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Upskilling in a downturn

Upskilling in a downturn

One of the least dire implications of the GFC is the impetus and opportunity it has created for those toying with the idea of returning to study. Laura MacIntyre reports With the war for talent…

One of the least dire implications of the GFC is the impetus and opportunity it has created for those toying with the idea of returning to study. Laura MacIntyre reports

With the war for talent temporarily on hold, many professionals are viewing the weaker job market as an opportunity to fortify their own skills and competencies. As workflows in affected practice areas drop off, some practitioners have the rare luxury of a little extra time on their hands - creating an opportunity to finally finish that lingering Masters degree or start an MBA.

No time like the present

Freehills partner Alan Peckham runs a practice group literally on the precipice of the economic crisis, heading up the firm's Consumer Financial Services team. The Melbourne-based lawyer readily admits that the current and potential long-term impact of the GFC prompted his decision to take up the option of part-time partnership to commence his MBA this year.

"To be frank, [the GFC] did assist my decision, it probably created an opportunity in some ways to do something that otherwise wouldn't have been feasible at all," he explains.

"I took a bit of a gamble in making this decision as it is based on an expectation that workflows will drop off over the next 18 to 24 months. Whether that proves to be the case or not remains to be seen."

Erin Clarke, a lawyer at Gadens, has also taken the GFC as an opportunity to return to study, enrolling in the Masters of Law at the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

Clarke is no stranger to testing her boundaries. A graduate of media studies at Macquarie, she went back to study a Masters of Law and Legal Practice at UTS. As a graduate, even though she had never studied economics or commerce, she joined the Gadens banking and finance group.

"I'm really enjoying it [working in the banking and finance group], but the work has definitely been quieter in the last six months than it was in the 18 months before," she says.

"I've always wanted to go back [to university] and do my Masters, especially in international law. The GFC has given me a good opportunity to have time to study."

Stepping into the client's shoes

Peckham had been considering the benefits of the MBA for some time prior to the economic downturn. Specifically, he hopes to gain a better grasp on the business fundamentals of his clients' decision-making.

"I think we have a lot of training as lawyers coming up through university, and I've done a Masters of Law as well, which basically takes us down a particular path in coming up with solutions to our clients' problems.

"But that training doesn't always give you the skills to develop solutions that take into account other factors that are just part of commercial reality," he explains.

"And without those additional skills, you're not necessarily equipped to provide the complete commercial solution that our clients seek. I reckon there is real benefit as a legal practitioner in acquiring the broader non-legal commercial and management skills you need to be effective in business."

The same reasoning motivated Kate Addinall to enrol in the company directors' course at the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) fresh out of university.

An environmental lawyer at Minter Ellison, Addinall completed the course via correspondence in 2007 (the cost of a correspondence course is $4410, while an onsite, intensive five-day course costs $6300).

Although she had only recently finished her undergraduate law studies at Newcastle University, Addinall had a keen desire to experience the other side of the client-lawyer relationship.

"It's quite a practical course. It gives you an insight into the strategic decisions that a company director has to make, how they interpret financial statements as well as providing an understandingof the legal and the business environment that a company operates in," she explains.

"The reason I did the AICD course was simply that as a lawyer advising company directors at times,I wanted an understanding of what was expected of these company directors so I had a better idea of how to practically advise them in relation to the decisions they had to make."

Specialisation

As different areas of law evolve and develop, it may become a necessity rather than a choice for some practitioners to refresh their legal studies and seek further qualifications.

Middletons senior associate Chris Round is an intellectual property lawyer who handles patents, copyright and trademark-related matters on a routine basis. A promotion was the catalyst for his decision to return to Monash University to study a Masters of Law.

"When I was at university I only studied copyright, I had never studied patents trademarks or designs and over the years of my practice I learned as I was going, but [then] I thought, when I became a senior associate, it was time to really hone my skills," he says.

"I practice in trademarks everyday, but it's nice to have that final bit of knowledge in the other areas of IP to top off whatI already know.Afterstudyingpatents and designs, which I wasn't a real expertin before, I was able to pick up far more diverse points and able to provide a lot better advice."

Similarly, Addinall is now pursuing a Masters of Environmental Law at Sydney University, which has opened up new opportunities for her in her current role at Minter Ellison.

"Certainly climate change is an up and coming area, and it's not something that many other lawyers have had extensive experience in, so having done the subject at university it has certainly given me the opportunity to put my hand up for this type of work."

Overcoming barriers to entry

But the buck doesn't stop with the decision to return to study. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics' 2007 report on adult learning, of those individuals who did not participate in formal or non-formal learning but wanted to participate, the main reasons for not participating were "too busy at home, work or with leisure activities" (44 per cent) and "training too expensive/could not afford it" (18% per cent).

The cost of postgraduate qualifications is sizeable. The average cost of a Masters of Law unit at Sydney University is $2500, and students must complete a total of 48 credit points, equivalent to eight units of study - $20,000 in total.

Many firms will fund further study that will improve their lawyers' performance, or at least contribute to a portion of the fees.

Aside from the cost of further education, there is also the task of translating flexible workplace policies into workable reality, negotiating arrangements that accommodate study, and the rival demands of clients, bosses and family members.

The strain of competing family and work commitments for more senior lawyers is tangible when they describe the "balancing act" required of further studies - a workable, but stressful, juggling act for those with young families.

"I don't think I'll be planning to do anything else [in terms of study] for a while - it's hard enough doing this and work and, obviously, seeing my family and my little girl," says Middletons' Round.

Addinall says the decision to start her Masters so early in her career was a deliberate decision to get her study finished before she had too many additional responsibilities.

"I decided to go back quite early, actually; I started in mid 2007. I wanted to ensure that I finished my qualifications, whatever I started ... while I still had time and still had the resources, and I didn't have huge financial commitments or family commitments."

Flexible work, intensive study

To make their studies work, all the lawyers interviewed for this story said they have benefited from their firm's flexible work and study leave policies.

Taking advantage of intensive learning units has also been essential for part-time partner Peckham.

As part of the first intake into the new Melbourne Business School MBA professional program, students are given the option of attending four-day intensive sessions on a monthly basis. Having already completed a Masters of Law degree, Peckham knew that evening classes were doable, but a stressful undertaking when it came to getting out of the office on time.

"I looked at that and thought, well that's going to be much easier to fit around my work at the end of the day, because it's easier for me to block out effectively a Monday and a Friday once a month than to try to get to class at 6pm in the evening two or three times a week."

All hands on deck

From a senior management perspective, Peckham also emphasises the importance of fostering a firm-wide culture that is genuinely supportive of staff pursuing further education. It is important, he says, for both those considering a return to study and senior management to remember that a staff member returning to study has a knock-on effect for their entire team.

"I know I've got a really solid senior associate, Phil, who is bearing a lot more of the load than he otherwise would be, and a third year lawyer, Conor, who falls into that category as well," Peckham says.

"It's a useful observation for others who are thinking about going down this path. An MBA is one of those degrees that you can't succeed in if you try to just go it all alone - Melbourne Business School places a high degree of emphasis on the syndicate team aspects of the MBA program and the learning you get from working in a team.

"If you want to go down this path, I think you really need great teams around you to help you to manage completing the MBA, look after your clients and give them the attention they deserve, as well as leaving time to devote to the more important aspects of life - your family and friends. I know I couldn't do this without the fantastic support I get from my wife, my team at work and a number of my partners in the firm."

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