In an edited extract from his keynote address at the 2014 Law Awards, Lawyers Weekly editor Justin Whealing argues that widespread structural reform in the profession is needed.
The last 12 months has seen the legal profession coming under increasing pressure to reform and change, for the betterment of its members.
In March, we had the release of the Law Council of Australia’s National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (the NARS), which had some disturbing findings.
The NARS found that half of all women claimed to have experienced discrimination due to their gender, and one in four women said they were discriminated against due to family or carer responsibilities.
The study also found that 50 per cent of women surveyed and one in three men said they had been bullied or intimidated at some point in their legal career.
Given that around 4000 people contributed to the study, such statistics are staggering and shame us all.
Shortly after the release of the NARS study, we had the launch of the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation guidelines in May.
The guidelines, which recommended the adoption of workplace practices to try and improve the psychological health and wellbeing of legal professionals, is an important step in seeking to reduce the high rate of depression in the law.
It is certainly encouraging that many of the law firms and in-house teams here in force tonight have signed up to the guidelines.
However, statistics such as those in the NARS study and previous research that shows around one in three solicitors and one in five barristers are likely to be affected by depression and anxiety means more, much more, needs to be done.
It’s not what we do; it’s the way that we do it
Lawyers Weekly regularly speaks to lawyers at all levels and in various sectors of the profession who love what they do but not necessarily the circumstances in which they do it.
The most important issue confronting the profession today is to ensure its members can rise each day and go to work without fear of being bullied or harassed, with the confidence that pursuing a career in the law won’t jeopardise their mental health.
In order to get to that point it is imperative that widespread structural reforms are adopted.
All legal bodies need to move towards establishing a more collaborative and collegiate culture. In doing this, incentives and structures that reward and facilitate selfish and silo-type behavior will be eliminated.
To that end, it is encouraging to see firms like Squire Patton Boggs, a finalist in tonight’s Law Firm of the Year category, develop a partner remuneration system where only 30 per cent of a partner’s income is directly related to financial metrics, with a heavy emphasis placed on soft skills, such as mentoring.
It is the longstanding view of Lawyers Weekly that the billable hour and timesheets contribute to the enormous pressure placed on lawyers, with its associated negative consequences on mental health, the pressure to work long hours and the adoption of a ‘whatever it takes’ culture.
Timesheets are dehumanising.
At its worst, it reduces staff to barcodes or spreadsheet numbers that take no account of individual characteristics or circumstances.
Timesheets also don’t make business sense.
Lawyers Weekly agrees with the former Queensland chief justice and current Queensland governor, Paul de Jersey QC AC, who way back in 2011 said that timesheets and the billable hour reward inefficiency and encourage dishonesty.
If the vast majority of the profession simply keeps doing things the way they have always done things, then we will continue to fail each other.
Boutiques show the way forward
A manifestation of the unhappiness with current legal models and processes is the emergence of boutique firms being established by senior lawyers and the growing attraction of in-house roles.
Many of these boutique firms are being set-up by senior large law practitioners, including former managing partners and practice group heads, who were becomingly increasingly frustrated by the fact their respective firms would often put up the shutters when it came to wanting to do things differently.
“With Hive, I was excited by the opportunity to start with a clean slate and design a law firm specifically for the contemporary legal market, which is undergoing fundamental changes,” said Mitzi Gilligan, a former senior partner with Minter Ellison, in speaking to Lawyers Weekly about her new firm Hive Legal, which she launched with former Minters’ colleagues and DLA Piper partners in February.
A number of additional new entrants, such as SpeirsRyan and Keypoint Law, have also attracted senior large law practitioners. These firms have similarly ditched the billable hour and encouraged remote and flexible working options.
Gilligan is right in that the contemporary legal market needs contemporary solutions, and we have the wherewithal to find them.
The question is: do we have the stomach to change previously-held, rusted-on notions of doing things?
Inward focus also important
Something that was readily apparent to me in going through the submissions for the Law Awards was that the lawyers, barristers, firms and in-house teams represented here tonight are at the cutting edge of commercial legal developments, often designing bespoke and innovative legal solutions on behalf of their organisations and clients.
The King & Wood Mallesons banking and finance lawyers who worked on the establishment of the Australian Clearing House for Over The Counter (OTC) Derivatives, work which earned that KWM crew a place among the finalists for the Transaction Team Award, devised unique solution after unique solution on behalf of their client, the Australian Securities Exchange.
The KWM team created the framework for the new legal structure; drafted the new OTC Derivative Clearing Rules, tailored the existing futures clearing house structure to the new offering and negotiated legislative changes as well as dealing with overseas regulation.
It is no exaggeration to say that lawyers working on this transaction were devising ground-breaking legal solutions to a vexing commercial issue.
Work such as this gives me hope for the future.
Many of the finalists here tonight have demonstrated similar levels of innovation, thoughtfulness and diligence as exhibited by the aforementioned KWM team. Indeed, finalists’ here tonight routinely set and reach such high standards on behalf of clients.
My hope is that such expertise and passion in striving for excellence from a transactional point of view can be turned towards addressing the structural issues confronting members of the profession.
If similar levels of commitment are adopted in seeking to devise policies to improve the working life and conditions of members of the profession, then we stand half a chance of coming out the other side with a happier, healthier and more diverse array of practitioners.
Such a result would be good for legal bodies and clients alike.
We certainly have nothing to lose by trying.
Picture: Justin Whealing speaking at the Awards