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‘Does remote working facilitate or encourage innovation?’

In a modern legal workplace, there are moments where “face-to-face interactions are crucial” – but also situations where remote working wins out, one partner discovers.

user iconLauren Croft 13 March 2024 Big Law
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Dalvin Chien is a partner at Mills Oakley and the head of the information and communications technology and digital law team.

Speaking on a recent episode of The Lawyers Weekly Show, he discussed getting the balance right between the use of technology and the benefits of face-to-face interactions.

This balance is particularly important within the current legal market, which Chien said was “at a critical juncture” with the rise of emerging technologies.


“It’s not just generative AI. People generally have the tools to be more productive. We’re also at a bit of a crossroads, I think, in the market. Some will disagree with me, and they’re entitled to, but we’re at a general crossroads in the market where people are being asked to do more with a lot less. Legal budgets are being constrained, and lawyers are being asked. Private practice, in-house alike, are being asked just to do a little bit more within budget constraints,” he explained.

“Within all of that is a battle of talent, almost. Retaining talent continues to be a challenge in, what are we, 2024; lawyers, good lawyers, are asking for a little bit more [and] good lawyers are realising, especially in the next generation, are treating remote working and flexibility as a given. It’s no longer a workplace perk; it’s mandatory, almost, and I think it’s important to have that discussion because we’re also in a post-COVID environment where the laws basically do not hinder, and [it] facilitates almost remote working, remote arrangements.”

While Chien has formed his own view on how tech facilitates remote working, he recently ran an informal 15-question survey to “challenge” that view, which he put to a range of his contacts.

“It spanned meetings with stakeholders, whether that should be remote, it spanned whether litigation can be conducted remotely. And we also asked the question of generative AI. Does generative AI help? Does it hinder, what do we do with it? And then we throw in some curly questions, too. Does remote working facilitate or encourage innovation, for example? And the results were amazing. I mean, it did confirm some of my views. My main view being that a hybrid approach does work,” he said.

“It also confirmed my views that remote working is better in the context of client and work engagements, whereas face-to-face interaction is better for team building. It also confirmed my evolving view that artificial intelligence tools and the like can’t be ignored. And there’s a growing sense that if you ignore AI … it’s as good as me just doing everything by memory, which isn’t really the most effective way of legal practice. And I didn’t get that sense early last year. People are now realising we have to use this tool, we have to be on top of everything else that makes us a little bit more productive.”

In terms of how remote work can be achieved while also balancing the need for team building and firm culture, Chien said that as people, we all have our own “inner culture” about how we like things done and how we prefer to work and be treated.

“There cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach to this. And I think you do need to customise it for your team. So, I’ve got a team of two or three lawyers and an assistant, most big law firm partners, and I’ve been there, seen that they have a team of maybe eight lawyers. I don’t think you need to create a rule. I think, ultimately, you cater for your team’s individual needs. What do they want? What’s their inner culture? What do they prefer? Do you need consensus? Yes,” he outlined.

“But ultimately, at least what I did with my team, was to have an open meeting. What is it that works for you? These are what my needs are. The client ultimately takes priority, and if the client prefers face to face or remote, we veer towards that. So, most lawyers are mature enough to appreciate those limitations, and then we customise what works for you, what works for you, what works for you. People disagree with me. But that’s OK.”

Within Chien’s survey, people “overwhelmingly” said that the social aspects of work, such as team bonding and spontaneous interactions, are better facilitated within an office environment.

“In a face-to-face setting, 75 per cent said that face-to-face interactions are crucial for building and maintaining a strong company or team culture. How I personally do it with my team is I split it into stages. I think face-to-face interaction is important at the initial stage when you’re setting goals. It’s also where me, as the leader, has individual conversations and tries to better understand a lawyer’s goal.

“Stage two is setting the pace. Practise what you preach. If I say, for example, that everyone should be in the office and I’m not, you do get accused of hypocrisy. So, you don’t want that. So, you need to set the pace. The third is goal check-ins. A lot of my lawyers will have their own individual goals. Some may not, and that’s OK, but it’s important to check in, and I find that the check-in should be undertaken face to face,” Chien added.

“The final stages in one’s career also is, ‘hey, I want to achieve the next step. I want to be promoted.’ It may also be, ‘hey, I’m not doing so well.’ I think those conversations need to be undertaken face to face and being also aware of mental health issues too, and being very mindful of that.”

However, the level of cognisance in implementing these kinds of approaches, Chien added, is “not that high” – although he believes it will continue to evolve in 2024.

“I think we’re still trying to figure things out, and I think people got really comfortable with remote arrangements in 2023, and then a few things changed. Right then, the Sydney CBD was incredibly quiet, and people were being asked to come in a lot more often, and the initial natural reaction to that is mandated. And then people realised, hang on a second, my team doesn’t really like it. When we mandated, we made promises about work from home, and then we had productivity tools come in, basically, hang on a second, we can actually get the full benefit of face-to-face interaction, perhaps even better benefits through remote working,” he said.

“Remote working encourages ideas generation; sit down, let’s brainstorm. People don’t do that anymore. Apparently, there are significant tools on all of your online video platforms that allow you to do that. Surveys, whiteboards, et cetera. And I’m finding that people are now embracing that. So I think [leaders will] keep evolving and be mindful of individual culture, team culture, what clients want, and the tools that are available to help you achieve all of that.”

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Dalvin Chien, click below: