design the future you deserve with LW career

Workplace partners ‘inundated’ with huge uptick in work

As one BigLaw partner in employment and workplace relations told Lawyers Weekly, “I have just come off my biggest month in 22 years of legal practice.”

user iconJerome Doraisamy 15 March 2023 Big Law
expand image

Employment and workplace relations lawyers are seeing a substantial upswing in work, which — according to Swaab partner Michael Byrnes — is linked to two key factors.

“One is work arising from the recent IR reforms introduced by the federal government (Secure Jobs, Better Pay). That has involved advice and analysis on the substance of the reforms and assisting clients on effective implementation,” he said.

“The other factor is the change in economic circumstances. As the interest rate rises hit (as intended), there is an apprehension the economy will slow, possibly dramatically. Businesses are getting in first, weighing up options such as restructures and redundancies. This involves advice at both a macro level (on process and overall approach) and micro level (individual circumstances that might affect risk of implementation for certain employees).”


In the face of such an upswing, lawyers — and especially partners — in this space have been “inundated”, said Hall & Wilcox partner Fay Calderone.

“I have just come off my biggest month in 22 years of legal practice,” she reflected in conversation with Lawyers Weekly.

A perfect storm

“I am training boards and executive teams on the changes in respect at work laws, psychosocial hazards, and Fair Work Act compliance. They are more overwhelmed than ever and worried about the legal and reputational consequences of getting it wrong,” Ms Calderone explained.

“Employees seem more stressed than ever and insecure about job prospects, which means they are challenging performance management and terminations more.”

Moreover, she went on, “unions are all over the psychosocial provisions and raising them frequently with more complaints now landing with safety regulators”.

“With inflationary pressures, unions are also pushing for higher rates in EAs, which is resulting in disputes,” she said.

“Workforce shortages are also resulting in burnout and underpayment claims because more employees are working overtime or don’t have breaks during the day or insufficient breaks between shifts which triggers overtime provisions.”

In short, Ms Calderone surmised, it is “a perfect storm” leading to a drastic uptick in the volume of work to be undertaken.

Counter-cyclical work

Harmers Workplace Lawyers chairman and senior team leader Michael Harmer explained that many aspects of the work undertaken by employment and workplace relations lawyers counter-cyclical, and as such, “we are busy at present and have seen an increase in work given difficulties in the global economy and the necessity for redundancies in Australia”.

“We have, in particular, seen an increase from overseas multinational corporations affecting redundancies across their Australian workforce — for example, in the tech sector,” he said.

“On the employee side, we have a large number of high-net-worth individuals being forced out of work at this time, as well as those at the lower end of the earnings spectrum.”

It is also worth pointing out, Mr Harmer added, that — as a result of the age of coronavirus — there are many clients, both corporate and individual, who are struggling to pay legal costs.

“So, the increase in work levels does not necessarily readily translate to an increase in cash flow,” he posited.

Ongoing, adverse market conditions

When asked what the increase of work says about where the market is right now, Mr Byrnes mused that, in relation to redundancies, it reflects a concern about changing, adverse market conditions.

“Given the increases in interest rates, a slowing of the economy is being treated as an inevitability. This is a catalyst for clients taking a close look at their cost base and organisational structure in readiness for the expected economic headwinds,” he advised.

In light of this, he said, workplace relations lawyers should keep abreast of economic developments and the impact of those developments on business.

This includes, he pointed out, internationally successful tech businesses such as Microsoft, Google and Amazon that have either laid off, or are looking to lay off, tens of thousands of employees.

“It has also been reported Atlassian is planning a workforce reduction. There is no doubt many other companies, large and small, will follow suit. It is starting already,” Mr Byrnes warned.

“Keeping abreast of what is happening in the market, and the cultural, reputational and legal challenges other companies have encountered in implementing redundancies, will equip lawyers to best advise clients holistically on the issues and risks associated with such restructuring.”