AS SOME political leaders issued a stern demand that lawyers return to work and help clear a backlog of cases, lawyers themselves have been busy at work, many taking only several days off over the Christmas period.
Supreme Court judges in New South Wales and Victoria returned to work two weeks earlier than usual this year, a result of “the continuing need for access to justice”, said Victorian Supreme Court Chief Justice, Marilyn Warren. But some political leaders have used this change as leverage for complaints about lawyers.
The reluctance of many lawyers to embrace the summer sitting schedule has angered some politicians, The Australian Financial Review reported recently. It quoted Victorian Attorney General Rob Hulls, who said many lawyers should “get into the 21st century” and make sure they can assist their clients by being available during this time.
But lawyers have defended their working schedule, saying they were available for their clients across the Christmas period, and that if a court date had been set, they would be there.
“The days of partners all disappearing for a long Christmas holiday and the place shutting down are long gone,” said Stuart Clark, managing partner of Clayton Utz’s Litigation and Dispute Resolution practice group.
Partners organise their holidays according to their clients’ needs, litigation partners agree. “For many years, we have had a policy of planning our holidays amongst the partners to make sure we have full coverage. And perhaps more important than concerns about ongoing litigation are inevitable disputes that will arise in corporate life in the Christmas period,” said Clark.
For larger firms in particular, the Christmas period is a busy time, with international work coming in over the holidays, said Clark. “It’s all very well to say that Australia shuts down for the summer holidays, but the fact of the matter is that a firm like Clayton Utz is acting for clients all around the world. And in many parts of the world, for example Europe and the United States, everything is back to business the week after Christmas and things are functioning normally.”
At Allens Arthur Robinson, leave periods were staggered, so partners have been available throughout the whole December-January period, a spokesperson said. “Some of those who worked over the Christmas [and] New Year break are taking their leave now. We are always available for our clients, and technology such as Blackberrys means that our partners can be contacted when they are needed, even if they are out of the office.”
According to Minter Ellison chairman Peter Bartlett, January was traditionally seen by litigators as a wonderful opportunity to catch up on work. “A lot of the tasks that they didn’t have time to get to during the prior year were brought to the top of the pile and actioned appropriately,” he said. “Years ago, you also found a lot of lawyers would take off a larger portion of January.”
But times have changed and now a vast majority of people in the major law firms take off the days between Christmas and New Year, but are back the first week in January. The vast majority are back this year by the ninth of January. “You tend to find that litigators are very, very busy in the first week of January,” Bartlett said.
Court delays have always been an issue, said Bartlett, as well as the length of cases awaiting trial. He said that courts in recent years have spent a lot of time trying to reduce those court lists and that they have had quite some significant success. “Part of the way they have been able to address that is [by] the courts working in January. And that has been very effective,” he said.
Contrary to suggestions that many lawyers are still enjoying times at the beach, larger law firms have been very busy over the Christmas break. Clayton Utz’s Clark said the firm has a number of very significant pieces of litigation underway at the moment, “which the troops have been working flat out on”.
“So there is no suggestion that the Clayton Utz litigation practice or indeed any other part of the firm has shut down over Christmas; indeed, to the contrary, it has been extraordinarily busy,” he said.
“In terms of the major firms, the summer sittings tend to be to clear backlogs of personal injury matters particularly, which is not the sort of work that we have been doing.
“Certainly, if we can get a hearing date for a client, it doesn’t matter when it is, the litigation partner will ensure they are available to take that date. It is so hard to get a date; there is no way on earth that we are going to let one slip by.”