THE EXPERIENCE of one Clayton Utz senior associate shows just how flexible law firms are forced to be in a competitive, talent-short market.
The reality of the talent shortage has seen firms become increasingly flexible in allowing their lawyers to take secondments, leave of absence, and work part-time and flexible hours.
In an interview with Lawyers Weekly, Clayton Utz senior associate Tara Eaton agreed that her upcoming year and a half stint in a Vietnamese law firm is of a great benefit to her, and shows how flexible firms can be.
“It’s of great benefit to be able to go on a leave of absence and know I can come back. This is a reality of today. You’ve got people wanting to go off and do different things — be it travel, go to London or New York for a while, or go and do something a little bit more unusual, like what I will be doing,” she said.
Eaton, who currently works in the firm’s product liability practice, will be travelling to Vietnam in March as part of a program run by AusAid, to be the Australian Youth Ambassador for Development.
“What they aim to do is send skilled young people to developing countries within the Asia-Pacific region to assist in international development and facilitate relations between our countries,” she said.
Soon to take up her placement to Vietnam and Hanoi, Eaton will work in the pro bono department of a Vietnamese law firm.
“Their pro bono department is not like pro bono here.”
In this role, Eaton will assist the Vietnamese government by drafting legislation, particularly corporate legislation.
“The Government, given its communist history, doesn’t have the expertise to draft such things. So they outsource it, so to speak, to a variety of law firms. I will be going into that part of the firm to help it draft and review legislation, as well as help them train their junior lawyers and give presentations of Australian law and the like,” Eaton said.
She expects her law firm life to be very different to that she experiences in Clayton Utz’s plush offices.
“I don’t think I will have my own office. I suspect there will be a number of changes to my current working environment. I am going into the largest law firm in Vietnam, which sounds impressive, but is only 15 lawyers. My current group is larger than the whole firm. I understand I will have a workstation and a computer and a phone, and email, so it’s not going into [a backwater] but it will be really interesting.”
Eaton’s first task will be to draft Vietnamese foreign investment law, “which is slightly daunting but exciting at the same time”.
“We have the capacity and the knowledge, we’ve always been a free market but they haven’t been. They have gone into a stage of development whereby they’ve opened their doors and they are in the process of freeing things up — they’ve recently been admitted to the World Trade Organisation — but they haven’t quite hit the stage of development where they have strong private enterprise.
“The new raft of legislative reforms is aimed at strengthening the rule of law in order to make Vietnam more attractive to foreign businesses, as well as strengthen their own core economy. So that is what the program is aimed at doing, particularly my placement.”
Clayton Utz has offered Eaton leave of absence for 18 months. Impressively, it has also provided her with access to firm resources, including its intranet site. She will have access to the firm’s online legal resources and commentary. She will also keep her current BlackBerry so she can contact lawyers within the firm.
“They are setting up a program so if I am drafting the foreign investment law of Vietnam … I can call a banking and finance lawyer or a corporate lawyer, to be able to pick their brains perhaps about the Australian law and what improvements they might seek so I can incorporate it into what I am doing,” she said.
But Eaton will have to survive with an enormous pay decrease, she said. “Obviously you don’t do a program like this for the money. We get a stripe end of $14,000 a year, which is quite a pay drop, you can say that.
“So the firm has kindly given me enough money to join business associations in Vietnam. Everyone has been very supportive of what I am doing in terms of monetary and non-monetary support, which will make my experience a lot easier,” she said.